China's National Centre for the Performing Arts
| Thermae of Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla) in Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
A movie currently in our local cinemas has as a subtitle the expression, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. I like the idea of that, because throughout my life as a scribbler for the vulgar journals --- newspapers, I really mean --- I have always considered myself a centre of ignorance masquerading as some sort of minor form of enlightenment. I never had what one would consider in these days an adequate education, and I have always prided myself on being able to hide my appalling lack of knowledge and judgment under a cloud of fancy writing. It has been good enough to fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
Thus, now that I am old, and no longer faced with competing to make a living, I can admit that the areas in which I am a total ignoramus are many and varied. High among them is music. I was the last of six kids, all of whom were granted lessons on how to play an instrument, but in their turn each of them showed such lack of talent, interest, enthusiasm or motivation that by the time they got to me, a sports-obsessed pre-teener, my mother gave me the choice, to learn or not to learn. To my later regret I voted decisively against wasting my time labouring over a keyboard or wrestling with a violin, and so was left to embark on the world ill-equipped to appreciate the finer things of life.
This became relevant only when my sons, as kids in our times are wont to do, turned out either to be skilled musicians, or to be veritable encyclopaedias of knowedge about the popular arts, music included. In support of our oldest kid my wife and I attended more rock concerts than we could ever possibly count. But as for music itself, the greatest things I ever experienced heretofore were an evening of Betty Carter warbling, Edith Piaf wailing so heartbreakingly, Teddy Wilson tinkling on the ivories before an audience of 26 people, Nina Simone making the night crackle in an openair concert in Montreal as she lay bare the soul of the United States with her furious, manic Mississippi Goddamn!, or of Lena Horne, in her seventies, singing Charles Aznavour.
I say all this because my present partner, though no better educated than I am, has a keen appreciation for all those finer things that have been lost to me. She delights in going to her local symphony orchestra concerts, usually conducted by some of the great masters of the art in Europe, but, glorying in my ignorance, I have always chosen to stay at home on these occasions. On my side, my only exposure to the finer things of life came when, on a motor-scooter and camping tour of Europe, my wife and I took our places in 1954 in the nether regions of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome while some company or other was sawing away at good old Aida on the barely visible stage, away up there, an experience that had little, if any impact on me.
Ever since then, confronted with one of those serious high culture guys trying to put me down, I have told the story of how in 1900 Tolstoy invited Rachmaninoff and Chaliapin to his home to perform for him, and afterwards took the composer aside and asked, “Is such music needed by anyone? I must tell you how I dislike it all. Beethoven is nonsense, Pushkin and Lermentov also.” As they were leaving Tolstoy said to Rachmaninoff, “forgive me if I’ve hurt you by my comments, and the musician, nothing if not a gentleman, replied, “How could I be hurt on my own accord, if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?”
This year, however, in a mellow mood, I agreed to go along with my partner Sheila to a few concerts, and so far I have attended two in the maison symphonique de Montreal, a beautiful new (four years) hall for the symphony orchestra, currently directed by Kent Nagano. I have always had a curiously schizophrenic attitude towards high culture and the massive public subsidies that are needed to sustain it. The proletarian in me argues that ordinary low-income people have participated in paying for the construction of these public places of culture-worship, but are excluded from enjoying the fruits of their contribution by the high prices charged for entry. I don’t believe that a single one of the artists mentioned above whom I have enjoyed has ever received a single nickel in public subsidy.
Personally, these concerts I am attending have set a new record for me in the matter of prices I have paid for any entertainment. Sitting in the far upper reaches of the hall, I have had to pay, first, more than $50 for a seat to hear the Montreal symphony, and last night, for the visit of the orchestra from China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, who are currently on a tour of Canada and the United States, I had to pay $119.57 per ticket. What? Say that again? I paid almost $120 to sit through a two-hour concert? Am I off my head? (I remember the very first time anyone dared to charge $100 for a theatre ticket: it was on the occasion of a visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Britain to New York with one of their superb blockbuster productions. Everyone thought the price outrageous.)
All of this is by way of introduction to my first, and probably last, report on high cultural entertainment. The first concert featured music by Moussorgsy and Rachmaninoff, who turned out to be Russians, one of whom became particularly attached to Cleveland. I took to referring to them as Moussie and Rackie , and I worked out a few jokes about them. Rackie for example, was a big cigar-smoker, and it was one of his cigars that he carelessly threw into the Cuyahoga river on that much heralded day that caused the river to burst into flame. This is a joke along the lines of one made by the great comic master, Robert Benchley, who tossed off in one of his columns the information that Mozart never wrote a note of music until he was 97. Inundated with letters of protest pointing out that Mozart died at 25 or thereabouts Benchley wrote that he was referring to Grandpa Mozart, the journeyman whistler. To forestall the customary outrage at my statement, I have to point out that Rackie, as the boys on the street in Cleveland used to call him, died in 1943, long before the two major fires on the river in 1952 and 1969. But it is just as well to be wary of so-called facts. The river burst into flames at least three times --- 1936, 1941 and 1948 --- when Rackie could have been there, so maybe there is some truth to my little fantasy.)
Anyway, so much for the context of my concert-going. As for the actual experience of being there and hearing it all, I was impressed by the fact that periods of quiet, gentle music were usually interrupted by tremendous clashing bangs on the huge drums, blows on the bassoons and the like, and this seemed to me to be the very centre of classical music, as presented in this concert.
Okay, on to last night’s epic: this orchestra, of about 80 youthful musicians who appeared on stage, was half made up of women --- very attractive, slim, energetic women, too, enough to set any male heart aflutter --- and these musicians seemed to be on a higher level of expertise than those in the Montreal symphony. The quiet periods followed by the huge banging and clashing about was still there, but in a piece they played by Dvori, as I called him, known to the knowledgeable as Antonin Dvorak --- if I’d known that before, I would have called him Tony --- these musicians under the leadership of conductor Lu Jia played with such astonishing precision as to make their music sound quite thrilling, even in my ears.
Before getting on to our Western music, the orchestra played two numbers from a Chinese repertory, the major one of which was the Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin, in which a remarkable violinist Siqing Lu brought the house down, leaving the audience on its feet demanding an encore, which he gracefully provided. (I noticed that lagrimoso was followed by presto resoluto, which, in my terms, probably means soft and gentle followed by clash, bang BOOM!)
When Tony Dvori’s piece was concluded after a dazzling exhibition of musical precision, especially in the passages in which two resoluto passages followed each other, the violins and the clash-bangers, although following one on the other produced sounds that were completely separated, and once again brought the audience to its feet cheering, and Conductor Lu led them in a longish encore, which, if the audience had had its way, would have been followed by another.
It must have been gratifying to these musicians to have aroused such enthusiasm here in the middle of the Western world. And it sent me out into the streets thinking that music might be one of the best ways of bringing our two deeply divided worlds together in future.
I forgot to mention that Tony Dvori’s piece was Opus 88. There was no explanation as to what happened to the first 87, or not a hint of what the hell an opus is, and why it should have such a number.
Never mind, chaps, on to the next one!