As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com
It had been a rough week, if you remember. On the Monday, Leonard Cohen added his name to 2016’s long list of casualties, a list soon joined by the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe of blue pantsuits and any faith in humanity you’d held onto after Brexit. As the days rolled by and clicking my ruby slippers together remained ineffectual, my expectations began to rise for the Friday night concert on November 11, featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conductor Andrew Litton, cellist Alban Gerhardt and Antonin Dvorák’s Cello Concerto. I expected the concert would provide a balm to my anxieties, the familiar beauty of Dvorák’s made-in-America masterpiece would stay my wringing hands, and when I would hear his song Leave Me Alone quoted in the second movement, I would be moved by its reference to his first love and not because I wanted to jam my fingers in my ears and shout “LA-LA-LA” until I woke up back in Kansas. Well, not actual Kansas, obviously.
There was one major obstacle that threatened to prevent my escape into Dvorák’s fairytale world of Bohemian heroism, and it was something intrinsic and immutable about me, a characteristic that I couldn’t simply tie to a post outside with a dish of water while I ducked into the concert hall for a bit of soul nourishment. An unavoidable trait that bestows a pervasive bias on my entire experience of a cello concerto, like a four-stringed wooden albatross around my neck.
I am a cellist.
I sense your confusion. Surely this qualifies me quite specifically to critique a performance of a cello concerto? Almost like…being an exp**t?
You would think so, yes. That is what I’d assumed too, and I had even looked forward to enriching one of these pseudo-reviews I write for you with all my years of cello-related experience. All the scratching and scraping, the suffering through Pachelbel’s Canon, the futile attempts to influence pianists to play softer and the furrowing of my brow in gross displays of over-acting. But in a topsy-turvy world where left is centre and right is alt-, it was only a hindrance.
When I should’ve been carried away by the arching lyricism of the first movement’s second theme, all I noticed were the mechanics of portato and the splashes of vibrato. When Gerhardt played the E# that leads to the repeat of this melody with about four centimetres of an up-bow, I thought ‘wow…that bow is amazing’. When he made the choice to play an already high and fast passage up another octave, instead of being thrilled by the virtuosity – which was very impressive – I thought ‘gee, that’s some unfashionable soloist mischief right there’. I waited for my musical principles to inform me how I felt about this, but as I’m equal parts honour thy composer’s intentions and hooray! someone took an artistic risk!, I could only stroke my chin without conviction.
After a week of feeling at odds with how half of the Western world seems to think, I found myself sitting in a concert hall – a place I usually feel at home – sensing yet again that I was adrift of the majority and the cause, disconcertingly, seemed to be the very thing I shared with the soloist. Our common ground was alienating me.
This was not quite the anxiety balm I was hoping for, and my hands danced together combatively as I tried to find an explanation. Did I know and love this concerto too much? After all, it was the first piece of classical music I became obsessed with in my early teens, listening to it repeatedly in the car and often through headphones to placate my siblings. This was despite my annoyance whenever any potholes disrupted the Discman I was using (you might have to google what that is, children of the noughts) as I sat in the fold-up, backwards-facing rear seat of a Volvo station wagon (…and that).
Was it Gerhardt? His sound was enormous and his instrumental mastery complete, but although I’m certain he must love this music just as I do, I couldn’t feel it being shared between us. Could everyone else? I imagined so, and their raucous applause at the end confirmed it. Now I wasn’t just the alien, I was also the culprit in an it’s not you, it’s me case of failing communication. I knew it. I should’ve stayed at home.
Not that I’m the first to feel that way, of course. Probably everyone in that concert hall had been on at least one side of that situation in their lives, delivering or hearing the news that someone’s love must go unreturned. For such adversarial times, it was slightly odd to realise we were all united by our experiences of heartbreak and disappointment, an all-embracing unity that would even include Donald Trump himself, that cartoon villain and epitome of the adage the world is your cat café. He’s probably avenging the feeling, Leonard Cohen made a career out of it, and Dvorák felt the power of its creative impulse too.
The story goes that in 1864 he began teaching a talented young actress named Josefina Cermáková and fell hopelessly in love with her. In the absence of any hint of her own romantic interest, Dvorák displayed more wisdom than many a teenage Morrissey fan and kept his feelings to himself, choosing silent suffering over outright rejection. His song Lasst mich allein (‘Leave me alone’) is known to have been one of her favourites, and he quotes an altered version of its melody in the slow movement, an outburst of passion that follows the idyllic main theme. This was in 1895, some 30-odd years after falling for her, and 22 years after marrying her younger sister, Anna.
Yep, really. Seems awkward, but those were different times. Maybe Anna never had any inkling of this history, maybe she didn’t care, or perhaps the whole thing is merely apocryphal. After all, consider how the story claims Dvorák kept his feelings to himself and yet here we are, discussing those feelings more than one hundred years later. We can thank Josef Suk for blabbing to Dvorák’s biographer and thus adding a fertile layer of frustrated love and secret pain to Dvorák’s mythology. Certainly it deepens the pathos of the cello concerto, particularly the coda of the final movement, which Dvorák rewrote after hearing news of Josefina’s death upon his return to Prague from America in 1895. The result is an extended passage of exquisite nostalgia, full of sorrow and a longing for something treasured, now lost.
As concertmaster Dale Barltrop began the short yet beautiful violin solo in that final coda – a reminiscence of the Leave Me Alone melody – I thought of the America that Dvorák departed all those years ago as a homesick immigrant, sailing past the Statue of Liberty and all she symbolised back then. Remember Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus? ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…send these, the homeless…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’.
Something treasured now lost, indeed. Almost makes you want to make America great again, doesn’t it? To return it to a time when the most celebrated golden door in New York was watched over by a statue nicknamed the Mother of Exiles and not by the National Guard at the foot of a tower in Manhattan? Well, you can’t. You can’t undo any of it, not the United States election, not Brexit, not the unrequited declaration you made, not the unwelcome declaration you received, not the text you shouldn’t have sent, the last drink you shouldn’t have had, the deadline you just missed or the whole block of chocolate you ate in one go.
That’s just how this all goes, but at least we can time-travel with music. As Gerhardt began the solo cello’s final note, a long whisper that builds to an enormous climax, I was still in the late 19th Century with Dvorák, wondering if he had been in love with his sister-in-law that whole time. As the orchestra’s final eruption rang out over my head and I began to applaud, I noticed that my hands had been resting quite peacefully in my lap and my ruby slippers had been kicked off under the seat in front of me. While I hadn’t felt Gerhardt’s love, Dvorák’s had eventually short-circuited my anxieties and assuaged my alienation, despite my wondering all week whether the artistic voices of dead white men should even be heard at this time. And although my thoughts had been stuck in dichotomies for days – left and right, us and them, sweet or savoury – here was one, Dvorák and I, with a clear culprit.
It felt good that it wasn’t me, for once. And it felt good to not be at home with a racing mind for company, going hoarse with a finger in each ear. In the midst of all of this careening humanity, sometimes you just need to put your pride away and turn to someone – friend, lover, long-dead composer, dog – and mumble: ‘don’t leave me alone’.