Quartet for strings and defibrillator


The Kopelman Quartet playing Haydn and Shostakovich at Wigmore Hall this morning was cause for both joy and melancholy.

The joy came from the performance itself, evoking fond memories of great quartets of yesteryear, such as the Alban Berg and the Borodin (in which Mikhail Kopelman was first violin for 20 years).

It’s not my intention to attempt a review here – suffice it to say that the art of musical performance is dying under the blows raining on it from musical nonentities peddled like any other ‘celebrities’ by concert organisers and record executives who know little about music, and care even less. But it’s not quite dead yet, and stubborn holdouts like the Kopelman Quartet remind us of its past grandeur.

This was by far the best chamber recital I’ve heard in at least a decade, and for once it deserved a standing ovation. But it didn’t get one, and not because the audience didn’t appreciate the playing. They did, and they clapped their palms raw.

No, the reason for no standing ovation was more medical than aesthetic. I don’t know how to put this without coming across as crassly insensitive, but most people in the audience would have had difficulty getting up on their feet.

I’m 68 years old, and I don’t often feel young these days. But I did this morning, realising I was at least 10 years under the median age of my fellow listeners. Most of them, those whose locomotion was unassisted by Zimmer frames, could hardly reach their seats, and those contraptions averaged more than one per row of seats.

Actuarial statistics being what they are, I feared at least one coronary event was likely, somewhere between Shostakovich’s slow-movement recitative and the waltz in the finale. The hope loomed large in my mind that a defibrillator-equipped cardiac arrest unit was standing by somewhere backstage.

Mercifully my macabre fears weren’t realised. Having clapped themselves out, the young at heart courageously drove their Zimmer frames down the aisle, in the general direction of the free glasses of sherry on offer. A defibrillator, even if available, wasn’t called into action. I was happy for my fellow listeners, but also sad.

Now I’ve mentioned actuarial statistics, chances are that, by the time I reach the median age of today’s audience, most of them will no longer be with us. Who, I wonder, will flock to Wigmore Hall then? Where will the audiences come from?

In the past, a recital of this calibre would have been attended by swarms of young people, many of them conservatory students. This morning I didn’t espy a single youngster with (or even without) a violinist’s callus on the left side of his neck.

This could have been a free master class for them, and yet they chose to skip it. Perhaps they realise that learning to play their instruments with depth and sensitivity isn’t what’s going to make or break their careers. In fact, judging by the level of today’s young musicians, such qualities would disqualify them from success.

Music is indeed a dying art (you understand I’m not talking here about vile, electronically enhanced pop excretions), and it’s running out not only of real musicians but also of real audiences. By the looks of it, before long it’ll run out of audiences, full stop.

Granted, the hall demographics change noticeably when a giftless celebrity like Lang Lang is playing at the South Bank or the Barbican. One does see many younger people then, which makes one even sadder.

That those youngsters are prepared to pay king’s ransom to hear yet another nonentity raping music, while neglecting to attend performances by true artists like the Kopelman Quartet, shows that the situation is even worse than I think.

These pimply youths join forces with greedy musical businessmen to kill music by vulgarisation – to encourage an aesthetic fusion between music and pop. The same type of people play both, because the same type of people like to listen to both – and don’t really know the difference between them.

In our affection for free enterprise we’ve lost the erstwhile understanding that the highest manifestations of the human spirit can’t be flogged like tubes of toothpaste. Very little great music has ever been written (or performed) to appeal to a wide public voting with their cash at the box office.

Businesses must function according to market laws, but real culture can’t. If it starts doing so, it stops being high culture – and then it descends to the lowest possible level on its way to extinction.

Great music has always been produced for few by fewer. Alas, aristocratic patronage has gone the way of aristocratic society – and I’ll leave you with this melancholy thought.

4 thoughts on “Quartet for strings and defibrillator”

  1. So sad and so true. But it may not be the whole story. To get to the Wigmore Hall for a weekend morning concert was, for ex-Londoners like myself (left for the north in 1959) a costly and time-consuming activity. But I could afford to get to the South Place Ethical society at the Conway Hall every Sunday evening in the season. Only as a visitor to London from Scotland have I been able to get to recitals at the Wigmore, and then only after becoming economically self-sufficient.

    What is the audience make-up at suburban London music clubs? Here in Glasgow the majority are elderly, like us, but there are a significant number of younger regulars and subscription-holders.

    The outlook may not be altogether so bleak as the picture you painted.

  2. There are two things, in my humble opinion, that contribute to the sad state of the musical art – the enormous amount of excellent recordings from the past that are easily available, and the fact that the umbilical cord connecting music and its religious origin is now gone.

  3. I hope to God that there will always be an Alexander Boot to defend the great inimitable European culture of the past.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.