On the way to Brussels station, in the leather seats of the sexy BMW, my lutanist colleague and friend described to me how his experience playing continuo had primed his concentration to such a degree that he had been able to steer himself and his family over a motorway crash barrier, in to and out of a ditch and over a concrete something-or-other at ninety miles an hour to safety, and this week it was not hard to understand why.
In the fourth hour of the semi-finals of the Concours de Chimay I entered a marathon of Handel cello obligati including the musical expression of Lucrezia’s fury over her rape, and the rolling waves from Trionfo del Tempo. I was on a high. Thus far all the candidates had triumphed and we had supported them in doing so. In a selection of dress, voice and gesture from flamboyant to monastic each of them had come on stage and, despite bones rattling with nerves, they had each socked it to the jury. Their austere litanies were rendered poignant by the heart-rending finger picking of Maestro Lindberg, and outpourings of love toned just so by the restraint of Maestro Vinikour Meanwhile, accompanying a lullaby, my bow arm became heavy as a sleeping child’s eyelids.
The wait for the results, thoough tense, was made easier by buckets of champagne, and at last the finalists were lined up on stage. They were not those whom we, the continuo team, had expected and there had clearly been much disagreement amongst the jury. However, there they were, beaming, and you had to love them. And there were the ‘losers’ fighting back the tears in the Gods - and you had to love them too.
To recover from the shock that the floorboard-quivering bass did not get through, I drank even more champagne, which appeared to be on tap all week, and we all retired to little ornate theatre where the Prince had put up a large screen on to which he projected his favourite DVD - a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.
So far we had learned, rehearsed, cut and pasted, transposed, figured and performed forty six arias. Now these scores were consigned to the bin and a new sheaf of songs were handed out, which we had all of Saturday to learn, rehearse, cut and paste etc for the final. Amongst them was one of the most beautiful Handel cello obligato arias, so I clearly had some work to do.
On Sunday, the finals started in the church, live on radio, and immediately things started to go wrong. One of the first candidates, shocked, I suspect, by seeing my music beneath him and possibly not knowing whether to look at it or to trust his memory, ended up at sea in his obscure French cantata, and we were forced to restart. The next candidate came in a bar late but we were able to cover that one pretty seamlessly. The next disaster included the text ‘Fac me’ (still beats me how one can sing that without causing a titter, especially in Church) reeling in circles above the theorbo’s ground bass. Despite the error, my favourite soprano was singing like an angel so, once we had flipped pages back and forth a few times to relocate her, we got an extra five minutes’ sublime music out of it.
For the second part of the finals we returned to the little theatre in which I had come to feel so comfortable, and things started to flow again. Even the candidate who had so embarrassingly had to restart in the church had pulled himself together when others of us might well have taken a royal dagger to our chest.
Whilst an austere mezzo sang about wanting to kill herself to yet another delicious theorbo accompaniment it was my turn to collect myself for the next number in which I had a beautiful but possibly terrifying solo part. As I sat listening, I watched the words ‘Live on Radio’ march through my head, along with ‘Really want to impress the lovely Jill in the jury, my colleagues, The Prince and Princess, my Mum, God, ….’ and ‘That’s the director of baroque music at the Hague in the back row’. I breathed, I watched the words, and as I did so I recognised them just as thoughts that were taking me out of the present, and above all out of ‘service’ – to the candidate and to the music. The medieval song of suicide came to a close and off the soprano and I went. As our lines entwined, pushing, pulling, imitating and commenting, our hands quivered gently with the excitement and I realised I was never happier than this: Supporting a singer with just a glimmer of glory of my own to resist and filled up with love.
The wrung out continuo team then collapsed off the stage for the orchestral showdown where each candidate performed an operatic aria. Crouching on the steps we listened. Everyone sang beautifully but the soprano with whom I had just played, dressed all in gold, sang Rameau’s ‘Rossignols Amoureux’ like a Goddess of the Forest. Her entire being full of wonder, she echoed the flutes and violin standing in for the nightingales in love, and transported me instantly out of a singing competition and into a magical clearing. There I too was turning my head towards the tops of the sunlit branches in child-like appreciation of the birdsong.
Suddenly it ended and we were back in the theatre, the jury standing on the stage, not all of them looking entirely happy.
“And the winner is….”
Not the Godess of the Forest.
“And the second prize goes to…”
Not the Godess of the Forest.
Nor the third, nor fourth, nor the audience prize. No, out of the six finalists she was one of only two to go away with nothing.
After all the swanning around of the winners on stage and the photo-op congratulations, I sat with her in the plush red velvet chairs of the Prince’s living room and described the place where she had taken me during her Rameau. She had tears in her eyes as I assured her that, however her voice developed, if she continued to sing as purely from her heart as she had today she would transport many more of us to magical places, and that, as far as I was concerend was what music was about. I hope I gave her something to take away, even if it was only the knowledge that, prize or no prize, she had a very special gift.
Once everyone had dispersed, the champagne corks popped yet again and the jury, the Royal Family and friends, and the continuo team started to ease up. The dance music came on and I did a mad disco jig with the Prince in front of the fireplace. I’m not sure what came over me.
On the long train journey home I listened to my collague's lute cd three times over as I tried to make the bridge between château and building site, champagne and côtes du Rhone. Julian, meanwhile, was revving up the mini for his contented Prima Donna’s return.
On the phone he told me that, if we could fit the cello in, I got to drive the pepper-white château on wheels home from the station. After the training in quick response and concentration at Chimay, and even on only three hours sleep, I thought I could just about make that.