This is the story of a piano concert that caused a family debate that still rumbles on. The seeds of the debate had been sown earlier at a classical music concert in the fifteenth century chapel in Pont-Croix, a village a few miles from our Brittany home. After the concert, my wife and I talked about the music, which we felt was exquisite, and the chapel, which was beautiful. The possibility of an interaction between the two was left unsaid.
The piano concert took place a fortnight later in a once splendid, but now rather run-down theatre built in 1910. A young pianist, Jeon Youngseob, gave a fine performance of works by Mozart, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, followed by five unannounced pieces played as a series of encores.
After the concert I asked my wife whether her musical experience had been enhanced by being there in the audience and living through the actual performance. My question was prompted by a revelation I had during the piece by Chopin. I was listening intently, and suddenly realised I was there to hear the music as Chopin intended it. Anything else had to be a distraction. The pianist’s hands, his appearance and demeanour were irrelevant, as was the atmosphere in the auditorium, the occasion, or the audience. If I go to a concert I should close my eyes and listen from my own environmental bubble. I felt that I was not alone, as this is the position that musicians appear to take when they are playing. They seem completely bound up in the music as they concentrate on the performance with little apparent interest in anything else. Indeed, if some extraneous event were to intrude, such as the ringing of a mobile phone in the auditorium, they often seem completely thrown.
If the musicians themselves are so single-minded, surely it is legitimate for me to act likewise, even if, on this occasion, it was particularly difficult? I was very aware of the atmosphere – we were an enthusiastic audience sitting in a rather intimate theatre with damp and crumbling, burgundy-coloured walls. And, from the second row of the stalls, we were able to see every detail of the pianist’s fingers as they worked the keyboard, his facial expressions and body movements.
When I discussed my new, perhaps rather purist, ideas with Rohan, I discovered that her take was all together different. The extra ambience had actually added to her experience, she said. We both agreed that in different venues the local acoustics will vary and influence how the sound is perceived. For many, being at a particular concert hall has an important bearing on how the piece feels.
The pleasure for Rohan came from much more than the physical nature of the notes. For her, the atmosphere and the surroundings enhance the musical experience enormously. The anticipation beforehand, the way the orchestra interacts with the conductor, the audience’s response and the feelings engendered by listening in a crumbling theatre or a vast cathedral with light streaming through the stained glass windows, all of these make a real difference to the experience of what she actually hears. Without this, her musical experience would be the poorer, as indeed she had felt at the concert in Pont-Croix.
She drew a parallel with the theatre. The sounds – the words – are important, but the atmosphere created by non-verbal communication is crucial. And, of course, there are some events where the experience is almost only atmosphere. This was the case when, around thirty five years ago, when with 72,000 others we went to Wembley Stadium to applaud Nelson Mandela after his release from years of imprisonment. He spoke and bands played, and the thrill of seeing him in a spotlight peering out from a box up in the Gods, was pure theatre. That moment of emotion, of adoration, shared by us all was magical and everything else has been forgotten.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of my position when listening to music, and it is a view from which I have not been dissuaded, it was the debate about the ideas, and the insights gained, that were more important. For both of us, still learning new facets of each other after almost fifty years of being together, is part of what makes our partnership tick, and that is very special.