Last week, when I was in Italy, I went to a concert of a well-known ensemble (I’ll be discreet about who and where). Firstly I should say that the large audience appeared perfectly happy with the performance and applauded enthusiastically, but for me as a professional musician there were signs that the players were demoralised. Their body language said so, both when they were playing and when they weren’t. This was, for example, the first time I had ever seen a professional musician chatting on his phone on stage just before the concert, in full view of the audience. Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I felt it showed a lack of pride in the occasion.
Concert dress is hotly debated these days – what message are we giving the audience when we choose this or that to wear? – but this group didn’t seem to have discussed it at all. If they had, they evidently hadn’t been able to agree. Their outfits ranged from dark suit and tie to a denim shirt worn with fashionably ripped jeans. There was someone in a lilac shirt and chinos, someone in pale suede boots, and someone in a smart black jacket with waistcoat and formal trousers. Perhaps it was all meant to look delightfully informal, but to me it said, ‘We don’t know any more what our identity is’. I know how difficult it can be to agree on ‘image’, but to allow such a cacophony of concert clothes seemed to show not so much a relaxed attitude as a lack of unity and purpose. I suppose it was hardly surprising that their playing gave me a similar impression. I knew nothing about the set-up but I could imagine there were difficulties behind the scenes.
Afterwards I went for a walk and ended up in a local park. A group of Italian students was sitting under the trees. Eventually one of them got out a guitar, another a violin. Quietly they started ‘jamming’ with a Stephane Grappelli number. And suddenly there was music in the air. Not studied, not expected, not ‘a performance’: just music being played for fun and with natural flair by people who were really into it. I felt myself relaxing. My mood had been a little low, but eavesdropping on this impromptu jazz session restored my good humour. You never know where you’ll find good musicianship!