Some orchestral variations


MUCH FUN, is being poked at Jilly Cooper's new 637 page blockbuster, Appassionata (Bantam Press, £16.99), set in the world of a concert orchestra. But Ms Cooper, already a millionairess through sales of previous books, is well able to take the flak from critical (and envious) hacks. She even joins in the japing, describing her book as a sex and Chopin" novel (no, not very funny).

Anyway, the plot of Appassionata involves a beautiful young US violinist who is dumped by her lover manager, then slashes her wrists, takes up conducting, moves to rural England to direct an ailing concert orchestra, falls for a gay pianist and is finally swept off her feet by a handsome, golden haired, "rebellious" and well endowed Irish horn player called Viking O'Neill.

Sample line of dialogue after our heroine samples Viking: "Now I know why Yeats kept banging on about Irish towers."

I do not get the connection here between manhood and Yeats's typically broken stones of Thoor Ballylee with its laborious stair and bees hiding in the crevices, and the owl building in the cracked masonry and crying out for desolation to the desolate sky, all on an acre of stony ground where the symbolic rose can break in flower, with old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable and the sound of the rain and sound of every wind that blows.

Of course much of the former collection was written in the aftermath of the bitter Irish Civil War when Yeats was not at his most cheerful, and had mixed feelings about rebels.

In other departments Ms Cooper's research seems thorough enough. According to members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with whom she toured Spain and Switzerland for research purposes, she wanted to know for example if there was time during a certain piece of music for an offstage trumpet player to go away, have sex and be back before he was needed again.

This is all very well in its way, but Ms Cooper fails to indicate how this affects the music, surely the essence here. Also, apart from some fairly predictable scenes of applause, the emphasis on these professional/sexual matters leaves out altogether the orchestral effects on the audience.

For example I read the other day that the late Anne Ford Johnson, former wife of Henry Ford II, was a great patron of the Metropolitan Opera Association of Detroit, and one evening threw a party for the members. One of them thanked her, and hoped it would be repeated the following year, whereupon hubbie Henry was heard to say: "I hope not. This goddam opera is ruining my sex life."

Here we have an example of how different musical tastes can reflect substantial character divergence, and it is not too surprising that Henry and Anne later divorced, though only after 23 years (a short time in opera).

Meanwhile the RSNO principal timpanist has expressed his delight that the orchestra's "high class image" has been dissolved as a result of Ms Cooper's book, which apparently "brings it down to your everyday punter".

I am not happy about the mystique of the orchestra player being diminished so that it can (apparently) be made transparent to the "everyday punter", whatever that is. A couple of days ago, the Vienna Philharmonic was described by one critic as the most voluptuous orchestra, performing with the most cerebral conductor (Pierre Boulez) and playing some of the most neurotic music ever composed (Mahler's Fifth).

Does this imply the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra members are voluptuous, sensual, sensuous, luxurious, epicurean and sybaritic? Why of course it does, and that is the way it should be. This is what orchestras and their members should aspire to having their images burnished, not tarnished.

The whole business of "getting to know" orchestra members and appreciating them, foibles and - Heaven help us - sexuality and all, is misconceived. Say you go to the NCH one evening. A pianist and conductor step on stage. They look respectably ordinary, even though their names may well be Tiger (the young, waif like piano sensation from the Outer Hebrides) and Thor (the 28 year old blond conducting hunk from Aarstad). If you are meant as an "everyday punter" to start wondering what they get up to, possibly together, offstage, it will almost certainly prove hard to appreciate the music when they launch the initial variations of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with taut, muscular rhythms instead of the usual flabby stuff and chart a journey through the flatter keys to the more mellow emotional territory at the work's heart, holding passion in check even at the 18th variation until it can be contained no longer.