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DOING IT YOUR WAY

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 11:09 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010

"Tell your own story". That's what Donald said. Saying something like that to 107 players, while each is struggling to get the notes right, in the right order and at the same time, might seem a tad rash. Anyway, I'm not sure how many of us clocked it......maybe I'm making a meal of it. What was he getting at? We can assume he was trying to bring the music to life - which is what rehearsals are for - and obviously at that moment he felt we were sounding boring (Nous, ennuyeux!). He didn't exactly clarify things later when he said, "I love that slight untidiness". What's he want - for us all to start thrashing around doing our own thing? This is my cue for a rant: if we're playing the right notes, and playing them well, what makes one version of the same notes so different from another? What's the difference between fizzing inspiration and untidy incompetence?

We all know the best performances are not necessarily the flawless ones. Put that another way: when we do a technically flawless performance (which we often do!) is it the flawlessness that will make it special? Suppose with our considerable skill and dedication we could achieve repeatable flawless performances. So what? Might these performances turn out a bit like that sixties concrete civic architecture - very impressive when new - temples to functionality - but it doesn't do it for anyone's soul. You walk on, trying to find something more interesting, unpredictable, personal and lived in, where you'll feel safer, like a bar where you can sit, read, have trivial conversation or profound thoughts? Sitting in the middle of an orchestra, pressured by limited rehearsal time, I sometimes feel there's a danger I'll adopt a default position of striving for the safest repeatable solutions, like an unimaginative town planner. You don't have to think so much if you're driving in tramlines. But, will I have to disconnect my spontaneity button? Organic processes don't do repeatable perfection, they do infinitely miraculous variety.

To return to my storyline: actually, Mahler, whose third symphony we were rehearsing, is all about stories. Nature pictures, picaresque tales, children's nursery rhymes - all these fired his creativity. But when it came to publishing he didn't want this music labelled. Take one of his original titles in this symphony, "Pan Awakes": it could sound like a cheesy print for sale in a dodgy antique shop. On Mahler's title page it might trivialise the actual soul shuddering sounds that irrupt in this symphony. The image would become a barrier between you and the inner meaning of that soul shuddering. 'Meaning' is the wrong word - I should say 'feeling'. Mahler was groping for something here, egged on by Nietzsche, whose poem he chose for the fourth movement. The message might be: this soul shuddering pain and suffering - this is life - you can't separate it from beautiful vistas and nursery rhymes. Grasp this truth - be blinded by joy. Enlightenment. Mahler didn't want to flog us a cheesy print, even if he was a genius at painting the natural world in music. He wanted us to have a life transforming experience. No, our own imagination, welling up from our own psyche, is more powerful than any second hand image he could summon. The true story remains hidden. Our own story - this is the one he yearns to awake. He told Sibelius that he wanted his music to draw deeply on all human experience. Sibelius didn't agree - his thing was intellectual rigour. Now, that's interesting: do you think Sibelius' music contains any less human life than Mahler's, or that Mahler's lacks intellectual rigour? Elgar's first symphony was the other biggie we were wrestling with last week. Is Elgar's miraculous symphony any less of an epic journey of the soul than the massive Mahler, or than Sibelius' ultra-compressed seventh? Incidentally, the Sibelius, a pinnacle of intellectual rigour, uses a solo trombone in an uncannily similar role to the Mahler. If you're ever tempted to think that Sibelius' music is abstract, imagine this trombone solo played by an oboe, or a glockenspiel, and then explain to me what the difference is. .....well, let's not start that debate today....

Today's debate is on how we go about getting the notes right, and then making them even more right. What's in the cracks between flawless perfection and heart gripping inspiration? (I know that's a tautology, but I like its natty ring.) I wonder if any of you were in the City Hall a few years ago when Ida Haendel played the Sibelius violin concerto with us. She started life as a prodigy, equal to Barenboim in being able to play the great concertos flawlessly by the age of ten, but at our concert, when she was in her mid seventies, the crystalline perfection of her earlier years wasn't in the foreground - something bigger got in the way - it was electrifying. From my seat, the conductor's baton was directly in line between me and her eyes. As she played a piercing look shot out, saying, "The only way this music can sound is the way I'm about to play it." Yield or die. I've never experienced storytelling like it. Totally unique, unlike any other performance. Sibelius' great music, yes, but her story. Now, I'm not suggesting Donald wanted all 107 of us in the Mahler to be as idiosyncratic as Ida Handel - I'm interested in the power behind what she was doing. It didn't seem to lie in spontaneous flights of imagination. Have you ever read stories to children, or heard someone who is very good at it doing so? There is a way that a reader's own passion and emotion - fear, suspense, surprise, relief, celebration - has to deliver the text, like a powerful horse carrying a knight. Without his steed, the fearsome knight is immobilised, clumsy and vulnerable - nothing more than an idea - a potentiality - a text. However imaginative the text, it needs the power of a steed to deliver it. The child is not too bothered about the text - it's the emotional journey that counts. The child soaks up, 'learns', emotional processes through live contact with the reader. Later in life, adult sophistication develops, and the child's wonderful faculty atrophies.

And this is where the scientific bit comes in. Clever new fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans have been watching our brains. They've seen that the brain processes of a listener instantly mirror those of the reader and, astoundingly, often anticipate the reader's. How do you explain that? They also discovered an interesting subtlety: the better the listener is at reading, the stronger this reaction becomes. Three implications leap out at me. (Health warning: I'm guessing, I'm not a scientist.) 1: I've always said that you, the listener, know what's 'right' as we are actually playing. The reader or performer must establish an emotional connection that is stronger than the text. If the reader is speaking in a foreign language, or the player is playing by rote (i.e. with no emotional investment, like phonetically rendering a foreign text) then there is no communication. 2: The emotional subtext is actually the main text. We are gripped by, or 'understand', the emotional text fractionally ahead of the verbal one. 3: Does all this imply that it's especially important for children (that's all of us) to learn to play instruments emotionally, not just with sufficient dexterity to pass exams? Our emotional responses evolved long before speech, before the written word, or written music. These responses are quicker than the rational analytical processes needed for language. In emergencies, we've all experienced how we can act quicker than we can think. These responses fire out from 'deeper' layers of our consciousness. Many people talk about how music keys into our shared humanity, regardless of language barriers - a possible explanation lies in this area of emotional communication. This aspect has to be the most important, and it's the one which atrophies if we allow the rational and analytical aspects to dominate. A couple more examples like the Haendel one: I think it was Kreisler who described Casals as using his bow like a sword. How does it feel to have Casals, or anyone, waving a sword in front of our face? (Just his scowl was scary enough, enough to transfix you like a rabbit in headlights.) Did you see the Barenboim master class following our Mahler 3 relay on BBC 4, where he recounted Horowitz challenging him to use his will? "You have to always have will (pronounced, veel)." How do you react when a Barenboim or Haendel pin their eyes on you, charged with a million volts of veel?

I rest my case. If there's any sense contained in my ramblings, then other issues follow on. For instance, how important is it for music to be live - a live, shared event - held in venues with good sightlines and helpful acoustics? However satisfying and potentially valuable in their own right, do video games, virtual sport, film, or recorded music - all of them electronic, essentially artificial vicarious experiences - fulfil deeper human needs? Finally, what if all 107 of us had played with the laser power of Ida Handel? We'd have probably blasted you gasping backwards out of the concert hall, scrabbling to get back in for more. That might have been what Donald was hoping for - all six thousand of you in the Albert Hall.

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