I WAS fortunate to attend a performance of an orchestra in London at the Barbican last week. It was one of the first since the government banned live events last year, and my first since March 2020.
At the start of the evening conductor Sir Simon Rattle emotionally acknowledged the truth that, as well-adjusted the craft had become to the digital possibilities provided through lockdown, nothing compares to the shared experience of audience and orchestra. How right he is.
I have enjoyed several online performances over the past 12 months, but the novelty has waned, and I am not sure how sustainable online playing can be for the future of these great national assets. Art like this is the real thing that you draw into your soul. It cannot truly exist in any other form than in person.
And so, for a change, the London Symphony Orchestra bathed in the sound of us, the novelty of an audience. Filling the hall with coughs, claps, cheers, and the occasional clink of an empty drink container rolling beneath a seat. The final applause and standing ovation mirrored the appreciation Rattle had shown for us in his welcome speech when he simply declared: ‘We need you’.
I don’t think many in the middle classes grasp the scale of damage done to the soul of our nation by locking down. For many the past 14 months has been a more comfortable way of life. A privatisation of the self has occurred, which can be prioritised even in working hours. Working from home is now an embedded and entitled norm, as businesses capitalise on the operational savings of reduced office space.
We don’t yet know the long-term impact on our society and culture (the government never did impact-assess this thing). We do know that the fear propagated by government psychologists has been unethical, based as it was and is on mendacious claims and coercion. And that the toll on mental health – particularly for the young and the abandoned elderly – has been immense.
As one observes the anxiously masked walking the streets, one wonders if many of the population are frozen in a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Is there a plan to undo this soviet level of damage?
As the constantly promised ‘irreversible roadmap’ has now become conditional (they’re blaming the Indian variant), for some the threat of forever lockdowns means more comfort; others dread the prospect.
In his excellent book How Shostakovich Changed My Mind author and composer Stephen Johnson reflects the commentary of quartet player Paul Robinson on music played in person as a spiritual therapy for the severely depressed: ‘You can externalise your own feelings, you can observe them, you can make change, or at least realise that change is possible.’ He goes on to say that playing some of the darkest works ‘was the greatest consolation’ for the unwell.
Our humanity needs art and culture. Simply observing the fine work of a master can offer transcendent reflection. A play can open the mind. A musical lifts the spirit. Curious blobs of modern art can raise a smirk. And of course, the sound of a chamber ensemble or orchestra speaks for the heart what the mind has yet to find the words to explain. All of this has been held at a distance for too long.
This reopening has a sense of the bittersweet, knowing what has been lost. Will it last? Do people care? I don’t think this government are ready to let go of their lust for power just yet. Whatever they are up to, it doesn’t feel good. With Right-wing press vultures circling on ‘the refuseniks’, a sinister air abounds towards mandatory vaccination (why not? They’ve broken every other ethic).
Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra offered some shared joy last week at the Barbican. However, his sonorously biting and ragged First Cello Suite offers a somewhat resonant consolation to these dark uncertain times.
For our shared humanity one thing is certain. Simon Rattle is right: we humans need each other.