Nostalgia Ascending

As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com

 

After seeing the program for this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert, I thought I knew what I was going to write about. Featuring Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending with Richard Tognetti, and Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, it seemed clear what was going to happen: the Lark would trigger imagery of tea-soaked pastures, pipe-smoking badgers and other pastoral romances of England, and I would unfurl a narrative about borrowed cultural artefacts and inherited memories; comparing music’s nostalgia-inducing power to an ex-girlfriend’s perfume, wafting Pepé Le Pew-like along the cracked and ever-lengthening path back to my adolescence. See, I even called it Nostalgia Ascending, and like most pre-conceived notions, I’ve stuck with it blindly despite contrary evidence. Most of all, I told myself: Don’t mention the violin.

And just like Basil Fawlty sealing his fate with a pre-emptive prohibition, I’ve goose-stepped straight into it (borrowed cultural artefact: check). Addicts and adulterers will unite behind me on this one, though: telling yourself beforehand not to do something almost invariably ensures you will do it. So here I am, crestfallen, on the verge of writing about that $10 million Guarneri del Gesù violin like every other reviewer of Tognetti has done since Russell Crowe bought it for him in 2007.

Just kidding. It wasn’t Russell Crowe, and I haven’t just blown the anonymous donor’s well-guarded identity. It did seem like a plausible rumour at the time, given that Crowe enlisted Tognetti to teach him the violin in preparation for his role in Master and Commander. Although, that is a bit like asking Simone Young to instruct you how to hold a conductor’s baton, or Heston Blumenthal how to cook toast, or Lionel Messi the best way to tie your bootlace. A waste of a world-class expert is what I’m saying. Anyway, even if you wanted a famous person to teach you how to fake being a violinist, surely you’d ask André Rieu.

[COUGH!]

Don’t mind that: it was just the audience of this 2pm concert, fortuitously timed to distract you from that very low-hanging-fruit of a joke. Hopefully the audience doesn’t do it right at a moment of deep poeticism, though. Hopefully. People wouldn’t do that, would they?

I’ve long been a fan of Tognetti’s, but less as a violinist than as the artistic director of the stellar Australian Chamber Orchestra, which he has led since 1989. His creativity and artistic ambition as represented by the ACO is thrilling and often revelatory, but his own playing always reminded me of Ivry Gitlis, whereby an overall sense of line or phrasing is eschewed in favour of note-by-note details, a sudden fast bow on this note, no vibrato here, buckets of it there, etc., and so on. The surface details are interesting and the colours arresting but he often loses me, my emotional engagement unable to keep up with this sonic game of snakes and ladders.

As the eponymous lark makes its ascent in the Vaughan Williams, this style of his was more effective than I had predicted, flitting here and there, sudden bursts of energy giving way to gliding plateaus, catching a zephyr up to the high stratosphere of the fingerboard then dive-bombing down to the lowest register of the violin, the G-string melody prosaically square, hovering amongst the plodding humanity before shooting skywards once more.

As far as musical symbolism goes, grasping the Lark is fairly straightforward. Even before hearing a note you’re given a descriptive title and several lines of the George Meredith poem that inspired it. Perhaps this ease of digestion is one reason for its remarkable popularity, regularly the victor in classical versions of the Hottest 100 (yep…they happen). Or perhaps it’s because the Lark fulfils Vaughan Williams’ own criteria for a great artistic experie-

[COUGH!]

Ah, you again, audience. Are you going to interrupt all the way through this? How about putting your hand over your mouth? Or even just closing it?

Well anyway, this is what Williams said:

            There is a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend, which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folksong, when I first saw Michelangelo’s Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.

It’s a subtly moving sentiment, and I’ve spent some time turning it over in my mind, tossing it from hand to hand, pulling and prodding to try and understand why. And I think I’ve got it. It’s love. Isn’t it? Not Romeo and Juliet, can’t-live-without-you Mariah Carey love, but just, love. Romantic or platonic, meeting a new lover or new friends, it’s the same. When we’re drawn to someone new it’s because there is something familiar, as of meeting an old friend, a feeling that you’re already at home together. Getting to know them is like curling up with a book that has been sitting unread on your bookshelf for years. Gosh, it’s a little bit beautiful when you think about it.

