The soloist

The start of Spring, and I find myself seated in the Hamer Hall yet again. The last time I was in this very same recital hall was for Year 8 Presentation Night. Lengthy renovations on the Arts Centre discontinued Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performances under its roof, then in June finally reopened to a dazzling inaugural season. If not on acoustics, then I am expecting at least a fresh lease on the seating and decor. The highlights of the night will be the Dvořák cello concerto and Tchaikovsky’s famous Pathétique.

I’ve been going ever since I was a child. I love everything about it. I love the low murmuring of the audience that interweaves with the cacophony of tuning strings. I love the fierce, surging dance of the conductor. I love the way the soloist always comes back three or four times to thunderous applause, with an encore if we’re lucky. I love how being generations younger than everyone else in the audience is the most secure feeling I’ve ever experienced, because it foretells a promise that I will be taken care of in old age too, in this world of muted footsteps on rich burgundy carpet, glass tinkling and enlightened laughter.

Last time I went with a good friend J, we sat next to a little old Russian lady and her husband. She engaged us in exhaustless chatter throughout the break and in between movements with a smattering of her life story; retired journalist, travelling for fifteen years. She told us to think of her if we ever went to Paris, her favourite city, and asked if we were married (!).

Here at Hamer Hall the soloist, a retiring man with a greying mop of hair in a traditional button-up Chinese collar suit, keeps adjusting his glasses and wiping his hands on his suit trousers. After he changes the position of the cello for the fourth time, I am starting to feel nervous for him as well.

The end of the first movement beckons, and he begins to play. As he bows with precision to die for, I am struck by how his whole body tremors, his hair shakes ecstatically to an almost comical degree; I can’t help smiling. When I went to see them perform the Rachmaninov piano concertos a few months ago the force with which the soloist worked the piano took my breath away. At certain points though, the delicate sequences would be overpowered by the full majesty of the orchestra, something I can’t help emphasising with. When I used to play, and we were mounting a crescendo, nothing on earth could stop us from reaching the full climax that was ours. This time it could not be more different – lovely carved phrases, full resonant body. Not a single quaver goes unheard, nor a beat drowned in insignificance.

As I sit in the audience I’m very moved because I’ve never heard this orchestra play this energetically before. The orchestra has lost the singular quality of its different parts and has taken on a seamless togetherness, white, never-ending. Angles pronounce themselves with brilliant clarity: the straight back of the third desk violinist, the taut line from elbow to wrist. Technical virtuosity never ceases to amaze me, but the depth of passion, always veiled by the resolute control with which the musician holds himself, is something I will die trying to grasp. With nothing to focus on visually for the next two hours, my eyes involuntarily zero in on the minutiae of the orchestral anatomy. Curly brown hair escaping from a tightly coiled braid. E is drawing birds next to me.

An hour in, and E and I are utterly absorbed. I’m not voyeuristically spectating some detached group making noise anymore. Maybe it’s because we’re sitting 10 metres away from the stage? Or maybe it’s Tchaikovsky. My grandfather loved his music too, the sombre notes that don’t ever paint a complete picture but rather express such exquisite, astounding complexity, courting the mystical, the fathomless, the inexpressible dream from another life. Music really is to the soul what rain is to the desert.

Heartbreakingly beautiful. Oh to be a chair in this room and live in here forever. An elegant old lady near us turns from side to side, beaming, ‘I had tears running down my face’, she exclaims to her seat partners. The old man behind us gives a standing ovation, he is the only one in the hall to do so. He stands for five minutes, for as long as the applause lasts. Interval, 20 minutes. As if by a collective body clock, everyone trickles back in for the last piece, tutti sans soloist. A few minutes settled into our seats, and the usherette motions down our row, ‘Anywhere you like, anywhere really’. The soloist stands at the end of her arm – the man who moments earlier had us all entranced by his beautiful magic on stage – has chosen to sit among us in unified appreciation of the final piece. There are gasps, ‘well done’, ‘good on you’, ‘magnificent’. The humble Chinese artist, surrounded by admiring Australian seniors, bows and receives the praise quietly.

We get up to leave, but I want to hang back, get in a few words if I can. He makes his way down the row, signing people’s brochures. At last he’s in front of us, I tell him it was beautiful, I loved it. I ask if he has a name for his cello, he laughs and says in his polite, accented English ‘not yet’.

It’s a night to remember, as I am starting to realise all these are. How wonderful it is to bask in the classical sometimes, to revel in history’s success. I don’t have to understand it. I don’t have to analyse it. To simply sit back and listen.

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