Saturday, April 3, 2010
Getting the thing I wished for
So, being Easter, I went to hear the Messiah last night at the beautiful Cairp Tahn City Hall. It is a really magical building, with frosted decoration on the ceiling and booths, and grand chandeliers which have a thousand light bulbs. The stage is backed by a massive organ. The woodwork is wonderful and the seats suitably uncomfortable for a building of that age.
Now, I always have mixed feelings about going to the Messiah. I mean, apart from the fact that one has heard it a gazillion times, you never know what you are going to get. I have sat through Messiah’s with a “cast of thousands” – which sounded like Messiah for the very hard of hearing. Then, on the other hand, I have had Messiah on authentic instruments played and sung by males only, wearing wigs. That was an equally strange experience.
I have wept in the Messiah. I have fallen asleep in the Messiah. I have regretted going because I was bored out of my mind and I have wondered why I thought, even momentarily, that I wouldn’t go, because the experience was so wonderful.
So last night, I went, with this “lucky-dip” mentality. Last year, there was a counter-tenor singing the Alto part that was spectacular. This year a mezzo that I had heard before and has a harsh edge to her voice and a tendency to have so much vibrato, that she frequently quavers right off the note – so I wasn’t expecting very much. Nicholas Cleobury was conducting, though – so it stood some chance of being, at least tolerable.
Curiously, there was a row of empty seats in front of me. I looked around the Cairp Tahn audience. Predictably white. A dot, here and there, of another colour but mostly, blindingly, depressingly white.
It started. Cleobury was taking it at quite a cracking pace. The tenor was lyrical and sweet – “Comfort ye, my people”. Suddenly, one of the side doors burst open and in walked a row of young , hip, gum- chewing, black, (I would say) 20 year olds. One of them had a T-shirt which read “Reaching your full potential IN GOD”.
They had the extensions; the dreds; the shiny African-American relaxed and gelled look. They carried bottles of Coke and they seemed intent on sitting in the row in front of me. They showed no sign of guilt or embarrassment at their lateness. They sat down. They giggled at the irritation of the people around them. They whispered loudly to each other, then they settled down to enjoy the performance. They conducted the air. They twiddled their fingers at the string sections. They lip-synced the words, (when they knew the words). If there was the slightest hint of a beat, such as in “Why do the nations rage”, for instance – they jived along with the music, while mercifully still seated in their seats.
Sometimes, with some of the less well-known recitatives and choruses, they started sending and receiving text messages on their phones and passing them to each other to read. They opened their coke bottles with a loud hissing sound. In a word, it was profoundly disturbing. At the end of part one, there was a moment’s indecision on the part of the conductor. They clapped. There was some lacklustre support for them from one or two others in the audience. They complained to each other loudly, that “these people are scared to clap!”
During the interval, I thought about what I was witnessing here. On the one hand, I have long complained about the complexion of Cape Town Symphony Concert audiences. On the other, here I was complaining where black youngsters sitting in front of me didn’t know how to behave!
On the one hand, it is a question of them simply not understanding the conventions. On the other, it is precisely the conventions which have kept people like them outside the concert halls and attending hip-hop events instead.
The point I reached, eventually, was that it was infinitely better for them to be there – visibly enjoying the music of a European composer who died 251 years ago, to them not being there at all. I am not saying that they shouldn’t shut up and sit still during the performance. What I am saying, is that all that kind of stuff can follow.