Perhaps this explains the popularity of the Lark. When I hear it, I see patchwork countryside, farmers in gumboots, hedges and stonewalls and teapots and scones, sepia photographs of soldiers, browns and greens, wartime, red cheeks, nose hair, cardigans, white cliffs, whitecaps, gusts and clouds and ruffling feathers, war memorials, the Last Post, Peter Rabbit, Postman Pat, and gout.

Hmm, something’s going on here. I’ve been conditioned, and something about the Lark is cutting the net containing each and every association I have about rural England, and they’re rising unrestricted into my consciousness like helium balloons let loose at the country fair. It’s a similar story with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances: as the second movement opens with the blaring of muted trumpets, I’m thrust into a film noir, into the back of a taxi in the black and white rain, my dame resting her bob-cut hair on my shoulder, clutching the lapels of my gumshoe’s jacket.

I’m glad my own imagination casts me so dashingly, but that association is only mildly wild. Rachmaninov, a Russian, lived much of the second half of his life in America, and the Symphonic Danceswas the last work he completed before his death in 1943. Like Vaughan Williams, he was often ridiculed for being anachronistic, and the comment made by The Times critic about the Lark’s premiere in 1921 – ‘it showed serene disregard of the fashions of today or yesterday’ – expresses a sentiment often aimed at Rachmaninov too.

At least with the Dances I know the nostalgia I feel is my own, having performed it at a National Music Camp once upon a new millennium. Many perfumes take my hand and waltz me back to that time in theDances, but nowadays I hear more of Rachmaninov’s nostalgia in the piece than my own. There’s a gorgeous moment at the end of the first movement, just before the march loses its fizz and promenades off into the sunset (a mood Sir Andrew Davis captured perfectly), where Rachmaninov quotes a theme from his First Symphony. It’s a stunning passage, not just for its sheer beauty but also because the First Symphony was an absolute catastrophe in Rachmaninov’s compositional career, its first performance and reception so traumatic that he didn’t compose again for years (his composer’s block was famously cured by hypnotherapy). To recast it here, just before all tension dissipates, seems to be a remembrance of a long-passed heartbreak, mostly forgotten and yet still with embers enough to cause a fleeting wince. As the surging violins unite to pull the melody downwards, tipping the brash, angular character out of its dinghy and into the waters of lost loves and disappointment, I can picture an aging, homesick and long-exiled Russian, monstrous hands slowly white-knuckling the arms of a chair as –

[COUGH!]

Oh, come on, really?! Just as I was building some momentum, approaching the moment of poignancy that would justify all your concentration, someone had to do that? Man, people are just the worst.

Where was I? Something about violins…oh right, the Guarneri! I’ve reached the end without saying anything about it after all. Well, that’s good. For musicians with excellent instruments, it’s exasperating that the compliment they most receive is ‘wow, that violin has a beautiful sound’. As Jascha Heifetz famously retorted, holding his violin up to his ear after such a comment: ‘Funny, I don’t hear anything’. So I won’t do that, but I will tell you about what it let Tognetti do.

At the very end of the Lark, the orchestra vanishes into silence, stuck at ground level as the violin climbs above the clouds. The last note of the piece is high, long, distant, and disappearing. To briefly get technical, any string player would ensure to play this on a down-bow, meaning the hand is travelling away from the string, making it easier and entirely natural to get softer and softer and fade to nothing. Tognetti, in a genuinely high-wire moment of risk-taking, did the longest and most impressive up-bow I’ve ever seen in a concert hall.

Simply, it was badass. As that lark whose flight we’d been following over woods and lakes and cottage rooftops rose up and up, now just a dot against the sky, his bow went on and on, a final symbol of ascent that was audacious, peaceful and hopeful, all at once. Tognetti brought the artistry and the Guarneri the possibility, and for a few moments, there wasn’t a cough to be heard. They’re quite a couple, he and his violin. Intuition tells me, probably just like old friends.

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