Concert: Friends of T.

Trinity College, Cambridge, Saturday February 18 2012

String quartet in E flat Op 71 N°3. Endellion String Quartet.

Sophie Hannah
The Shadow Tree; The Storming; Crowd Pleaser. Read by Sophie Hannah.

String quartet in C Op 59 N°3. Endellion String Quartet.

Symphony N°3 in A minor, “Scottish”, Op 56. Conductor: Harry Ogg, Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra.

Sophie Hannah
The Cancellation; Moderation; The Dalai Lama on Twitter. Read by Sophie Hannah.

Overtures to Flower Drum Song and South Pacific. Conductor: Chris Keen, Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra.

[Note: this is not one of my usual write-ups; it will probably only be of interest to those who knew T.]

An odd sort of programme. But this was not a public, commercial event but a private, “bespoke” one in memory of a very close friend for over 35 years, who died in December. The quirky programme, in which he had, at least in part, a hand, was therefore designed to remind us of T. and his life, acquaintances and tastes. The programme booklet itself had covers in his favourite colour, orange, and illustrations from works in his rooms, including, on the cover, a cat got up to look like Henry VIII over high table in Hall. In the circumstances, I’ve no intention of writing a “review”. Suffice it to say that the Endellion Quartet is considered to be one of the UK’s finest, that the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra (usually just known as “kew-ko”) is made up of the university’s best players, and that Sophie Hannah is a very funny poet.

I will, however, slip in a few comments on the mysteries of acoustics that ran through my mind at this memorable event. It’s often said (with or without a mention of the Musikverein) that “shoeboxes” have the best sound. It had never occurred to me before, but Trinity’s chapel is a shoebox of sorts. It’s a Tudor building, the same shape as the understandably more famous King’s College Chapel, i.e. a single long room with flat ends, flat walls and no transepts: “One long sausage” as I once heard an opinionated undergraduate describe King’s Chapel at a performance there of Britten’s War Requiem. But whereas King’s is all stone and (richly and famously) fan-vaulted, Trinity’s – more modest, as is Trinity’s way - has a flat, wood-panelled roof and, all around, so much strictly 18th-century panelling, with Corinthian pilasters, as to look like an Enlightenment Temple of Reason or Masonic hall.

As a student, I played there many times; indeed it was probably during rehearsals for Haydn’s Nelson Mass, on the chequered marble in front of the altar, that I first spoke to T., he at the rear of the second violins, his usual choice of place, I on the double bass. But I was too inexperienced in those days to have any opinion on the sound, or if I had, I’ve forgotten since. What struck me on Saturday evening was the way acoustics suit some things and not others. The chapel was perfect for the quartets, magnifying the sound marvellously and plunging us into the heart of it: that was the phenomenon that brought Vienna to my mind. For the Mendelssohn, however, the magnifying effect turned to booming: however quietly the players played, it was too loud – a racket, not that I was minded to complain. So you might have thought, with the arrival of extra brass (and the members of the Endellion Quartet, who slipped in modestly, each at the rear of his section just like T.), for the Broadway overtures it would be way over the top. But no, for Rodgers (it always seems odd not to mention Hammerstein, but there were no words) it was perfect: loud and lush. And I imagine we all know how marvellous these scores are played by a proper, decent-sized orchestra rather than a reduced pit band. I wondered if the works had ever been played in the chapel before. Probably not, but at Trinity, no longer a very pious place, if ever it was (T. had once suggested turning the chapel into a coffee bar, replacing the organ with a synthesizer, and the first piece I ever rehearsed there was Satie's La Belle Excentrique)  you never know. So much, then, for my digression on acoustics

To return to T.'s (musical) tastes... He had firm likes and dislikes and expressed them fearlessly: "Bloody Wagner! Fucking populist!" I once heard him shout after stumbling upon Wagner on the radio. Verdi "couldn't write a decent string quartet". And he liked to quote an old (and in fact quite famous) friend of his as saying "Tchaikovsky: keeps wanking and wanking but never comes."(1) But those he revealed to you were no guide to the others he didn't: you couldn't extrapolate. It turned out, for example, that he loved Kurt Weill - and played in the pit for musicals. It will be of little interest to general readers, but if anyone who knew T. turns up here, they might like to read some of the last lines on music I had from him, in a long letter from October 2010:

“I have subscribed to the year’s programme by the Endellion String Quartet, which is marvellous; I have two tickets and take either a musical undergraduate, if I can find one, or [X], provided that there is no “pill” on the programme such as a work by Shostakovich or Benjamin Britten.

