September 2010 Archives

Chiaroscuro. A Cello Lesson



A is a nine year old book worm who wants to be a writer when she grows up. Even though she lives in a paradise vineyard in Provence, every time I see her she is curled up on a couch or crouched in a corner, her knees drawn up to her chest, escaping to somewhere else. Usually, I fear, platform nine and three quarters. Once a week I wrench her away from her stories. She drags her cello out of its case and starts to play for me, her eyes still lingering on the book abandoned mid-chapter. It takes a while for A to emerge from the world contained within her beloved pages to the world of bouncing bows and clapping, but we usually get there in the end.
Last week A pulled out a little piece of Lully arranged for cello duet and placed it on the stand for us. The music sauntered along nicely as we played, with pretty thirds and sixths shifting between parts like layers of silky pinks and purples. At about the mid point there was a long and painful chord with a flattened sixth that had the potential to tug briefly at the corseted gut before being resolved. However, when we played it there was no tension. It was time, I thought, to see if we could make the connection between Harry Potter and the intrigue that might have been occurring in Versailles on the day Lully wrote his air.
First of all we dressed up. Although neither of our knowledge of Louis X1V's designers was intimate, we donned, in our imagination, powdery wigs, corsets, hooped skirts and shoes with bows and, as the music unfolded, we tried to imagine what was happening. Was someone opening a door here, or crossing the floor there? What were they feeling? In love? Hesitant? Proud? Haughty even? Who was the mystery guest and what was their relationship? How was she ushered in? Bar by bar we tried to get inside the gestures of the baroque story. Then came the bar with the flattened sixth.
'What is happening now?' I asked.
There was a pause.
'I don't know' said A.
'Is there anything different about this bar?' I asked
'I don't know' said A.
Whether or not it was a result of the (recently discussed in the Guardian) fear children have apparently developed in French schools of giving the 'wrong' answer or not, it took a very long time for us to establish that something had changed, that the feelings here were different, that we actually felt differently in our bodies. Uncomfortable, unresolved. We played the chord again.
'There is a memory...' said A at last.
'Is it a painful memory?' I asked.' If so, of what?'
I asked A what it was that she liked about the story she was reading, or indeed any story. Was there not some kind of painful, or challenging moment, I asked, in every story that made the development and the resolution so satisfying? Would she really want to read a story that went 'One sunny day the happy girl walked along the beautiful sunlit road and met a very nice boy and they lived blissfully ever after' or, likewise, 'The nasty ugly man sniffed the hideous air in the run down city, drew his sword and killed the cat. The end.'
'She's been here before...' said A.
We were getting somewhere, I thought.
'...When she was a little girl...'
Time was up and lunch was on the table in the sunlit vines. Glasses of the house' own rosé glistened, salad was dressed with home made olive oil.
'It's a beginning, A.' I said. 'Can you see, though, how important that bar is? that there is no relaxation in this piece without the tension in that bar? no light without shadow? And that there is no right answer, just how you feel?'
'Yes' said A. 'Can I go back to my book now?'


A Blackbird Sings at Garsington


I am walking through the formal gardens, on my way to pit for the first night of Figaro at Garsington manor. Giant poppies bob their welcome. Rose petals shimmer in the first summer light. Penguin suits and sequinned ball-gowns mill around picnic hampers on the distant lawn. The breathy sound of a flute emerges from the pit. In the big tree above my head a blackbird is warming up for her debut.

Although it is a Mozart night, everyone in the pit is practicing Britten for the rehearsal tomorrow. A violist and I are playing the same hysterical sequence, our hands flying up to the Gods of the fingerboard at high speed. We are three semiquavers apart and creating excruciating dissonances. Another violist is doing long calm bows, centering herself. I take her lead, it being far more suitable preparation for one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written.

The pit and the stalls are full. The conductor arrives. The continuo cello and fortepiano players take their places. Jane is wearing outrageous lime green earrings and Gareth shoves his jeans underneath the piano for a fast getaway. 'We're off to Alton Towers with the kids at the crack of dawn' he explains. The continuo team and the conductor have a mini rehearsal amidst the screaming Britten fragments. 'You lead that bit' says Dougie. 'I don't know what Gareth will think of that' says Jane. Gareth is doing something on his iphone. 'Could Jane lead that bit, Gareth?' says Dougie. 'Sure' says Gareth,...

The lights go down. A robin has joined the blackbird. An elaborately dressed character bangs a stave on the stage as a way to get the punters to shut up, so we can play really pianissimo. And we're off. Not to Alton towers but to somewhere as close as you can get, I imagine, to heaven.

And we are dancing. The speed, arc, bounce and swing of our bows are one. We are one with the bending of the conductor's knees and the dancing of his feet. The night is drawing in and the magic is encircling us. Susanna sings her aria into the indigo sky. She executes a delicious diminuendo and as her voice trails off, the blackbird seizes her moment. She flourishes, pauses and flourishes again, pitches a high dominant perfectly in tune with the aria and shimmies down back to the tonic, diminuendoing all the while.

Then there is silence. Then there is clapping and a glass of champagne. And then there is sleep filled with birdsong.