Yes. Just so. A series of concerts held in the high-vaulted Firth Hall on the University of Sheffield Campus commencing 17.45.
I meet Mary Dullea on the stage in the Hall. Her welcoming embrace somewhat tempered by the fact that her allotted warm-up time is ticking away and the piano is still under lock and key. Mobile calls, runners dispatched, the key duly arrives. Mary and her page-turner immediately begin practice. Precious time has been lost. She will not appreciate me hanging around, so I leave to join my friends in the cafe downstairs.
17.15. The first of the audience arrives. The start of an intermittent trickle which culminates in a sudden infusion of students three minutes before the concert is to begin.
I have two concerns. The first is that Firth Hall is adjacent to a main arterial road. Four lanes of traffic at rush hour… This, compounded by the imposing presence of a large arched window at the rear of the stage. Concert halls should try not to have windows – and there is a hospital three hundred metres near. My concerns grow into anxieties as I imagine the recital being punctuated by a constant series of strident minor thirds and a wailing glissandi of police and ambulance services racing past. But remarkably this was not to be the case.
I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere thanks to the considerate folk of Sheffield who so kindly postponed their heart attacks, falls from scaffolding and RTA’s for the duration of the concert.
My second concern was that this hour did not constitute the best of times to expect people to attend a concert. My head imaged Mary and me sitting on the edge of the stage kicking our heels staring at row after row of unoccupied seats. But no, there they were studying the programme, texting, reading newspapers, leaning, whispering. A few going to the foot of the stage attempting to catch a glimpse of the scores neatly positioned by a now absent Mary.
It’s time. The students have arranged themselves en bloc. The Hall, the piano and the page turner anticipate and from side stage she is amongst us, welcoming, bowing, smiling, scanning. Settles herself on the piano stool, positions herself, body leaning slightly forward, touches the music, feels for the pedals, listens to the audience, focuses, pauses. Expectancy builds.
Music is suddenly permeating the Hall.. Numbers FOUR and TEN from THE SET. A nice contrast, a gentle easing into what is to follow which is the recently released Piano Sonata No. 9. It’s a good audience. There is an intensity of listening, a concentration. Everybody has become part of the performance. Each person is now an extension of the realisations unfolding before their eyes, in their heads. Each has become part of the synergy.
There is a pause at the end of the first movement and the Director of Performance gets up from the piano and walks a few feet to the foot of the stage, stoops and collects three large pieces of card upon which are attached the pages of the second movement. She returns to the piano and, standing, clips them carefully on to the music stand. Sits, settles again, hovers. The audience have taken a keen interest. This is different, as is the High Order realisation that Mary has already started. This realisation is not quite as “aggressive” or as “violent” – reviewers’ words – as the one on the recording but it again ends with a thunderous cascade of sounds underpinned by a furious repeated ostinato figure low in the base.
The pieces of card are passed to the page turner and yet again Mary goes through her routine before commencing the third and last movement. Forty five minutes of music and perhaps three or four coughs. Not bad for this time of year I think to myself. The applause is enthusiastic. Mary calls me up from the second row. I reach up and take both her hands before turning to the audience. I wait for the applause to cease and briefly thank them for their support. Whilst I wait for Mary some students engage me in questioning conversation and make some interesting and valid points. They have not encountered non-prescriptive music before. It’s all rather novel not having to be told how to play, what to do. The idea obviously appeals.
And then to a nearby tavern. Mary is revived by a glass of Shiraz. A large glass. I am driving back to Manchester so it’s a lime and soda for me. My small circle of friends are gathered around Mary, our conversation competing with another very different genre of music.