The final concerts of my season took place last week at the Cerne Abbas Music Festival in Dorset with the Gaudier Ensemble. During the festival we gave a late-night performance of Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ in a candlelit church, with no other lights except for reading lights clipped to our music stands. It was so dark that we couldn’t see the audience, and they were so quiet that had we not known they were there, we might have imagined ourselves alone in the building.
A few months ago, the four of us performed the same work as part of a longer programme in the large open-plan atrium of a modern school. We wanted to end our concert with the Messiaen. But knowing that his audience was allergic to dissonance, the organiser insisted that we played the Messiaen at the start, because if it was in the second half, he said, ‘they’ll all leave during the interval’. So we played in daylight, with people walking past the windows to and from the sports ground while we played, and also walking down the corridors which connected the atrium to the rest of the school. There was continual movement in our peripheral vision, as well as a sea of fidgeting amongst the listeners. It felt virtually impossible to conjure up any kind of atmosphere.
Late at night in an old church, however, with candles flickering in front of the stained glass and a rapt stillness from the audience, the music’s spiritual qualities rang through loud and clear. At the end there was a silence so long that we wondered whether we should just creep offstage and leave people to reflect in the darkness. I’ve performed this work on a number of different occasions, but have never heard such a long and unembarrassed silence at the end.
You might think that if a piece has sufficiently strong qualities, the performance context wouldn’t matter. Surely the message of the music should come through whether it’s played in a school hall in daylight or in an ancient candlelit church? But I think it’s more a case of trying to provide a perfect setting, like a jeweller does for a precious stone, to help its beauty shine through.