I have been wondering in the last 24 hours how the hell do I start writing about last night’s impromptu Daniel Barenboim concert at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall? Most of the reviews seem to mainly care about the music and trying to judge it as a straight up classical performance. For me that seems to be overlooking the obvious fact that this wasn’t. The two main elements of a mainstream classical performance were missing, a ticket paying audience and a purpose built venue.
From the point I joined the queue it was obvious that there was a healthy mix of ages, most unlike the classical and operatic performances I’ve ever been to. The nature of the free distribution of the tickets (online on the previous day) meant that social media spread the message far and wide and an interesting clued up clientele was able to take advantage of the opportunity. Of course out of the 400 seated guests there was a rather large community of critics that Universal Music PRs seemed to be all too keen to please. That slightly took away some of the innocence of the enterprise but after all it was organised by them and clearly they wanted the widest possible promotion. Most importantly for me there were about 1000 people lining the downstairs floor of the Turbine Hall.
Trying to think the Turbine Hall and judge it as a traditional classical music venue will only end in a gross distortion of the actual experience. Fiona Maddocks in her excellent review for The Guardian described the acoustic akin to a swimming pool and she wasn’t far off. Despite all its faults the venue made the experience unique and added that special occasion ingredient that is so frequently missing at a more orthodox venue. And despite the acoustic the bridge of the Hall felt very intimate, having Barenboim and the musicians of the Staatskapelle Berlin be at arm’s length from my seat was very intimate and almost personal. Again a quality missing from any classical musical barn the world over.
A few churlish critics complained about him playing Chopin at such a cavernous space. And in the usual arrogance of the reviewer they almost suggest he didn’t think of that problem before the show. Of course if the critics have listened enough at one of his mini speeches they would have got the answer. He programmed Chopin for the warmth and because the evening was about communication and reaching out. He pointedly referred to how his Nocturnes and smaller form pieces were arrogantly seen as a lesser form of musical expression and became fodder for educating the middle classes in the art of finding the right notes on the clavier. And the ultimate reason was there between the lines, he wanted repertoire that would not alienate a new audience, a solid starting point.
I have to admit this was my first time I listened to him live and being inclined to more full bloodied pianists his sound was commanding but somehow lacking in power of feeling. But surely the gravitas was there. The excerpt from Chopin’s 1st Piano Concerto was warm and the string players did their best to add body to the paired down orchestration. The standout moment of the night was when he was playing the 8th Nocturne in D flat one of those magical feelings overtook the evening and elevated it, despite the fact the sound of the solo piano was somehow disappearing behind my right ear somehow the mix of venue and music came together. The other three solo pieces were amusing and encouraged further chats with the audience.
Romancing the Turbines
Tate Modern’s architecture is a celebrated brand of industrial chic. It can seem distant and even glacial at times. While he played the Nocturne we could all see the last remaining visitors being escorted from the three exhibition floors above. It was almost an elegant coincidence, the visitors being shown the way out but happening upon the highlight of the evening. Now that would have been a welcome surprise the next time I’m thrown out of a Gallery or Museum! And that part of the audience is the one I hope had their imagination titillated and maybe aroused in them a curiosity to explore orchestral music if they haven’t done so before. For me that coloured the whole evening.
Communication is the conclusion
This very odd concert was an open armed embrace to all present; it had a certain level of warmth and charm that is lacking quite frequently in a lot of music venues. I had not dared to enter one of the concert halls of this city till I started working at the Royal Albert Hall, that brought me into contact with some amazing music that I never knew existed, being able to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic, Martha Argerich, the Halle, the London Symphony Orchestra, and unfortunately too many bad performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra demythologized the nature and the conventions of classical performance. I did not need too many excuses to look out for the next concert or look out for my newly discovered favourite performers. But trying to imagine my 20 year old self happening upon Barenboim’s concert as I was walking out of Tate Modern, the implications of the night become clear. Even if three people in the audience went home on Friday and were intrigued enough to go to an orchestral performance in the near future, then he performed a good deed beyond reproach.
What the world needs is better access to great music not churlish critics nit picking trying to find flaws and to show off their over gorged sense of self. It’s that kind of puritanical approach that makes concert going an activity hallowed and only for the discerning folk. I’ll say total bollocks to all that. Ladies and gentlemen critics, Daniel Barenboim proved you all wrong; this show was an evening of sharing and of creating something out of absolute nothing. A wonderful still centre in this crazy city where love for music, ideas and sharing conquered. All of us can take a lesson out of this evening and try to embrace that excitement and freshly found thirst a new convert has. Trying to allow ourselves to approach each performance not as competitive sport but as a chance to come into contact with great artistry wherever it’s coming from and giving it a chance to enrich our lives.
(Apologies for the length, I’ve been told by a very good source that no one reads 1000 word reviews, this not being strictly that, will hopefully be read by more than two people. Anyway thank you for making the effort; we may rub noses at some future concert!)