‘He Could Play A Ukelele And Make It Sound Like A Stradivarius’

It’s backwards day at The Guardian. Arts critics report on various sporting events while their counterparts head off to see the opera, symphony, a modern dance show, a pop concert and a contemporary sculpture exhibition.

Quite an interesting idea although their editor’s instructions to draw parallels is embraced with a little too much enthusiasm at times.

Far and away the best piece of the whole exercise was created by golf correspondent Lawrence Donnegan who saw Yefim Bronfman and the San Francisco Symphony.

“[W]hen this concert ended the audience went (and I use the following word advisedly) bonkers. This reaction shocked me, because I had no idea that people who were into classical music were also into going bonkers at the end of a performance. It was a bit like turning up at St Andrews and seeing the crusty old gentlemen of the R&A stage-diving after Tiger Woods holed a putt to win the Open.”
“Yefim Bronfman is a genius, no doubt, but he didn’t write his own script – Brahms did – and the ending hasn’t changed in the last 150 years, and won’t for another 150. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, writes a new concerto every day, each one better than the last.”

Fair enough, although you could say the same thing about sport most of the time. You know that in the end one side will win and the other will lose. The magic comes not from what is happening but how it is happening. Come-from-behind upsets and brilliant displays of athleticism are what make sport so exciting but we have those in music too.

In the ten years Miss Mussel has actively been attending live performances, she has seen a singer totally command the stage by sheer force of personality despite mediocre rep; an orchestra that plays ok most of the time produce a reading of Mahler 5 that was completely out of this world; a young conductor step in at the last minute and bring the house down and musicians displaying such virtuosity that it makes one marvel at the artist’s control over their body.

What’s different, of course, is that there aren’t 60,000 people screaming after a soloist plays a particularly spectacular passage. This is less true in opera, where the audience is more apt make noise when they feel so moved but on the whole great moments are appreciated in reverent silence. Think of that what you like but 2 minutes spent in the lobby at the interval will put quickly to bed the idea that the moment had gone unnoticed.

If sport has one thing art music doesn’t it is the larger sense of community. Not everyone watches hockey, but there must be something special about playing in the Stanley Cup final and knowing that people all over the continent are crouched in their living rooms completely caught up in the excitement and willing you to achieve more than you ever thought possible.

As much as we would like to protest to the contrary, art music will always be a minority concern. Two possible exceptions are the Last Night of The Proms and the Fourth of July concert with the Boston Pops but for the most part, high culture events fail to galvanize a nation the way The Ashes or the Rugby World Cup do. The obvious reason for this is that orchestras are not affiliated with nationality, so no swell of patriotism is felt in the hearts of concert-goers when things are going particularly well. A warm glow and a feeling of gratefulness to have encountered such beauty, yes. God Bless America, no.

The question is then: does its minority interest make art music irrelevant? To the population at large perhaps but in and of itself, no. There many sports that are followed by far less people than the number that regularly enjoys the opera or symphony. Biathalon for example. Or ski jumping. An event’s popularity may decide its merit as a commercial enterprise but not the value of its existence in absolute terms.

Of course, there are some are chomping the bit to point out that art music speaks to the soul while sport is a mere contest. This line of thinking brings us to dangerous territory: The Value Judgment. It is the postmodern fashion to say that nothing is more valuable than something else and that the lines between high and low culture are arbitrary and without meaning. While this is often a wishy-washy cop-out for those that don’t want to be perceived as the snobs they secretly are, in this case the answer is that most disappointing of sporting outcomes (cricket excepted): a tie. As with apples and oranges, one may be preferred over the other but neither is inherently better.


  1. Diane

    It’s true that the Brahms First Piano Concerto hasn’t changed, but each pianist plays it slightly differently, of course. And, when Yefim Bronfman played it recently in San Francisco, it was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I’ve never liked the Brahms First. All those trills just saw away at my eardrums, but not as played by Bronfman. That concerto was barely recognizable as the same one I’ve heard many times, including several months before in the same venue. Bronfman is the only pianist I’ve ever heard who can play triple forte without banging it out. It’s as if the music somehow just rises out of the piano. San Francisco has many superb musicians in its symphony and audiences who readily express their appreciation for a top-notch performance such as the one by Bronfman this past May. He’s a favorite here and will be back twice next season, including being the star of the Opening Gala on September 3, 2008, when he will play the notoriously challenging “Rach 3.” He’s a soloist who performs all over the world and deserves all the appreciation he gets, and more.

  2. Miss Mussel

    Hello and thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed Yefim’s playing. It’s always lovely to find an artist that can make a piece into something we’ve never heard before. It happens rarely but when it does, it makes all the crap performances we’ve heard fade into the distance.

    We’ve got a bit of San Francisco up here in the shape of the KW Symphony conductor Edwin Outwater.

    All the best,
    Miss Mussel

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