Eurovision and Mozart

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The week has passed, bookended by musical delights of contrasting tone and texture.

Eurovision came and went. Every edition seems to me indistinguishable from the previous one, and yet I watch, transfixed by the engulfing strangeness of it all. If I were to stop to analyse it, I would be in awe of the participants’ ability to face an international audience of 200 million and do anything other than whimper inconsolably before staggering off the stage in a welter of tears. But it’s not an occasion for analysis. If it were, we might question the sanity of the whole process, and that would never do.

Each year throws up a handful of songs that would, in other circumstances, if not hold me agog, at least not make me hurl a shoe at the television. But as we all know, it’s not about the quality of the music. When, since Abba, has it ever been? (Rhetorical)

As usual, most of the songs fell somewhere in the broad range between execrable, delivered nicely, to nice, delivered execrably. Spain’s was merely execrable. My tin ear for Eurovision led me to the conclusion that Portugal’s entry, a pleasant ballad marred by the singer’s vocal and physical mannerisms, had no chance. When will I ever learn?

Twitter fell in love with Croatia’s entry, Mike Yarwood meets the Go Compare advert, until it transpired that the singer is a rampant homophobe. Romania pioneered the surely short-lived genre of quarter-tone yodel/rap. Italy gave us a dancing gorilla; Azerbaijan, an inexplicable horse on an inexplicable ladder. Diane Abbott could have delivered a steampunk/bhangra version of ‘My Way’, accompanied by a ukulele orchestra, while sitting astride a pantomime ostrich, and it would have been received with uncritical delirium. It was that kind of night.

In his victory speech, the winner, whose name and song I have already forgotten, deemed it a victory for real music, which seemed to me to show a blatant and wilful misunderstanding of the core principles of the whole shebang. I wept silent tears for real music everywhere.

If the week ended with a high-profile celebration of the musically questionable, it began with an altogether more low-key, uplifting occasion.

Nick’s a lovely chap. Intelligent, engaging, musical.

He also has MS.

We’d been introduced online by a mutual friend. Nick would like to conduct an orchestra. Could I help?

I think so.

The music: Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. The orchestra: London Phoenix Orchestra, who endure me every Monday evening.

For non-musicians I should explain that this music, while familiar to the ear, is hard to conduct (it’s also hard to play, but that’s a whole different kettle of monkfish tails). In the opening moments there are numerous traps into which unwary conductors obligingly fall. There is always a danger that the session can descend into agonising embarrassment as everyone in the room struggles to get past those first few seconds, the collective will of a roomful of people powerless against the counterforce of a conductor’s incompetence.

Nick wanted me on hand, ready to jump in and save the day, brandishing my baton like a paramedic with a defibrillator. But I had a hunch, as I stood by his wheelchair listening to him introduce himself and explain a bit about his circumstances, that I wouldn’t be needed. After the first chord, I knew.

Players often say they can tell whether a conductor is any good before they do any conducting. Exaggeration it may be, but if you can’t always tell before the music starts, once things are under way there is generally little doubt.

Crucially, Nick conducted from memory. For one thing, the music was all in his head, and for another, as he explained, he can’t turn the pages. So he was able to look the musicians in the eye and engage with them directly rather than bury his head in the false safety offered by the notes on the page. And while his wheelchair was undoubtedly a hindrance to visibility for the players at the back, it did remove the usual perception of a conductor looking down on their players from on high.

Most importantly, he knew how the music should sound, and this knowledge informed the quality of his necessarily minimalist gestures. This aural picture of the music forms the basis for successful conducting; its transmission through mime is the tricky bit, its secrets intangible and mostly misunderstood. Many conductors, finding themselves at the centre of the power of orchestral sound, are hoodwinked into thinking it can’t exist without them.

After a few seconds you could feel the thought spread through the orchestra. ‘OK, this isn’t going to be embarrassing. It’s going to be fun.’

And so it came to pass.

It would be easy to think that the orchestra played well for him out of sympathy, but that wasn’t the case. He could have been an arsehole in a wheelchair and you would have heard it in the sound, felt it in the room. But he’s not an arsehole, he’s a lovely guy, and his being in a wheelchair sucks big time.

Equally, had he been a lovely guy with no idea about the music the occasion would have been something to be endured rather than enjoyed. You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to play well against the flow, as it were, when the person at the front is making gestures contrary to the intention of the music.

So Nick’s success at the endeavour had little to do with his manual dexterity or lack thereof. It was to do with him. Here was a man of warmth and intelligence, burning with love for the music, sitting in front of a group of musicians and asking them to play.

And they did.

Now that was a victory for real music.

Nick writes about music here:

And there’s a good MS charity here:

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  1. Thank you, Lev, and everyone in The London Phoenix Orchestra, for making this a truly memorable and enjoyable occasion. I loved every minute of it! Nick.

    1. Wow! Conducting an orchestra has long been one of my absolute dreams – I can’t imagine how much fun it must have been for you. Green with envy! Rob

  2. How lovely – what a great thing to give Nick (who is all of the nice things you say he is) – I wish I’d heard it. And totally agree as well about the Eurovision… though at least it wasn’t one of the over-produced songs which often win. It’s become a complete circus, sending itself up as it obsesses everyone. I couldn’t believe the almost universal comments on FB last night and this morning. We watched ‘Woman in Gold’ on the other channel, all about the culture in Vienna which was decimated during the thirties. Very good movie. But I really don’t want to sound pompous, I’m perfectly prepared to enjoy watching Eurovision and be entertained… but real music??? Ho hum.

  3. One of the things I have always wanted to do is conduct an orchestra – something like the first movement of Beethoven’s fourth (NOT the fifth) piano concerto please – I would be totally and utterly hopeless. I can read music- just – but I have never had any musical training. I am in awe of people who can really conduct and get an orchestra to understand not just what they want them to do as a collective body but also understand the music.
    Conducting is hard work. I read somewhere once that it takes more physical effort to conduct a symphony than it does to play a football match. I am so glad that someone like Nick got the opportunity.

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