Moderato (It.)

‘Moderate’, ‘restrained’, e.g. allegro moderato (‘a little slower than allegro ’).

adv. & adj. Music (Abbr. mod.)
In moderate tempo……. Used chiefly as a direction.

‘Moderato’ is one of those rather nebulous musical terms, like andante (“at a walking pace”). If I ask one of my students what it means, they say “moderately”. But what does it really mean? At the most basic level, it is a tempo marking, slower than allegretto, but faster than andante. The modern metronome gives a marking of 96 to 100, a very narrow range – and I would always guard against assigning a specific metronome mark to a piece marked moderato, or allegro moderato, or molto moderato. Like so much else in music, moderato is not just a tempo marking; it also suggests mood and character. It is personal feeling and sense of  music, and one person’s moderato might be rather different from another’s, both in terms of tempo and character.

The opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata is marked molto moderato, literally “very moderately”. And taken literally, that could result in a very slow tempo, virtually alla breve (two beats in a bar), which can make the music appear to drag. Schubert also used the German term mässig, implying the calm flow of a considered allegro. But the word “allegro” suggests a certain character as well as a certain speed, and so the moderato marking is more appropriate, Schubert suggesting in it a graceful strolling tempo. There are many, many different interpretations of Schubert’s marking, resulting in some wildly varying lengths of the first movement. Richter’s is an almost self-indulgent 25 minutes – listening to it, you get the feeling he is thinking about every single note and where to place it; while Maria Joao Pires brings it in at 20 minutes, which feels both fluid and eloquent, and Imogen Cooper at 16 minutes, which is thoughtful and serene. In another recording I have, one which I listen to most often, and used as a benchmark when I was learning the piece,  the movement lasts just over 21 minutes, yet at no point is there a sense of the music stagnating, even in the most poignant sections; it moves forward with grace.

Of course, at the end of the day, all these timings are rather meaningless: one would not notice the time passing at a good performance unless one was pedantic enough to sit there with a stopwatch – and if one was doing that, one would not be concentrating on the music! Creating a sense of the music and conveying mood, colour and shading is more important. One pianist, who shall remain nameless, did take it far too fast for my liking at a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore, and the music just felt rushed, as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. (He also omitted the repeat of the exposition, which is inexcusable, in my view. Without the repeat and the absolutely transcendental bridging figure, one does not achieve a full appreciation of the composer’s intentions in the development section.)

When I was learning the sonata a couple of years ago, I had a tendency to play the opening movement “molto molto moderato”! This was partly to enable me to cope with some of the more tricky measures in the development section, but whenever I played it, I had a terrible sense of the music plodding. When I listen to the piece, I always feel the opening movement suggests a great river broadening into its final course before reaching the sea: unhurried but with continual forward motion. There are moments of “other-wordliness” in this movement as well, which demand sensitive rubato playing and some very fine pianissimos.  There are storms too, but these are short-lived, and do not disturb the overall, almost hymn-like, serenity of the movement. But no matter how often I practised the wretched movement, it always sounded chunky, and “notey”, as if the river was made of treacle through which one was wading painful step after painful step!

Discussing my difficulty with my friend Michael was more a discussion of the meaning of moderato in a literal sense rather than in relation to Schubert. In the end, Michael suggested I tried playing the movement quicker: the difference was instant. Never mind that some passages were still very rough in my hands, the overall sense of the music was of a relaxed serenity and spaciousness. There was still time to hear every note and to enjoy each one, but there was also a much greater forward propulsion, especially in the climactic passages of the development section, which highlight Schubert’s long lines of melody and the overall evolution of the movement. Armed with Michael’s helpful advice and my renewed interest in the work, it was one of the first pieces I presented to my teacher when I started having lessons again, nearly two year’s ago.

In Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, a piece of fluctuating tempos and ever-changing moods and textures, the first theme is also marked moderato. Here, I would read this marking as a much slower tempo than in the Schubert sonata. The mood is very different too: the key is darker, and the off-beat quaver figures and the rather uncertain harmonies, with the prominent use of diminished and dominant seventh chords to add moments of tension which are not always resolved immediately, create a sense of hesitancy in the music, as if it is not quite sure where it is going. After the fioritura, the opening theme returns, slightly elaborated with a sighing quaver figure, but rather than increase the sense of forward motion, I feel the music becomes more suspended; thus when one reaches the direction agitato, there is a far greater sense of climax. This continues right through to the arpeggiated figures and onwards, in a section marked sempre piu mosso. After the great, memorable second theme is heard, the first theme returns, this time in A minor, and the music returns to the moderato tempo and mood of the opening. Here once again, uncertain harmonies are used to contrive a feeling of suspense, while the insistent repeated low E’s in the bass tether the music even more firmly in one place. This is a useful device for introducing another climax, which seems to suddenly free itself from the restraints of the moderato marking; the restatement of the second theme on a far grander scale than its first appearance. So, one could argue here that the use of moderato at the opening of the piece, and its reappearance later on, is a very deliberate device which serves to create moments of great tension, suspense and climax.

