A Great Musical Moment

As a student in the music department at Cardiff University (or University College Cardiff as it was then styled) I was obliged to attend a chamber concert at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre every Monday during term time.  While we objected to it at the time, it was an inspired decision by the authorities to inculcate into every single music student – be they budding composer, performer, theoretician, ethnomusicologist, electro-acoustic engineer, researcher or teacher – the core chamber repertoire.  The performances were unfailingly worthwhile, too, given by the university’s resident string quartet (headed, unforgettably, by the one-eyed Austrian marvel, Alfredo Wang) and the resident pianist (the miraculous Martin Jones).  The concerts instilled in me a deep-seated love of chamber music and a passion for the calm and refined atmosphere of an early evening chamber concert which has lasted to this day.

Many orchestras run their own early evening chamber series, and I try to attend as many of these as I can.  Of course, orchestral players rarely make the best chamber musicians, and such concerts are often rather bitty and unstructured.  MPO chamber concerts are certainly no exception, the programmes changing by the minute as personnel find they can’t get hold of the music they have selected or have other commitments which weren’t in their diary when they put themselves forward for the chamber concerts (and often that is no fault of their own, I hasten to add).  All the same, I love attending the MPO chamber concerts not least because the Petronas Philharmonic Hall (or DFP as we call it) makes such a wonderful setting for an early evening chamber concert.  And yesterday’s was a typical example.

During the course of the last five months the programme for the concert had been changed so often that I forget what it was originally and wonder why I decided to call it in the concert calendar “In a Moscow Chamber”.  Indeed, the last changes occurred even as the musicians went on stage.  I had re-written the programme notes the week before, but even then a notice had to be placed at the door of the hall to tell patrons that the order of works had been changed, while one of the musicians had to stand up and announce that the order of movements had also been changed (although she herself rather alarmingly forgot what they were).  As a result, while I knew the musicians would do well (the MPO always does come up trumps), but I wasn’t expecting great miracles with such last-minute shenanigans.  How wrong I was.  The concert included what was, for me, one of the great performances in the history of DFP.  Ironically, I saw no one from management there – no CEO, no GM, no Orchestral Manager, no Business Development staff – but the 300 or so loyal supporters, good honest KL and Klang Valley folk and a smattering of Expats, who did attend can feel the warm glow of satisfaction that comes when you attend a once-in-a-lifetime event.  (Well, perhaps not once-in-a-lifetime, but something very rare.)

We saw –even more than heard – a dazzling piece of contemporary music brilliantly executed by master-clarinettist Marcel Luxon and wonder-pianist Nicholas Ong.  I had studied Marcel’s recording of Matthew Hindson’s “Nintendo Music”, and while admiring his virtuosity, had regarded it as rather a silly piece.  Heard live, I realised it was not only very clever, but a fantastically challenging piece which Luxon and Ong delivered with such superb aplomb that its difficulties seemed almost irrelevant.  We also heard a collection of Piazzolla tangos which, great Piazzolla fan as I am, proved a little too much of a good thing to take in a single setting; but fair play to the musicians – they only put them in the programme a few days ago.

But the real wonder of the evening was Simon Emes and Nicholas Ong giving what was, for me, the best performance of Poulenc’s magical Oboe Sonata I have ever been privileged to hear; and I write as one who heard it performed in the Reardon Smith all those years ago by no less an oboist than Evelyn Barbirolli, and have sat through great performances by Holliger, Camden and most of the other great oboists of our age.  I am proud to regard Simon as a personal friend, but my personal friends are only too well aware that friendship means nothing when it comes to music criticism and if they balls it up, I’m the first to jump on their graves!  So when I say he was outstanding, I really mean it, and I have not met Nicholas Ong at all socially, but I remain in deep awe at the sensitivity, innate understanding and total authority he brought to the piano part.  We could have lived without the garish twin towers batik shirt (did Emes buy it from the souvenir stall at the last minute because he’d forgotten to bring a shirt that fitted from home?), but we couldn’t have lived without the incredible poise, intensity and breathtaking musicianship which transformed this performance into a great musical moment.  At the end, with its almost unbearable tragedy (it was the last note that Poulenc was ever to write), Emes held the entire hall in the palm of his hand and, for once, nobody coughed, nobody applauded and nobody’s clogs rattled on the floor.  The spell broken the subdued applause spoke volumes about the emotions Emes had released in us, and I think we all left the hall, deeper and wiser than we had entered it.  And isn’t that what chamber music is all about?

As a music examiner, I hear Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata more often, I suspect, than anyone else (with the exception of oboe teachers).  I hear it abused, pummelled and attacked.  More than that, for some peculiar reason, whilst writing my note for the concert, I actually sat down and watched a few dozen of the performances which tone deaf, reed-busting no-hoper oboists have stuck up on YouTube.  What gives in these imbeciles that they think their ghastly and hideous efforts to make a noise are of any interest at all to the online public?  The net result of all this exposure to bad performances of Poulenc’s swansong has been to kill off my natural instincts for listening holistically to the music.  I listen to the technique, I follow the score, and I judge a performance by its technical and literal accuracy.  Emes destroyed that disinterested approach in one simple breath and, as the haunting four notes which herald this unquestionable masterpiece sounded out into the hall as if poised in eternity, it seemed as if I was really hearing the work for the first time.  It was a performance which only a true musician could have delivered.  Simon Emes is one of the best oboists around at the moment, and technically he is a player you cannot fail to admire.  But he is also a profoundly gifted musician, and this was a performance which transcended the mere technical brilliance we might expect from him to achieve what every performance sets out to do but few really achieve; it profoundly affected those who heard it by enriching their emotional and intellectual responses.

Thank you MPO, thank you DFP, thank you Monsieur Poulenc but, most of all thank you Simon Emes for one of the great moments in my chamber concert attending career.

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December 2010


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