One of the most depressing sights of lockdown in Edinburgh – for me, anyway – was the sight of the Usher Hall being turned into a Covid test centre. I know that test centres are important. But it seemed a sad change of fortune for the first big concert hall I got to know. In some sense, it’s imprinted on my memory as ‘the’ concert hall to which others are to be compared.
As a child I went to Friday night orchestra concerts there with my Mum, and later with my friends. In teenage years I had a job there selling programmes (in return for hearing the concerts free of charge). In my final school years, I was sometimes asked to turn pages for visiting pianists during the Festival, a very intriguing experience. As a young violinist I played there as a member of the National Youth Orchestra. In student years I reviewed Usher Hall concerts for various newspapers. And as a professional pianist I have performed there myself from time to time in the Edinburgh Festival. So the Usher Hall holds layers of memories for me.
It was wonderful to be back in the audience yesterday for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in the Usher Hall since before the pandemic. Certain things looked different, of course – the orchestra was reduced in size, and the players were all sitting separately, one to a stand. Social distancing meant the hall could only be half full, and we were all wearing masks. But there was a quiet air of jubilation amongst the listeners.
The concert opened with the brass, sitting high up in the organ gallery, playing Bach’s chorale ‘Es ist genug’. This is the unusual chorale melody that opens with a four-note phrase spanning a tritone – B flat, C, D and E natural, underpinned by poignant harmonies. If I remember rightly it’s a phrase that Alban Berg uses in his 1935 Violin Concerto and a chorale that he quotes to devastating effect in the last movement.
No sooner had the brass played Bach’s opening phrase yesterday than I felt tears springing to my eyes. Something about the shining brass sound, combined with the majestic rising phrase, felt like an assertion that music had survived. But it wasn’t just the thought that was inspiring. It was the quality of the sound itself. I can’t explain it, but this is the magic of music.