Signs of the times

On Saturday night to the final performance by the SSO of this year’s run of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

It was pretty good and better than I remember its last outing by the SSO in 2008, mounted in association with the visit of the pope.

My friend and former high-school English teacher, Lx (“My God, you people shit me!” he memorably said once before storming out of our year 9 classroom mid-lesson: he had a lot of days off on acoount of “migraines” that year at the end of which he left – though he returned to the school when I was in year 12) didn’t even remember he had been to that performance. Lx still remembered (as I do) the performance conducted by Mackerras in 1992.

I can’t say mine is a detailed recollection: a few moments come to mind but it is the overall impression which survives. What I really remember by now is that it was memorable. There is a CD out on ABC Classics which is either that performance or associated recordings. Were I to listen to it now I doubt if it would live up to the memory. The Town Hall had just been renovated to mark the city’s sesqui-centenary. The familiar old venue was unexpectedly resplendent and I suspect that was all a part of it. As ever, you had to be there.

The Missa Sol is a demanding work for the choir. They made a pretty good fist of it.

Compared to recordings by professional choirs the main thing I miss in performances by the Philharmonia is “produced” voices in the male parts – somehow the absence of female counterparts doesn’t seem to matter so much to me. Still, the tenors attacked their most exposed entry fearlessly – I expect they had been saving a bit up for that particular moment. It occurs to me that part of the trick in preparing a choir for such a taxing work is to pace its approach according to its capacities and the demands on the choristers’ stamina. The sopranos were also good in the punishingly elevated “Et vitam venturi” fugue.

At the curtainless curtain calls tenor soloist Stuart Skelton made his approbation of the choir’s work evident by stamping his foot(well, one of them – he does have two) on the stage when their moments of acknowledgement came. It’s an odd gesture when you are standing (foot stamping works better when you are seated) but struck me as heartfelt. I saved my foot-stamping for Dene Olding on account of his solo in the Benedictus.

As Lx commented on the way out, there was the odd ensemble untidiness. I was more concerned with the balance. Sometimes, as in, say, violin and cello concertos, an orchestra should just pretend to play loudly. Some of Stuart Skelton’s thunder at “homo factus est” was stolen because the orchestra was too loud; likewise the solo quartet’s in “Pleni sunt coeli.” Generally when playing with the choir I thought the trombones too strong: I think of them as choral equali, not orchestral muscle. I was left wondering: what on earth the violins fiddling away so furiously for? It is always a bad sign when there is busyness on stage for no discernible aural outcome. In the Benedictus I would have preferred a quieter pianissimo if that was technically possible (I mean for the trombones) – give the violinist a chance!

But without doubt it was always engrossing – even the Credo flew by. And it wasn’t all rush and thunder: there were dramatic pauses and electric silences as well. Despite my balance complaints- quibbles probably in the scheme of things, David Robertson held the whole thing together cogently and even movingly. I put religion and my own irreligion to one side and went with the metaphorical flow.

I must have been deeply affected by it because I was quite unable to sleep in the night that followed. This is always a sign that something has really worked me up. Sure, excessive caffeine can have the same effect but that wasn’t a factor on Saturday.

As I looked along row U of the stalls I fancied I was (still, as for the past almost 30 years) the youngest person in it. There were maybe 3 possible candidates for being just a little older than I and maybe even the same age if I was mistaken, but otherwise most had a good 10 years on me and many at least 20.

Before the concert I chatted with Lx and a friend of his who was recovering from surgery for a stress fracture. We heard about some of the exercises prescribed by her physiotherapist, as well as Dick van Dyke(90)’s advice for a healthy old age, which she said was: “Keep moving.” Apparently going down stairs sideways is one of the worst habits to fall into.

“My walking stick got tangled up,” said a woman in the row behind me to her friend as we (oh so slowly) made our way out of the hall. I waited at the end of my row to catch up with Lx coming from further back. I soon found that the end of the row is now favoured by older concert-goers for whom even the handrail against the opposite wall offers insufficient support. That’s a sign of the times and the times ahead.

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