It started like this, with a poster in the window of the local bakers:
This cost me a whole pound
We’ve got an orchestra? I thought, since when did Carlisle have an orchestra? I eyed the programme: Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A minor, plus twopieces by Beethoven – the Egmont Overture, and – most tantalisingly of all – the third symphony, the Eroica. At less than a tenner for entry, that seemed much too good an offer to miss. I promptly informed my friends, fellow Beethoven enthusiasts. “We’ve got an orchestra?” they said, “since when did Carlisle have an orchestra?” I reasoned that they might be newly formed – I had certainly neither seen nor heard of them despite living in Carlisle for over a decade. In a city the size and scope of Carlisle something as big as an orchestra ought to have been hard to miss too, especially when as culture starved as one can easily feel when routinely scanning the arts pages only to discover everything interesting happening elsewhere. I don’t mean to exaggerate Carlisle’s status as a cultural desert – it’s not the Outer Hebrides or anything – but a Mecca for all things artful and cultural it most defiantly, some might say proudly, is not.
That said, I have, since becoming a serious classical listener, taken in as much live performance as I could find (and afford). These have included a wonderful series of chamber and solo recitals at St. Cuthbert’s Church, usually of young, as yet unknown, but nonetheless quite brilliant musicians. I also managed to attend a concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra at The Sands, our largest and most prestigious venue, which is to say neither very large nor particularly prestigious (and with notoriously dead acoustics to boot). Upon further investigation – their website – we discovered that the City of Carlisle Orchestra had, in fact, been going for just over fifty years. How, we all wondered, had we managed to miss them? Perhaps the City of Carlisle Orchestra might be a new feather to add to our threadbare culture caps, and, like those previous nights, maybe we would wind up feeling as if we had stumbled upon a rare and hidden treasure. Maybe.
The thing that both attracted and worried me was the Eroica. I say attracted because the Eroica is, in my admittedly amateur view, the greatest symphony ever written. Completed in the spring of 1804, Beethoven’s third massively expanded the dimensions of the classical symphony. It was twice as long as any before it – the first movement alone could swallow whole Haydn symphonies with room to spare – and it revolutionised both what the symphony could do, as well as what it could say. The Eroica has a musical breadth and psychological depth that surpasses even the most penetrating moments of Mozart, and there are passages in the opening two movements that reach an almost stream-of-consciousness-like heightened and sustained intensity of feeling. Even to my untutored ears the importance of the Eroica to the cannon of symphonic literature is obvious. It opened doors to rooms composers were exploring for the next hundred years. Without Beethoven’s third, we would likely still have had Brahms, Mahler and Wagner, but not, I suspect, in the form we have come to know them. In its more extreme moments – such as the gigantic clashing discords that well-up during the opening movement’s expansive development section – the symphony even dips a toe into the waters of the 20th century modernist avant-garde. You can see why the thought of attending my first live performance of this masterpiece appealed.
What worried me, though, was the orchestra: could this unknown quantity really be capable of pulling off Beethoven’s highly complex design? Did this hitherto mysterious group of musicians actually possess the requisite chops for, of all things, the Eroica? There was, we all agreed, only one way to find out. And find out we most certainly did, in spectacular style. The first ominous warning came when another friend told me he had heard the orchestra rehearsing while attending a night-class. “It won’t,” he warned with the impeccably polite diplomacy for which he is justly known, “be the…err…best performance of Beethoven you’ve ever heard.” That much I had already assumed – I wasn’t expecting the Berlin Philharmonic – but not the best still left open quite a lot of room at the other end of the sliding scale of greatness.
The second omen came on the night. Shortly before the performance began I desperately needed to relieve myself. To get to the toilet I had to pass the waiting musicians, which meant walking past them lined up either side of me as they tuned their instruments (a rather dazzling sensation). Leaving the toilet I got stuck behind them as they were filing out, and was within earshot when one of the players leant into the conductor and promised not to commit the same error she had in rehearsal. Oh dear. I then overheard the end of a conversation between two players from the string section, one of whom was attempting to reassure the other with the words: “But we’ve done a lot of rehearsing…”
Umm…that doesn’t bode well, I thought.
I shuffled back to my seat determined to put any doubts to the back of my mind. Nerves were hardly an unusual reaction to public performance after all. Maybe they’d be fine. I was determined to enjoy the music, and genuinely wanted to like the orchestra. The first piece – the Egmont Overture – wasn’t half bad either. Not exactly blazing – they all seemed a bit hesitant and slightly halting – but not altogether irredeemably awful. I leant toward my companion during the applause and said, “That was right on the ragged edge.” “They’ve got a few tuning problems as well,” he noted in return.
