Much shrieking was done on Wednesday night when, while browsing through a Barbican programme I’d picked up on a whim, I suddenly discovered that Joshua Bell was playing the Sibelius violin concerto tonight (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis).
The first thing I’ll mention, with my usual “I’m not an expert BUT” disclaimer, is that the acoustics of the Barbican concert hall seemed as dreadful as legend has made them out to be (as the Telegraph puts it, “the last great exemplar of how not to build a concert hall“), despite the much-vaunted revamp. I shudder to think what it must have been like before. Sound seemed brittle and strangled, struggling to reach us like a tethered dog on a cruelly short leash. This rendered the Stravinsky programme opener more damp squibs than Fireworks, and Joshua Bell’s highest notes in the Sibelius sometimes got drowned by the orchestra.
I came home and listened to my recordings of the Stravinsky and Sibelius. The Stravinsky recording has all of the caprice and pizzazz that sputtered and died in the concert hall. The Sibelius is the classic Jascha Heifetz recording, and I was quite worried before tonight that because I’ve grown to love this particular one so much, that I’d be unable to appreciate Joshua Bell’s rendition for what it was. My concerns proved unfounded simply because he was brilliant enough to make comparison unnecessary, perhaps a little less note-perfect than Heifetz, but he brought out all the delicacy and poignance that the divine, divine first movement begs for, and delivered enough fiery virtuosic touches to keep the thrill-seeker in me happy as well, so no complaints at all.
And then we come to the second half of the evening. I am far from conservative and close-minded where it comes to taste in music, but Colin Matthews’ vile Renewal really did seem to tick all the stereotypical failure boxes of modern composition. I have no problems with dissonance and repetition, but I felt as if I was descending into a neverending quicksand of disharmony without ever touching ground. Writing in weird-tone scales is all very well for stoking intellectual libido, but it leaves the average listener with little or no awareness of when resolution or evolution takes place, much less any melodic pattern of notes that’s capable of staying in the mind. And I’m not even arguing this from the viewpoint of the aggrieved pleb. Having played for five years in an orchestra which regularly included modern compositions in its repertoire, I’d venture that while I’m far from being an expert, I do have a little more understanding of modern music than the average listener – not that it helped tonight.
After sitting stupefied for the first three minutes, Avril and I unfortunately started on one of our giggling episodes. These usually involve muffled hysteria, sometimes snorts, in all the most inappropriate situations. We managed to calm down after ten minutes of acute stomach pain, and thankfully only experienced sporadic outbursts of mirth over the next forty bloody minutes of the piece before its merciful end.