Vladimir Ashkenazy/Min Lee Concert (25 September, 2003)

Not since I played the organ at a memorial service in pajamas and slippers have I been so inappropriately dressed for an occasion.

The phone call came at 4.30 this afternoon. My sister’s colleague had two tickets to the Vladimir Ashkenazy/Min Lee concert tonight, and something had come up at the last minute preventing her from attending. I’d really wanted to go to this concert, but all the affordable tickets were sold out.

So far, so fantastic, but here’s the rub: they were complimentary tickets, designated “VVIP”. What’s wrong with that, you ask, sounds even better! The problem was that I was in university, had no time to go home and change before the concert, and was wearing trainers, jeans, and a raglan tee featuring a fluorescent green alien. Completely acceptable for the pleb seats, but not when you arrive and realize you are sitting in the same row as the Deputy Prime Minister.

We fished my leather jacket out of a bag of designated dry-cleaning in my mother’s car boot, and that mostly concealed the fluorescent alien, but next to people in silk shawls and cocktail dresses, I still kinda stood out. I tried to hold my head high and remind myself that I’d probably spent more hours actually playing in orchestras than most other people in those VVIP rows (including you, Mr Lee!), but then decided discretion was the better part of valour and spent most of the interval skulking behind a large staircase.

BUT! Whatever embarrassment I might have felt at other parts of the evening was more than compensated for by the rapture of the performances. I mean, Vladimir Ashkenazy. I saw Joshua Bell playing the Sibelius in London, but Ashkenazy is in a whole other league of classical music stardom. He played a Mozart piano concerto, conducting the orchestra at the same time from his seat at the grand piano, and from our VVIP seats we could see every flash of his fingers. The real joy for me was yet to come though. I’m not at all fond of Mozart, and therefore didn’t enjoy Ashkenazy’s performance as much as I could have (amazing though he was), but Min Lee was going to be playing the Bruch violin concerto, which I adore intensely.

[One of my small claims to violin fame is that once, I was, technically, “competition” for Min Lee. To be rather more accurate, we took part in the same round of the National Music Competition. I must have been about 10 or 11, she must have been about 8. Obviously, she kicked everyone’s asses roundly and won the competition, but for one small moment in time I was technically in the same league. I emphasize “technically” here. ]

There’s a certain feeling that overwhelms me when I’m watching a performance of a particular classical music piece I love; the almost violent beating of the heart in the opening notes, the surge of what can only be described as euphoria when the music builds to a climax, the teetering on the brink of tears at the sheer wonder of the beauty human civilization can create when it wants to. That feeling enveloped me tonight, both during the pure unadulterated jubilance of the final movement of the Bruch, and later, when the orchestra played Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Every time I renew my long-lapsed relationship with classical music I am reminded that its power is at its most elemental and intense when it is unadulterated by our modern attempts at “updating” its sound. (William Orbit, I suppose I can’t fault you for trying, but, er, please don’t try any more.) Vanessa Mae can do her violin version of the Toccatta and Fugue to dance beats and yes, it sounds energetic and is perhaps more likely to succeed with the MTV generation, but all I want is to sit in an empty church and listen to its cascading fury unleashed by an organist who doesn’t know I’m there. Rob D can sample the Enigma Variations for the beginning of Clubbed To Death, and everyone will love it because it was in The Matrix and all, but sit in a concert hall listening as the Nimrod variation rolls out its exquisite expanse of sound, and you don’t need flashy bullet-time cinematography to understand that all you really want is to live in this moment forever.