the southbank sinfonia – up close

There is a whole dimension of my new life in London that has gone almost unrecorded. I don’t take pictures, don’t put them on Facebook (too often), and don’t even really talk about it too much. For a while, it was enough to just close my fingers around experiences, stunned by the opening up of worlds I had never entered before.

Then two nights ago, D and I were invited to a youth orchestra concert sponsored by EFG, at Bridgewater House. This is a private venue owned by some big Greek magnate, who graciously provides the space every year. So it was interesting, wandering into this white Westminster building to find the preserved vestiges of a different time – gold, gilded and unabashedly opulent. Every inch of the main hall was richly embellished – green and red marble columns rising into intricately carved domes, and panels of painted cherubs and Grecian men and women. If you looked closely enough, ghostly faces peered out of little portals at the congregation below.

engraving of bridgewater house

engraving of bridgewater house

But it wasn’t really the venue that made me want to scribble on the margins of my program. It was the experience of being transported across the emotional spectrum by the work of Western classical masters, rendered with the energy and passion of youth. The Southbank Sinfonia brings together 33 young musicians from all over the world, and provides mentorship as well as dazzling opportunities to perform in venues like the Royal Albert Hall. This was possibly a unique experience, even for them – in spite of the mirrors magnifying illusions of grandeur, it was, in truth, an intimate space. We sat in a back row, a few meters from the orchestra, and could still see the changes in the expressions of the musicians. In turn, it felt like they, too, connected with us as individuals and not one collective bloc.

The real feat was reaching out to people who were entirely unschooled in Western classical music – like us, there by chance. But I found I could follow the program just by listening. Bach’s Pastorale evoked images of Pan, pipers, and the rolling slowness of the countryside. The Marriage of Figaro was a high point, as it struck a chord in memory – here was Mozart, and the unidentified soundtrack from so many pieces of popular culture. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture was a journey with a varying pace – there were serious tones, with a fierce rumbling and the magnificence of thunder – and a descent into the quiet voices of solitude. It was difficult to find the words, but it left me with a strange sense of wistfulness.

Then, of course, there was the “unconducted” piece. The audience was a sympathetic one, and I found myself hoping no one would falter. I admitted to real relief when, in spite of the rasping whispers and rather loud humming of the lady behind me, the piece came to a perfect end and the conductor resumed his place.

The end, I think, was just as it should have been. A high note, with the energy of Beethoven. I thought back to the books read in a childhood I appreciate now, with an anxious Ammi forever wanting to broaden horizons. And I thought, now that I have stepped tentatively into this world, I should record the Firsts.


2 responses to “the southbank sinfonia – up close

  1. Occasionally, I wonder what the point of classical music is. What a frivolous thing to have devoted so much of my life to! How much time spent, how much money wasted on a transient art, on fleeting impressions that can never last beyond the final note? What else could we have accomplished with all that time? Of all things, why this?

    Then I listen, and I remember.

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