Friday, 29 July 2011

Just listen!

A lot of the time we hear music without listening. It's in the background while we're driving or preparing dinner and for many people that's enough, apparently. But I can't listen to classical music that way; I'm compelled to actively listen and engage with it, and if I did that while chopping vegetables I'd risk removing a finger. I can just about concentrate on my favourite music broadcasts (The Signal and The JK Ensemble) while washing the pots and pans - but I'm better off just humming along to U2 when hacking an onion with a sharp knife

I recently discovered the CD "A Place Between" published by the Louth Contemporary Music Society and had to give it a serious listen, sitting in front of my stereo after the kids went to bed with only a cold Corona and a slice of lime for company. Yes that's County Louth, well Drogheda to be exact. I don't know anything about the Society beyond what's on its web site - perhaps unbeknownst to me Drogheda is a cradle of the musical avant-garde or maybe there's a more straightforward rationale for the society but whatever, the recording is quite excellent.

It feature lesser-known pieces by some of the best-known contemporary composers such as Glass, Tavener, Gorecki and Pärt, beautifully recorded in St. Peters church,  Drogheda. The Gorecki piece "Good Night" is a real highlight, three variations on a lyrical theme from Hamlet, with the voice of soprano Patricia Rozario soaring through the third movement.

Good-night, sweet prince; 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest
Recommended for serious listening.

Last Saturday my partner-in-life and I went to an open air concert in Joliette, Quebec, part of the annual Festival de Lanaudière, featuring the thunderingly brilliant Philadelphia Orchestra. This powerful ensemble was perfectly suited to the drama and attack of Finlandia (Sibelius) and Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz) - the former is a favourite to which I often return, the latter a new discovery for me in this performance that  sustained edge-of-the-seat excitement from first note to last. In between these two was Rachmaninov's Concerto for Piano no. 2 and while I'm sure pianist Kirill Gerstein played wonderfully he was quite sonically overwhelmed by the orchestra behind him.

So there I was, listening intently and half-watching the orchestra in front of me. But many in the audience came for a different reason - the return to Quebec with the Philadelphia Orchestra of celebrity conductor Charles Dutoit, a former conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who left under a cloud a few years ago. And Dutoit didn't dissappoint his audience, throwing dramatic shapes and intense facial expressions in all directions. The orchestra didn't pay much heed - the musicians looked at their scores mostly or grinned at each other in the case of two bass players.

I'm sure Dutoit did great work with the orchestra in rehearsal, and no doubt the brilliance of the performance was partly due to him. But I can't help feeling that all the people who came to see him were badly missing the point. It's music - forget about the conductor and just listen!

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