“I used to go to the Wigmore Hall for their Sunday morning chamber music recitals, but I’ve not done that recently. I did, exceptionally, go to the Festival Hall for an orchestral concert, all the more exceptionally since the programme included works by Wagner and Liszt, not my usual fare. But the Faust Overture and the Faust Symphony very rarely appear on programmes, and they were excitingly played. The other work was Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, which I adore […]"

I sent him Ann Hallenberg's wonderful new recording of that, too late, in the event, for him to get it. It will, I suppose, end up in the college library, along with the Shahnameh he never got either - the last time I visited Cambridge, and last time I saw him, was for an exhibition of Shahnameh illuminations at the Fitzwilliam Museum in January last year and the book appeared in November.

“And of course there is canned music galore […]." T. had all his CDs on a "juke box" he kept mostly on random and subscribed to Spotify, and of course there was the radio...

"I do turn off quite a lot of what is offered – organ music, opera (2), choral music of a liturgical nature, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Shostakovich all get turned off, and, for other reasons, French Impressionist music. The great classics and romantics stay on, Haydn through Brahms (including his songs) and Fauré (except his songs) giving me great pleasure, perhaps mainly because of their skill. My response is perhaps more admiration than emotional sympathy."

Saturday’s concert, for about 300, was followed by supper in Hall. The next day, for close friends, there was lunch (also conceived to remind us of T - it included haggis and a pudding made of prunes in lime jelly with liquorice ice cream, a typical T. thing; he introduced me to haggis and neeps, and "fly cemeteries" and "pear Lachaise" to college menus)  in the Master’s lodge, and after coffee, under the stiff stare of Queen Elizabeth I in white, a piano recital (Schubert - a very tender moment - Brahms, Debussy – a tease, I suspect, as T. couldn’t abide Debussy…) and some songs; but as I had a train to catch to London and another to Paris, I couldn’t stay longer.

Even for someone as stony-hearted as me, taking leave can be an emotional thing, and there were a lot of farewells to deal with over the two days. To T., first and most of all, of course: this was after all, in effect, the wake for the funeral he expressly refused to have and signalled the end of over 35 years of easy, intimate friendship, learning, travel and fun (a word he wasn't so keen on). But I no longer have any reason to return to Cambridge and suspect, therefore, I may never will. So on Saturday morning I went to bid farewell to the works in the Fitzwillam Museum - only to discover one I'd never seen, a relatively recent acquisition: The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare by Millais, which I stared at long and lovingly before doing a last round of the Italian room, buying a book on Iznik, and setting off in the rain for the concert.

On Sunday morning, thinking it was probably my last chance, I waited for morning service to, as I thought, end so I could get a look at the Arts & Crafts interior of Bodley's All Saints Church, never open when I was an undergaduate. But it turned out to be a happy clappy sort of place, full of young couples and children in pushchairs who were clearly settling in for a smelly buffet lunch, so I scuttled out, disappointed in any case at the poor state of the decoration - and surprised to find so many people in England still went to church.

I wandered across to the river in the sun and looked back at the Wren Library - thinking back to hot summer days on the lawns with friends - and roughly the spot where T.'s rooms (with the famous orange carpet), now empty, always were. I spent some more time in the sunshine sinking in the Palladian façade of the Old Schools and the more classical Senate House while Great St Mary's rang the changes impressively with its peal of 12 bells, to the indifference of passing tourists. And later, after the long lunch (there were cheese and then a savoury after the quaint pudding) as the recital continued without me and I left for the train, I took a final look back across Great Court in the typically pale Cambridge sunset, with the faint sound of the piano from the Lodge and the faint sound of Evensong from the chapel; and flinty-hearted though I am I felt a twinge. I felt another at the sight of the same pale sunset over the house and fields I link with my first love (dead too) at only 19 or 20. Farewell to the friendship of T., farewell to Cambridge, farewell - so it seemed, fancifully no doubt: I should rightly have bid it long ago... to my now very distant youth.

(1) I forgot, when writing this up, that during the symphony T's usual comment on Mendelssohn came to mind: "Typical Mendelssohn: starts with an orgasm." And hearing Ravel on the radio this morning I recalled his reaction to a gift of La Valse: "My least favourite work by one of my least favourite composers."
(2) He made an exception for Carmen.


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