Friday, 6 February 2015

Rhapsody in Blue by Candlelight

Once upon a time, I played the piano and played it reasonably well. Then life got in the way, I played for my piano teacher’s funeral and music became an ever-present sadness but a part of me I thought I had tucked away forever.

Until I started working at Imperial College London. Imperial runs in conjunction with the Royal School of Music, and two floors up in the building that I work in is a suite of piano practice rooms (albeit poorly cared for and largely out of tune). Over the last few months, I have tentatively begun playing again; simple pieces and those that I once knew like the back of my hand. Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise. Pieces I could download from the public domain. Recently, I bit the bullet and bought one of my favourite books of piano arrangements I had back in Australia. I am only playing once or twice a week, my hands begin to ache after a short while, and I find my forgetfulness distressing but I am slowly and surely gaining a little bit of confidence and some of my old ability is returning.

Muscle memory is an incredible thing. Watching my hands move while my brain has little to no idea what is going on is fascinating.

So when I saw a very inexpensive classical piano recital advertised through one of the discount websites, I decided to grab two tickets (and then find someone to go with me afterwards).

It was held in the imposing St Martin in the Fields church right in the heart of Trafalgar Square (which I thought was the Coliseum due to it’s impressive frontage and walked past it a number of times). After being shunted from area to area, Becki and I were finally able to pick up our tickets from a strange man sitting at a makeshift desk with “Groupon” written in texta on a piece of paper. 

Back upstairs we looked at our tickets and realised they were not next to each other. Really? After showing the tickets to the attendant, who had a very what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it and frazzled air about her, we stood, unwilling to be seated apart.

There was a lady standing behind me waiting to be seated, and on impulse I inquired what her seat number was. It was the adjoining seat to one of my tickets, and so I asked if she would be kind enough to swap with one of my tickets so that Becki and I could be seated together. The other seat was not far away, but on the other side of a barrier. After a bit of hesitation, she agreed to switch tickets and for that I am grateful. Thank you, lady! To be honest, I think where she ended up had a better view, so I hope she wasn’t too upset.

We were seated almost directly above the grand piano where the pianist would be facing towards us. This did not lead to a clear view of his hands, but we could see his slightly balding scalp very clearly.

The programme ran as follows, with a slight digression:
Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata
Schubert: Impromptus Nos 2 and 3
Grieg: Wedding Day at Trolhaugen
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No 2
Debussy: Clair de Lune
Chopin: Scherzo No 1
Chopin: Revolutionary Study
Chopin: Black Key Study <- I believe this one was not played, instead swapped for the Fantasie Impromptu
Chopin: Military Polonaise
Rachmaninov: Prelude in C# minor
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Of these, I had played the Beethoven, Grieg, Liszt, Debussy, Chopin’s and the Rachmaninov. The pianist was Warren Mailley-Smith (who I think might have used a profile picture from a few years previously?) and he took to the floor as a hush fell.

He was, of course, very good. One has to be to play to a reasonably large crowd, very difficult pieces, by memory. He felt a tad rusty at first when starting the Moonlight Sonata (only because I know it intimately), but then again - would I have been able to do it? No. So I am not one to judge. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody was one of my favourites - a rousing tune it is and brought back fond memories of my time in Budapest. All of the Chopin’s made my fingers move of their own accord, in particular the Military Polonaise which was one of the last pieces I was learning before I stopped. It is not easy.

The concert ended with a rather strange speech made by a man who biographied the life of Gershwin, which basically reiterated everything written in the programme. He eventually stopped talking and the pianist was allowed to play. 

One of my favourite parts of attending classical concerts is watching the crowd. Some people (the elderly or boyfriends and husbands) get the best sleep of their lives. Others are slouched in their chairs, boredom painted across their faces. A select few are poised entirely upright, ecstasy painted across their faces - these are the ones who, in the interval, walk laps around and inspect the piano. I spend as much time watching the people as I do looking at the piano. 

It was a pleasant concert and the playing was very good. I found his slightly balding head top a little off-putting (I know, how shallow of me!) and at the conclusion of most pieces he bounced the final chord - in two instances I thought he was going to fall backwards right off the stool. But I’ll say it again - could I do it? Not then, not now, so my upmost respect.

Except maybe reign in the violent end-note ricochet...

Finally, thank you to Becki for joining me. As bizarre as it was, I hope you had a reasonably enjoyable evening.


Always with the selfie with the tickets. It's a thing now.