Yesterday brought the very sad news that American cellist Felix Wurman has died, age 51, of cancer. Felix was an inspiring person with a passion for adventure and an extraordinary gift for making friends.
He was the founder of the music group Domus, which had its own portable concert hall in the shape of a geodesic dome. Its members met at the International Musicians’ Seminars in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, in the early 1980s. I was the pianist. We wanted to find a way of making music that was less formal and intimidating than we were beginning to experience as young professionals playing in orthodox concert halls. When we started discussing how to create our own more intimate concerts, someone jokingly said that we should build a portable concert hall.
Felix was several steps ahead of us, then as at many other times. As an American school student he had come across Buckminster Fuller’s designs for a geodesic dome, and he declared that if we were to have a portable concert hall, it must be in the shape of a dome. With typical enterprise and energy he set about building us a geodesic dome. It wasn’t the most practical idea, but the beauty of the white dome galvanised lots of young musicians into helping to make it a reality. Some of the story is told in my book ‘Beyond the Notes’, and is too long to tell here. Suffice it to say that Felix was probably the only person in the world who could have got me to run about in the rain carrying heavy boxes full of aluminium tubes. When things got tough, as they soon did, he rallied us all with his heartfelt cry of, ‘It must never not be fun!!’
Felix had an amazing gift for dreaming up idealistic projects and, even more, for inspiring people to join him in bringing them to fruition. He did it with Domus, and later, when he had returned to America, he did it again with the Church of Beethoven, a concert series he founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ironically, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about it on the day that Felix died, though I don’t think the writer can have been aware of the sad coincidence.
When I knew Felix in the ’80s we didn’t use the word ‘animateur’, but I think that’s what he was – an animateur of genius. He made people want to be in his gang. His love of music, combined with his love of fun, adventure, and the perfect cappuccino made him a magnet for other people throughout his life.
Richmond Park yesterday was full of children sliding happily on the icy paths. Not on the ponds, though – the ice is rarely thick enough to take a person’s weight. Everyone seemed to be chatting about the Eurostar trains which got stuck in the Channel Tunnel on Friday night and again on Saturday. Two thousand people spent the night in the Tunnel on Friday night without food or water. The reason for the breakdown: trains coming from the wintry conditions of northern France were thrown into confusion by the warmer conditions in the Tunnel. Honestly - Swiss and German Railway engineers must be laughing at us as they continue to run their perfectly punctual services through the snowy Alps.
In Richmond Park, the green parakeets who made the park their home a few years ago were shrieking as they zoomed to and fro overhead in quarrelsome groups. ‘Oh my god, it’s freezing! Whose idea was it to come here? Get me out of here!’ they seemed to be saying. It reminded me of the fashionable young lady in Erik Satie’s ‘Sports et Divertissements’, who is suddenly displeased with the ocean while she’s out paddling: ‘This is not amusing. Call me a cab!’
The other night I went along to join some friends who sing in a little choir. They had relaxed the membership rules for their last meeting of the year, a time for Christmas carols and mulled wine. Snow had fallen in London for the first time this winter, and it felt very Christmassy. I haven’t sung in a choir since I was about twelve, but I sing quite a lot around the house, so I thought I could have a go at the alto part.
After about two carols my throat was starting to hurt. I had that disconcerting sensation that players of orchestral instruments must have when they first play in an orchestra: ‘Where’s my sound gone?’ Only by forcing myself to sing much louder than usual could I hear my own voice. When I couldn’t hear it, I couldn’t tell if I was singing in tune with those around me. Twenty minutes later I felt as if I had a full-blown throat infection coming on. By the time we stopped for mince pies, my speaking voice seemed to have dropped an octave, and by the end of the evening I could hardly croak ‘Merry Christmas’ to my companions as we drifted out into the night.
Clearly my voice projection was all wrong. I didn’t know how to ‘support’ from the diaphragm, even though I tried to copy the posture of those around me. And yet, when I sing at home, I feel no strain on my voice at all. My hoarseness was clearly caused by trying to sing loudly, with no technical know-how, throughout a whole evening. It was a sobering experience. And it was instructive to feel like a beginner again – “possibly”, as Alan Bennett would say.