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How long is a point in time?

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 09:32 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Obvious: the same length as a piece of string. Maybe you were at one of our three concerts with Christine Brewer. Or you heard Edinburgh's relay, or heard her and Donald's In Tune performance, or saw the Coda on iPlayer. Or read the rave reviews. So, what's my point? Donald commented that Christine establishes an instant rapport with orchestral players, because there's an element in her singing that's instrumental. Actually, I didn't immediately consciously think that - I was just floored by her singing. She started rehearsal facing in towards us, and in our new antiphonal seating plan this meant I was a few feet away in the line of fire. ("Wow.......and I'm being paid to sit here and experience this.") But what I did consciously think was, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if this woman could be booked to give us all a master class in music - whatever instrument we play". You might think that sitting directly in front of a Wagnerian soprano doing her thing is a Health and Safety issue. It usually is, and we have to insert our statutory ear plugs, and (politely) re-align ourselves to the singers. But not with Christine. Her voice has an amazing quality: it seems to fill the available space, flowing all around you irrespective of which direction she is aiming. And there's no trace of a harsh edge to the sound. This sound can't be measured in decibels - H&S officers don't have tick boxes for levels of ecstasy (yet). What's this got to do with pieces of string? .........

......Or, how long a note should be? Stockhausen (no less) criticised the Berlin Phil (no less) because they cut notes short (the Berlin Phil has the most mellifluous creamy sound of any orchestra on the planet). And that was the point this week. Rehearsing Mahler 4 and Webern's intoxicating Im Sommerwind Donald used a fascinating expression: "Let the bar lines dissolve". That's what Christine does - like no other. So, let's get all technical. How do we play together if we don't have bar lines, don't have an objective measure to keep our time, don't know when to stop and start stuff? There's something about the way Christine sings where the sound flows - like a river - in a way that can't be pinned to a point - defying measurement. And yet we all have to play 'exactly' with her. Her notes and phrases gently turn corners, the exact moment of change elides, stretching indeterminately in both directions; and yet sixty string players have to play single pizzicato notes (plucked) exactly together with her at precise points, accurate to a few milliseconds. Strangely, if the conductor gives a little emphatic 'click' to his beat at this sort of moment, it rarely achieves a relaxed unanimity. That's because this is where some of the magic has to happen. And it does happen. Every player has to be in the flow. If I, or any of us, try to define that moment rationally it'll be like sticking a steel rule in a river - futile process - wrong tick box. Sir Adrian Boult was the chief conductor when I was at the Royal College. He was notorious for impatience, his inscrutable manner, and his school of scientifically worked out baton technique (from Arthur Nikisch). Strangely, however clearly his huge baton showed something, we never really seemed to play along with it, or even together with each other, being inexperienced students. The magic became obvious with more experienced players: the baton would come down, several moments would elapse (followed by a few more), and the whole band would play together. Towards the end of his career Klemperer was famously unclear: he would make some barely decipherable twitch, and an orchestra, assuming it was in tune with his spirit, would effloresce in perfect accord.......notwithstanding the odd expletive of frustration from a player who was not in the flow. A conductor working regularly with us many years ago, whose technique definitely didn't match his enthusiasm for music, was causing considerable exasperation, leading to one of our bolder woodwind players shouting out, "Please would you twitch a little higher?" There's a notorious passage in the first movement of Sibelius' 4th symphony (this symphony is my personal Elysium) where the violins have a long soaring passage in which the notes are all of equal length, but entirely off the beat. The poor conductor is thrashing around, while the players are struggling to ignore him. This same conductor proudly told me that he'd made an arrangement of this symphony in which these notes, and those in its very many other rhythmically anomalous passages, had been returned comfortably back into bar lined cages!

At our pre-concert discussion last night, Greg Lawson surprised me with a quote, about how Brahms said that he wished bar lines could be abolished. We know that the essence of interpreting Brahms lies in achieving a flexible feeling about bar lines, making sure the musical paces don't sound the way they are written. There are some piano roll fragments of Brahms playing his own Hungarian dances - pieces which he usually included in his recitals. Like antique scuffed photos, they don't initially tell us much. But boffins in white coats with powerful computers have scrutinised them, revealing just how Brahms shifted his bar lines and had a distinctly improvisatory attitude to the written text, to the extent that no two quavers or crotchets are ever the same length, even when he was bothering to play the written notes. Greg was telling us how impossible it is to write down the subtleties of Eastern European folk music (he plays a lot of it) - you can't "square it off" or get it into the tick boxes. Thinking about bar lines this week, as the boss told us to, I was remembering a couple of inspirational classes at college. The Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa was one of the veteran professors when I was there. He got his pupils to go through their copies scratching out the bar lines with a razor blade. (Here's a natty coincidence: at home after last night's performance of the Britten violin concerto, I read the programme note, to discover that Brosa was Britten's friend and the first performer of the concerto.) I went for lessons with him when working with one of his students on Beethoven's violin and cello duos. He was tearing his hair out trying to get us, me in particular, to play more operatically - huge phrases riding high over the bar lines - huge operatic vibrato (wobble) achieved by jamming two fingers together to double the spread of the wobble - and this effulgence just for these humble bits of tafelmusik. Grief....if I'd played like that for Donald's Beethoven 7 last week I'd have been suspended on full pay pending an enquiry. (Thinks....that would be a good ruse.) Well, I had an idea: why don't we print a version (loads of people have the software to do this) of a Brahms symphony - with no bar lines? The conductor would only be allowed to show the music, never the three or the four of it. And see how we get on.

Before I leave my favourite subject of bars: did you see the Simon Russell Beale Sacred Music programme about Brahms and Bruckner? Was that the actual bar, the Red Hedgehog, in which Brahms and Bruckner had met for cold pils? There's something moving and significant about the fact that those two were so crusty with each other - could either have acknowledged that they were both creative giants, climbing up different sides of the same mountain? They were both well established, but does that mean that they could have been able to see just how far up that mountain each had reached. Could they have realised, at that point in time, how great their own or the other's music was? For me, that scene in the pub was inordinately exciting. Which tells you two things: 1, I really do need to get out more, and 2, after so many years immersed in the music and thought processes of these men, they seem to live with me like real people, playing a significant part in my emotional life.

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