Have you ever read those jokes where books, historical events or theatre plays are synthetized in one or two sentences? You know, those where Homer’s Odyssey is condensed in something along the lines of “A man leaves home for twenty years. He returns and only the dog recognises him”.
Well, if you were to apply the same approach to this post all you’d have to write would be “A man goes to a classical music concert for the first time and enjoys it very much”. True, this is pretty much what happened and, should you stop reading exactly now, I wouldn’t be offended; at the end of the day this is small feat compared to swimming with whales, or climbing a mountain, or going BASE jumping. But, still, it’s something that enriched me, an experience that I was yet to live, and if it happened it was thanks to my old principle of traveling without any plans.
The invite came pretty much out of the blue and I instantaneously replied yes. An Hungarian orchestra, Orfeo Zenekar, was in town and due to play at the local concert hall, accompanying a famous (well, not to me, but that was pretty much granted) London violinist, Simon Standage, and we had tickets for it. Immediately, I didn’t realise I was about to enter a world whose rituals were as complicated as the ones of a Freemasons lodge meet-up, and as foreign to my eyes.
To start with, my problems begun with clothing. Now, that’s not something you’d expect to hear from a man, even in these metrosexual times, but I had arrived in Hungary dressed up for hiking and not for a cocktail party at the embassy. I did what best I could do, but there was no denying that, in the foyer of the auditorium, my combination of trekking shoes, random shirt and trousers that stopped being appropriate for casual Friday a long time ago made me look like somebody that had rocked up by mistake. All I needed was an empty jerry can and I could at least pretend to be a farmer whose tractor had ran out of petrol.
Then there was the whole experience of being there, for I was completely ignorant around the whole ritual that revolves around classical concerts. Internet is awash with descriptions or tutorials which, obviously, I didn’t bother reading; so, for one used to turn up at gigs dressed in his worst clothes, with just a tenner, ID and the ticket home, this was quite a change. I had built my experience around concerts where it was necessary to bring only the most expendable of your possessions, as the risk of ruining something of value in the inevitable pogo was too high. Now there I was, trying to make myself invisible whilst smart dressed attendees discussed amicably with each other, some clutching elegant glasses of bubbly. Talk about gentrification.
After having made a fool of myself only a couple of times, it was time to enter the auditorium proper. The stage was arranged in a sombre – someone would have rather said threadbare – way, with only a handful of music stands and only a couple of stools, one for the spinet player and another, as I was to learn, for the player of the viola. The audience took its own places and I had only the time to notice how this was the first non-standing concert I had been to, bar the Kings of Convenience, before the lights went out and the players entered.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but the dozen or so virtuosos who took to the stage weren’t it. I grew up with the idea of classical music player as being some sort of über human, the sort of person who needn’t worry about mortgages or bills but, instead, lives in Schönbrunn and gets out of his daily contemplation of beauty only to enlighten us with his musical skills. Secretly, I was half convinced that they’d either turn up in tuxedos or dressed in full XVIII century garb and declare war to Prussia.
Instead, those who took the stage were nothing like that. The ladies were dressed in total black and sporting equally dark foulards draped on their shoulders like Sicilian funeral-goers, whilst the men could have been bank clerks, office workers, librarians. In a nutshell, they looked normal; a group of normal people disposed in a loose semicircle around a man whose bright orange tie identified him as the British violinist, Simon Standage.
Without a word they proceeded to tune their instrument and, after a cacophony of sounds, the concert began. And this is when my childish delusion at their ordinary appearance fell down and when my jaw, well, followed suit. This is when the whole experience became, all of a sudden, astonishing.
The orchestra started with the first movement of the first piece on the set list, Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor BWV 1043. Standage and the other lead violinist, László Paulik, took the front position and the rest of the team went along with them. There was no amplification, no electronic paraphernalia to support them; yet, they filled the whole auditorium with the perfect notes they produced with their own hands.
But the clean, crisp sound wasn’t just it. The movements followed each other with only the briefest of the pause; first the Allegro, then the Andante, then the Allegro again. The music came in waves, changing courses multiple times: rumbling cavalcades left space to more subdued passages, harmonious solos ended up by powerful ensembles. The musicians, that ‘normal’ assembly of individuals that had surprised me before, surprised me again by morphing into a team, a collective of gifted persons communicating with each other. I saw, in rapture, the silent messages passing from one another – the quick glances, the nods, a brief smile – as every player coordinated with each other, up a silent hierarchy ending with the lead violinists.
I watched as difficult passages sent them bending in concentration over their instruments, much like I used to see Billy Corgan doing in his Smashing Pumpkins glory days (sans foot over the amplifier, though). I watched their body language reacting to the music they were playing, as if they were guided by telepathy and obeying the stimuli received by a higher entity.
It is safe to say, and I’m not dramatizing, that I spent the whole BWV 1043 glazed in a state of mild shock and complete, total attention. Whatever spell I was under, it must’ve infected the rest of the audience, for nothing more than the occasional cough resounded even in the brief spells of silence between one movement and the other.
Then the Concerto ended and a complex, hoarse dialogue began between the audience and the musicians, an interaction based on rules that seemed familiar to everyone except me. It felt like gate crashing the alien landing site in Close Encounters, only that – this time – it wasn’t with lights that the parties talked, but by clapping their hands. The polite clap that ensued the end of the Concerto soon changed rhythm, evolving into a more syncopated tempo like the one that usually accompanies Radetzky’s March at Vienna’s New Year concert. The clapping public expressed its appreciation for the Concerto, and invited the two lead violinists to return on stage (they had disappeared through a side door) and to start an encore. Movement over, it resumed, only to be subdued when the second part of the concert started, with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 BWV 1067. This time a flute was centrepiece, played by Ildikó Kertész, and I remember listening to the elaborate, convoluted solos in a sort of apprehension, hoping for her not to fail, but she didn’t; and when she finished I joined the others in the clapping for them to play again, conscious of how different this was from the usual torrents of cheer that were using at my usual gigs, but happy nonetheless.
The night ended with Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni, with Standage once again as lead violinist, possibly the only part of the concert where I was able to distinguish something that I had heard before, albeit never directly. Then, as sombrely as it had started, it finished. The encores, the bows, the ceremony of returning from the recesses of the backstage all ended and we all began leaving the building, dispersing in the quiet night under a light snow shower.
I couldn’t dismiss a feeling of bewilderment, as we drove towards our accommodation. I felt like having entered a secret brotherhood, based on an intricate but also intrinsically simple system of communication, based on symbols and customs rooted in history and known worldwide. I always looked with scorn and contempt to this scene, seeing little besides the sumptuous opera houses, dapper dresses and chalices of Champagne but the truth is that, below or besides these unnaturally posh manners, lies an incredibly rich and tremendously fascinated world.