Racing commentary

In my late teens and early twenties, when I was still regularly playing in competitions, I often wished there could be some kind of voice-over commentary during the rounds the way there is in horse racing and other sporting events. (“…and we’re coming up to the triple Axel…AH! What a superbly executed move. I saw her attempting this last Olympics and she missed it entirely, fell, and injured herself quite badly. What a comeback from this brave young skater! She’ll be in line for a medal now.”) Wouldn’t it be marvellously informative for the audience, and for the other competitors, if there were a panel of experts separate from the often mysteriously-intentioned jury who could give the whole thing some presumption of objectivity? (Of course, the whole notion of objectivity is anathema to an activity such as music, but one hears about so much skulduggery in competition juries that it might, at least, provide some disinterested perspective on how the performers actually did.) I’m thinking the equivalent of the triple Axel might be the notorious octaves passage in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, for example, or those wretched sextuplet passages in the first movement of the Dvořák concerto where you have to contort your left hand into some difficult-to-tune chords while simultaneously getting your bow to bounce. (“Aaand she’s coming up to the sextuplets! Will she make it will she make it will she make it? She’s the favourite in this year’s competition but this has always been her weak spot. She did it in this morning’s rehearsal but that’s no guarantee that she can repeat it…. Ohhhhh! What a comedown, she’ll never win now.”)

This past weekend, I finally got my wish. I was playing a concert at Gonzaga University with my wonderful colleagues, the flautist Leonard Garrison and pianist Rajung Yang. During in the first piece, Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Jato for flute and cello, I became aware that a member of the audience was talking not at all quietly in the front row. I’ve performed so many times with distractions going on that I am, at this stage, more or less impervious to them, so I reinforced my concentration on the music and tried to tune him out.

It wasn’t until we had started the last piece on the programme, Mendelssohn’s D minor trio op. 49 (in Mendelssohn’s own arrangement for flute instead of violin–who knew?) that I realized what this inconsiderate person was actually saying. He was, I kid you not, doing a racing commentary! “Here it comes,” I heard him say to his companion, “it’s coming up, it’s coming up.” We were, as it happens, coming up to a particularly climactic section of the recapitulation. “AH!” he sighed, when the dynamic had come down a bit, “they did it!” This went on and on throughout twenty-five minutes of rather difficult music. “How are they going to do this bit? Oh, beautifully done, beautifully done.” Yes, it was annoying, no doubt even more so for the other audience members, but I couldn’t restrain a little inwards smile.

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