Next was the Saint-Saëns, for which the orchestra was joined by the principle cellist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Eduardo Vassallo. Unfortunately for Vassallo, and unfortunately for us, this was also the moment when everything started to fall apart. The gap between soloist and orchestra was simply too yawning to ignore, as Vassallo tore through the score with passion, while the orchestra struggled to keep up with a most mushy and tuneless mess. Though it wasn’t a piece I was familiar with, I knew it shouldn’t sound like…that. Luckily Vassallo’s playing was so beautiful and sufficiently loud enough you could, with a bit of work, tune out the orchestra and concentrate on his playing. All the same, I was surprised at how relieved I was when it ended.
During the interval my companions and I stepped out for a smoke in a state of bewildered merriment. We were all, despite going in with fairly low expectations, shocked at how out-of-tune and out-of-time sections of the orchestra sounded. I’m no musician, but wasn’t staying in-tune and keeping-time the first things they taught you in music lessons? How on earth, we all wondered, were they going to make it all the way through the Eroica? I wasn’t, as previously stated, expecting the miraculous, but if you are ambitious enough to put a work as lengthy and difficult as Beethoven’s Eroica on the programme, the least that can be reasonably expected, you might think, is that you have the basic competence to perform it in its chosen key. Perhaps I expect too much.
Eduardo Vassallo rejoined the orchestra for the symphony, which I thought both brave and rather gallant (I’d have been on the first train back to Birmingham). Perhaps, I allowed myself in one last desperate hope, Vassallo’s presence might bring something out of them. If it did, it wasn’t a difference I could notice. We had problems from the off: the two declamatory chords which announce the symphony’s arrival – as iconic an opening as the more famous fifth – landed with a limp wobble. During the main theme the violins wandered so off-key I winced – the first of several wince-inducing moments. Just occasionally the players seemed to lock in step and at least four or five seconds would go by during which I would have time to think they’ve got it! before a screeching violin or honking horn would rudely remind me where I was.
During the Funeral March – oh god not the Funeral March – I began to feel desperately sad, but not for the reasons I usually feel desperately sad listening to the Funeral March. I felt sad for Beethoven. Sad that his great soul-searching meditation on a hero’s death could be traduced to this flaccid meander echoing round a church in Carlisle on a cold night in November. I felt slightly guilty for even noticing how dire it all sounded, as if I was criticising the acting at a Nativity play, but it was all too turgid to overlook. As the movement drew to its tepid conclusion, I actually saw one of the violinists give a startled miscue – she was out by miles – after which she looked round with a sheepish grin that all but shouted whoops!
The orchestra then took the usually piping, leaping scherzo about three times as slow as even my slowest version, and with none of the sense of unstoppable rhythm that is supposed to drive it along. This movement usually sounds (in dramatic contrast to the Funeral March) like the best day of your life. Here it sounded like trudging back from Tescos in the rain carrying loaded carrier bags on the constant verge of splitting and spilling your vegetables into a puddle. It felt bad enough being unable to suppress my wincing; there were times during the scherzo when it took all my inner strength to stifle a snigger. One of the things I look forward to in Beethoven’s symphonies are those moments when the tumult and whirl of the orchestra suddenly gives way to lone oboe or horn – those voices that ride up out of the crowd and pierce you with a cry. Throughout this performance those moments were fraught with anxiety, as you didn’t know whether you would get past them without hearing a noise like an elephant being jabbed in the buttocks with a broom handle. Try as I might, there was no enjoying this.
All of which was but a prelude to the shambles of the finale. The last movement of the Eroica is an unashamedly show-off all-guns-a-blazing thrill-ride, and one of the most exciting movements in all of Beethoven. At least it usually is. Beethoven’s wildly flamboyant opening cadenza came out on this occasion sounding like tossed aural salad. The orchestra was completely lost. (Afterwards one of my companions confessed he thought it was coming to a stop at this point.) The rest of the movement fared only slightly better. It was all so unwieldy there were times when I had to cover my eyes because I couldn’t bear to look. But they made it all the way to the finish, somehow, to a palpable sense of relief from all concerned.
Walking home I didn’t really know how to feel. Could the rest of the audience, who clapped enthusiastically enough, hear what I was hearing? Together the orchestra and audience all seemed like such polite and welcoming members of the middle-classes that it feels wrong somehow to be rude about the performance. At the same time I wouldn’t want to patronise them – they were awful. I don’t mean to be unfair – they are an amateur orchestra and they played like amateurs – but nor do I wish to be dishonest. It wasn’t like I was angry with the level of technical incompetence on display – I hope what I’ve said seems free from sneering – it was more a feeling of sorrow and bathos that lingers. I can’t deny there was a comedic element to the night also. During the more egregious passages I kept thinking of Gavin Bryars’ notoriously inept Portsmouth Sinfonia, whose mangled renditions of popular classics became such a cult hit during the 1970s. Bryars, though, was being funny on purpose.