My night with the Berlin Philharmonic

I have not made any forays into high culture since beginning this blog, as the mission statement indicated I would. Cries of “fraud” and “charlatan” I have not yet heard, in truth, but it does feel that I haven’t honoured the mandate I awarded myself when I started out. Up to now, I’ve felt a bit reluctant to offer opinions on the refined, the recherché, and the avant garde. How initiated does one need to be to dare express thoughts on art that doesn’t make compromises? In this post, I’m not going to pose as a critic, but I will write about the experience of being in an audience for a concert that took place a few months ago.

The title does require some qualification. I have not been to Berlin of late, nor have I seen the full orchestra on tour. But earlier this year in the spring I discovered that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has a string quintet that also tours, and they were coming by my way in April. The evening was convenient, and so I went to see the quintet comprised of Luiz Felipe Coelho and Romano Tommasini on violin, Wolfgang Talirz on the viola, cellist David Riniker, and Janusz Widzyk on double bass.

Their virtuosity was immediately palpable to any untrained ear, but what was also apparent was how lightly but assuredly they wore their brilliance. There was a kind of informality about it that got me thinking about general perceptions of classical concerts. There are conventions that are generally observed both by performers and the kinds of folks that typically turn up for such events. However, they are largely voluntary, and if anything, such concerts are less hidebound and protocol-plagued affairs than many a pop music gig. And while a classical concert is likely to be attended by an older, more middle class crowd, they too can be viscerally stirred by the musical feast presented to them. The response to Widzyk’s efforts in performing Bottesini’s Tarantella for solo double bass & strings approached raucous fervour.

A notable feature of the programme was the youthfulness of the composers when many of the works were written. Mozart wrote his Divertimento in D major, K. 136 when he was no more than 16, Rossini his Sonata a Quattro No. 3 in C major at the age of 12. Digesting this information invited musing on the great debate as to whether a great talent simply arrives or is the result of a huge amount of time invested in dedication to one’s craft. This writer takes the view that while a talent must be honed in order to achieve something meaningful, ability is to some degree innate.

I myself have never exhibited any particular musical ability, but it reminded me of those times growing up when I grasped certain paths in life weren’t going to be followed by me. Whether it is self-flattery or justified opinion, there are certain things I felt were attainable if I decided that I wasn’t content to be a capricious dabbler, and that a particular discipline or sport would be my sole point of focus. Incident and epiphany progressively disabuses one of such notions, or else convincingly demonstrates that one should have been getting a move on long before if aspirations were truly realisable. I never particularly dreamt of being a footballer, for example, but it took watching Esteban Cambiasso playing in the Under 20 World Cup in 1997 to tell me that that particular ship had definitively sailed.

Had I heard these compositions around the same time, I would similarly have mentally crossed out musical composition as being even a theoretical goal at the fanciful end of the scale. However, while I’ve had a few regrets, the knowledge that I am not blessed with prodigious talent is thankfully not something I bitterly agonise over. And on this pleasant spring evening, I was just happy to revel in the privilege of encountering great art mediated by great performers.

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