Some magic with Mozart

To what, do you suppose, might Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) – don’t you just love the name?- have been referring in the following statement? ‘It is the most wonderful of all sensations that any man can conceive. It really oughtn’t to be allowed.

A number of ideas may spring to mind, some of them, perhaps, unprintable. But I bet that conducting wasn’t one of them. I now have some inkling of what he meant.

There isn’t a classical music enthusiast who hasn’t at some stage picked up a skewer, knitting needle or makeshift baton and waved his arms in the belief that he or she is controlling a magnificent sound. But it is rare to have that dream realized. Through the introduction of a friend, I was invited by the conductor, Lev Parikian, to attend and conduct at one of his Monday night rehearsals with the London Phoenix Orchestra.

I was allowed to choose the music, and I’m not sure why I chose Mozart’s overture to his opera ‘The Magic Flute‘, (a prime candidate for your first opera experience) especially after someone cautioned that I shouldn’t even consider conducting Mozart, until I had mastered Mahler. Mozart’s tunefulness can lure you into the misapprehension that it ought not to be too difficult, even though I knew otherwise; and it did, indeed, take some persuasion for me to give it a whirl.

Date in the diary, I bought the score and set about learning it as best I could. There was no showing off in this resolve: there were three very good reasons why I wanted to try and commit it to memory. First and foremost was my wish to demonstrate to the players that I had put in the work; secondly, my condition makes turning pages at any speed almost impossible; and finally, I just don’t understand how it is possible to follow a score and concentrate on leading at the same time. If you go to a play or concert with the part in your hand, you cannot possibly give full attention to what you are attending.

Practising to a recording is highly flattering. Whatever you do, or don’t do, the players will all sound fantastic. Being faced with some forty people is something else altogether, and I was under absolutely no illusion as to who needed whom more in this relationship. Conducting from a wheelchair brings further limitations, sight-line being an obvious one; but it was a further incentive to look at them. Far better, in such circumstances, to have the score in my head, rather than my head in the score.

Let’s be clear. These wonderful musicians could have played this piece blindfolded, and certainly without me. But what is also clear is that they were in a very good position to make me look stupid beyond words, and that is the terrifying part. Whilst orchestras want, and are waiting, to be led, the conductor can only hope that he has his team on side: without that mutual trust, disaster awaits. It is a lesson that anyone who manages people in any profession would do well to heed.

To my enormous relief, they all came in together. (In fact, I was so thrilled that I was within a nat’s crotchet of going all maestro-ish and starting again.) I don’t imagine I will ever be asked to start the Grand National. No offence to London Phoenix, but the opening seconds can’t be so very different: you try to gather everyone’s attention, and then you can only hope that they all go off together. And the opening couple of minutes is full of fences, before you can feel remotely comfortable; because, in truth, all you want to do is to start them and then get out of the way. This is the fear at the one-minute point.

We played it right through without a stop. Goossens was not far wrong: it is the human equivalent of turning on a light switch. When you’ve plunged from the top diving board, you just want to go up and do it again. To be in the heart of that sound, to really feel it, is something extraordinary. My heartfelt thanks to Lev, whose own very generous take on this, titled Eurovision and Mozart (and other matters, especially bird watching) can be read on his excellent blog, and the London Phoenix Orchestra: it was a real joy.

So this is what they played. Six minutes of solemnity and comedy rolled into one.


Verdi: master tunesmith

If you’ve never been to an opera, here’s a plea: don’t say “it’s not my thing” until you’ve tried. The reputation that this art form has for being the preserve of toffs and the rich is nonsense and no longer supported by the facts.

Huge strides have been made by all the leading opera houses, and more recently formed festivals up and down the country, to make it accessible to increasingly diverse audiences. Language is no longer a barrier, thanks to almost universal use of surtitles. And cost? Yes, you could spend a small fortune if you wanted to, but you could also attend one for less than the average price of a Premier League football match.

In other words, it just comes down to perception and pre-conceived, baseless opinion. The trick, as a first-timer, is to find the right one. Then acknowledge that you are unlikely to love it all; but like your experience on a golf course, or any other sporting endeavour, you will be teased just enough by a moment of such utter perfection and beauty, that you are left with no choice but to return.

Opera combines theatre, design, orchestra, singing – all major art forms rolled into one. It might seem strange to sing stories, but to burst into song is something we’ve all done at some time; so it is, in fact, entirely natural. To assert that you won’t like opera before going, is to say you enjoy reading and refuse to go to a Shakespeare play: you are depriving yourself of an emotional response which you cannot imagine.

Obvious candidates for a first try are most of the Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro) and Puccini (La Boheme). But perhaps a less obvious contender is Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Verdi wrote 29 operas, and can reasonably be heralded as one of the top three opera composers ever. Rigoletto has a lot going for it: the moving story of a father’s love for his daughter, Gilda, who is raped by his much-reviled employer, the Duke of Mantua, and with whom she then falls in love. Rigoletto seeks his revenge with disastrous consequences. First performed in 1851, it was an enormous success.

Above all, though, this is an opera where the tunes just keep coming at you from beginning to end. It is almost impossible to single out one passage, but the quartet in the final act is a glorious melody with beautiful intermingling of voices. The hunchback Rigoletto is showing his daughter, here sung by the late great Joan Sutherland (nicknamed La Stupenda) what a bounder the Duke is. He is seducing Maddalena, the sister of Sparafucile, the assassin whom Rigoletto has hired to bump off his employer. Pavarotti, who described Sutherland as having the voice of the century, made this part of the Duke his own.

Four voices. Duke proclaiming ‘love’ for Maddalena; Maddalena replying along the lines of “I bet you say that to all the girls”; Gilda observing “that’s what he said to me” (so Maddalena had a point); and Rigoletto doing his best to convince Gilda that the Duke is a wrongun.

If you can overcome a minor visual distraction, you cannot help but delight in these few minutes. There are nearly 2 minutes of applause at the end. It’s really not hard to see why they wanted it to go on. And what a last note from Sutherland!

Go to an opera. Go to Rigoletto. And see how hard it is not to go back.