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This is my 200th blog post! Here’s a photo of me playing for an invited audience recently in someone’s private home. I really like playing (and also going to hear) house concerts, which feel like a variant on the ‘salons’ of previous centuries.
Understandably, such house concerts are usually a money-free zone for all concerned. But since I enjoy playing in intimate settings, I’ve often wondered if I could set about creating more such concerts and even make income from them. From time to time I read about people in other fields who’ve done similar things. There are ‘private dining clubs’ where foodies gather to eat in private homes, their addresses kept secret until the last minute. Guests get to meet fellow foodies and eat well in a relaxed domestic setting, for less (or not more) than they’d pay in a restaurant, and the cook makes a reasonable profit. I’ve also read about a few musicians, though not in the classical world, who’ve set up ‘tours of people’s living-rooms’. One example is the Canadian singer Jane Siberry whose inventive approach to touring was the subject of a recent Globe and Mail feature.
But when I imagine setting up such a tour for myself, I can’t quite get my head round the potential problems (one of which is the piano). Once you start advertising your events or charging for tickets, you enter a different zone, one bristling with public liability issues. There’s also the important issue of privacy for the person hosting the concert. You’d want to have some control over who was allowed in to the house. But on the other hand you wouldn’t want to burden each host with the task of gathering up 30 acceptable customers. Is there a way round these problems?
Our cat’s preferred brand of catfood has a disarming slogan: ‘As good as it looks’. The layers of meaning quiver in front of your eyes almost as much as the meaty jelly does when you spoon it out. Obviously, ‘as good as it looks’ is meant to put positive thoughts in your head about the catfood, but it has the ring of accidental truth-telling.
It reminds me of a wonderful remark variously attributed to American author Mark Twain or to his contemporary, humorist Edgar Wilson Nye, about the music of Wagner: ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.’ Like all the best observations, you can savour it for ages without it losing its bite.
Once again this year the azaleas of the Isabella Plantation, the botanical garden in the middle of Richmond Park, have all come out at once. In previous years they tactfully staggered their weeks of blooming so that different bits of the park came to life at different times, but last year and this year the azaleas co-ordinated in a blaze of glory (see photo).
It’s almost like not being in England at all. Surrounded by this sea of colour, it’s as if you’ve wandered into some Mediterranean paradise, or at least onto the set of an exotic opera. And yet the scene is silent. Visitors tend to keep quiet as they take it in.
We found a seat amongst the bushes, fashioned from an old tree stump. A little plaque explained it was there in memory of Wally Miller, head gardener when the azaleas were planted a few decades ago. What a genius!
After rejoicing that the BBC had improved its ‘Young Musician of the Year’ coverage so markedly in 2010, I had to grind my teeth with annoyance as I watched the ‘Eurovision Young Musicians 2010’ competition on BBC4 this evening. The young musicians were tremendous, but the presentation was horribly bland. Fifteen semi-finalists were whittled down to seven finalists in the blink of an eye. I was disappointed and puzzled that the UK’s representative, 14-year-old trombonist Peter Moore, wasn’t a finalist. I think he’s very special.
The setting for the final was, inexplicably, an outdoor ‘performance shell’ in Vienna’s Rathausplatz. The seven finalists were allowed 7 minutes each (at least, this is all we heard on TV), and each devoted their 7 minutes to a fast concerto movement. Because the city square is so huge, the performances were amplified. But the sound coverage was inadequate; we saw the performers in close-up, but their sound seemed small and distant. It was clear that conductor and orchestra couldn’t hear the soloists properly either – at any rate, this was the kindest explanation for all the lapses in co-ordination. And for some extraordinary reason, the young Russian pianist had to play with the piano on the conductor’s right, with the piano lid removed and the piano facing the other way from usual, so that the pianist’s left hand was closest to the audience. It must have been very disconcerting for him.
Perhaps the open-air presentation, similar to that of the ‘Proms in the Park’, was designed to do away with the supposed stuffiness of the traditional concert hall. But they were in Vienna, whose concert halls are a joy to behold. What a waste of an opportunity for these fine young players to perform in the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus! I can’t deny that the thousands-strong audience outside in the Rathausplatz cheered everyone warmly. But their applause seemed identical for each performance. Who could blame them? With such poor sound coverage and such brief glimpses of each player, it was impossible to judge between them. And how much could the judges hear? At the end, I felt strangely uninvolved in the results – an unusual feeling for me. In fact, the winner was a delightful young flautist, Eva-Nina Kozmus from Slovenia. I look forward to hearing her and the other young musicians in better circumstances.