I recently found myself in an unusual position. I had the bank holiday weekend off. Even more unusual was that the weather was good. For those of you not familiar with the traditional British Bank holiday, it usually means enduring hours of traffic jams to get to the seaside whereupon the heavens open. I think it’s possibly no longer just a tradition, but the law. So I was delighted to find myself with a well earned weekend with my family. My eldest son is currently obsessed with buying a classic car. Specifically a Classic Mini. I was alarmed to discover that it was called a Classic Mini. All it is is...well, it’s a mini. An old mini. A nice piece of rebranding that does several things at once. It makes me feel old. It differentiates between the BMW MINI and the… er...Classic Mini. It also gives a boost to the market value of rust. Adding ‘classic’ onto the front of a car marque is a bit like calling a jumble sale, a vintage clothing fair. Some are classics, but there are an awful lot of polyester cardigans with holes in the sleeves going for a lot of money. Anyway, I digress. We went to Mercedes Benz World to a classic car show, where owners observed our approach to their vehicles with the twitchiness of a trigger happy border guard.
There were MGs, Triumphs, Mustangs, VWs, Pontiacs and even a few ‘classic’ minis. There was one guy who had a 1962 split screen VW Camper. It was made to look a bit old, rusty and unloved. It’s called the ‘rat’ look I believe, where rust is painted on, corners are purposefully worn away to look preloved and little disheveled. It gives the illusion of a life well lived.This of course is completely different to an old, rusty and unloved camper which is exactly what it says on what’s left of the tin. What was amusing about it was that the guy who owned the vehicle had placed mirrors underneath the body and opened the engine bay so that we could see and marvel at just how well kept his unloved looking camper van was. It all seems a bit bizarre to me.
All afternoon in the heat of the unseasonal weather, high speed 2015 era AMG Mercedes driven by trained drivers, took white knuckled passengers around the track adjacent to the show. The low, aggressive sound of the engines hocketed around the site, the squeal of tyres turned heads and the explosive acceleration so close to where I was standing was impressive. It was the fast and intoxicating fun of the younger members of the crowd as a bribe from parents who’d dragged them along to look at ‘proper’ old cars. You couldn’t help but look momentarily as the rasp of the twin exhausts drew your attention...but it was a fleeting flirtation. My eyes kept being drawn back to the old cars sat calmly next to their exuberant descendants on the track. The patina of the paintwork, the smell of the leather seats worn smooth by thousands of journeys to unknown locations and the odometers which had passed zero twice over in pursuit of the open road. An old TR6 with a wedge of bills 2 inches thick sat in full sun, it’s deep red paintwork revealing depths dreamed about on the young pups racing across the field. I looked in and the smell of the leather and wood was an intoxicating aroma; the file lay open with a bill from 1971, the year I was born. A repair for a broken suspension arm from a garage in southern Italy. Was that an overenthusiastic young man on a mountain pass? Two lovers escaping a disapproving family and pushing it too much over a bumpy back road? Maybe, but they sat on those seats and looked at a different world through that windscreen...who knows what stories it could tell. Despite the speed of the cars going round and round next to me, there is something more interesting about those classic cars.
We’ve had a classic this week at work. André Previn. Now in his eighties, a little slower than he once was but with that unmistakeable fire in his eyes. If you were at the Previn concert, you’ll know just how difficult it is for him to get up onto the stage, across and into the chair from which he now conducts. The level of respect, admiration and/or anticipation is such however, that despite his lengthy journey to his central position, the applause from the sold out audience and band alike is loud, warm and sustained; there will be no embarrassing silence while we wait for him to sit - in fact, he even manages a sorry I’m taking so long wave in the process!
We perform Rachmaninov 2nd symphony. The combination of the recording from the early 70’s in Kingsway Hall with the LSO and Previn is considered one of the greatest of all time. I had a cassette of it when I was a teenager which I wore out on my walkman. I can still remember the brown cover and more so the electricity which poured from my headphones. It’s an incredible performance marked for me by the depth and vibrancy of the string sound. It’s like a living, breathing organism that glowers and shines, soars and plummets. It is unmistakably the LSO and unmistakably Previn.To be able to be part of this legendary combination 40 years later is astonishing. Previn may look physically slow but his mind is as sharp as ever at the first rehearsal.
“Good morning. So...Rachmaninov. Do you guys still need the dots?”
“And the other piece is...oh yeah, my violin concerto. You guys played it before?”
We have, we assure him (we gave the premiere a decade ago)
“Well good. I looked at it last week and I sure as hell don’t remember it!”
He sits, a tiny presence on the podium until he raises his arms, and all of a sudden his arms and hands seem longer than I remember and they drip phrasing. He looks around, smiling at familiar faces as the opening of the symphony unrolls. His right hand carves the tempo, constantly flexing, and his left hand scoops and swirls the music. Suddenly his eyes spark and a beat before they come in, he spins on his chair towards the first violins. He raises his left hand and shakes it, demanding vibrato from them. Snap on the beat, they come in. Roman leaps out of his seat like a greyhound from a trap and the section follow. The music bursts off the stage at the first passionate outpouring of the symphony, the strings vibrate like their lives depend on it. Previn grins like a schoolboy...and there it is. There is that sound, dragged out from 40 years ago, the sound I heard as a dreaming teenager of this orchestra. It takes my breath away momentarily. There are few conductors who can change the sound on a sixpence with one gesture - but he can.
The roar at the end of the concert is deafening and nobody mentions that comedy sketch anymore, they’ve just heard something better to talk about. The real classics have a story to tell that only time can write. They have that real patina of a life lived and when they need it, they have the roar of sound that can silence the youngest and loudest Mercedes.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.