An interesting discussion of tempo came up during the piano course I attended in the spring. One of the students played some Bach, one of the French suites, I believe, the opening movement of which he took at such a lick, we could hardly hear the notes. When asked to put the brakes on, the result was charming: measured and elegant. This led to a discussion about “comfortable tempos”: just as one person’s moderato may be different from another’s, it is also true for presto or allegro. Nimbleness of brain and fingers can result in very lively, speedy, clean playing: if you feel comfortable playing at that speed, good for you. But speed at the expense of accuracy or musicality can wreck a piece.

The opening movement of Poulenc’s Suite in C, which I am currently learning, is marked Presto, and on my recording Pascal Rogé takes it at an alarming presto, far quicker than my 44 year old brain and fingers can manage – at the moment. Thus, I am practising it at a “comfortable” tempo; eventually, I hope that comfortable tempo will be quicker – the music needs to sound light yet sophisticated (its C Major key gives it an innocence which should shine through all the time)  – but for the time being I am concentrating on accuracy, with a beautiful sound. It ain’t easy: sometimes just learning the notes is hard enough, without all the other attendant directions and markings one has to take note of and execute!

On the pages of Musbook.com, a sort of “Facebook for musicians/musical people” to which I subscribe, there has been some interesting and rather heated recent discussion about the rightness, or otherwise, of the Royal Albert Hall continuing as a venue for the Proms. Two journalists, Matthew Tucker and Jessica Duchen, have argued eloquently and thoughtfully for a change of venue (see http://www.classicalmusic.org.uk/2010/07/new-direction-for-bbc-proms-change-venue-south-bank-centre.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/classical-music-venues-not-for-the-fainthearted-2036136.html for their articles), and I have to say I agree with them. I have avoided the Proms in recent years because I find the RAH so uncomfortable: it is airless and hot, with insufficient loos and not enough places to have a drink/snack beforehand, or during the interval. I find those corridors that run around the auditorium rather like a dog track, full of shuffling, befuddled people trying to find their seats, and the numbered and lettered entrances are incredibly confusing. The auditorium itself, more like a giant ‘corrida’ than a music venue, is stuffy and on several occasions, I have nodded off during a performance, only to be woken by the applause at the end of a piece. Rather galling to have missed much of Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart when I spent £25 on a ticket!

The real problem though is the acoustic. Despite various attempts to improve it, such as the “mushrooms” suspended from the ceiling, the RAH still ‘boasts’ an appalling acoustic. In a recent interview in International Piano magazine, pianist Paul Lewis talked about performing the Beethoven piano concertos at the RAH at this year’s Prom season: “you need a big piano and you just have to play it loud”. At first I read this remark as simply facetious, but on reflection, I think it is an example of just how up against it performers are with the RAH acoustic. It’s a great venue for music on a vast scale, such as Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (which I have performed at the RAH with massed school choirs), or Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand which opened the Proms this year, but it lacks the appropriate intimacy for smaller scale chamber works or solo recitals.

I am not sure why we sentimentally cling to the RAH as the natural home of the Proms. The concert series originated at the Queen’s Hall (which was bombed in 1941 and subsequently demolished), under the direction of not Henry Wood, but a Mr Robert Newman. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the new BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”.

After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.

So, the Proms have existed at the RAH for less than 70 years, so pressing the case for “historical precedent” seems a little weak to me. I’m all for a complete rethink of the Proms, and have joined in the lively discussions on Musbook.com, arguing for consideration of the South Bank and its excellent venues as a new home for the Proms. Not only does the Royal Festival Hall boast a fine acoustic, but it is also centrally located, being close to Waterloo, is a lively arts and cultural centre, and has many good restaurants and winebars close by, whereas the RAH is out on a limb in South Ken, devoid of eateries and other amenities for pre-concert drinks or suppers.

Supporters of the RAH claim that the “spirit” of the Proms would be lost in a change of venue, but I do not see why this should be the case. The flag-waving can continue, as well as yelling “heave-ho!” as the lid of the piano is raised. Indeed, why not spread the Prom concerts around the fine concert venues of London, places which tend to close down during August, such as the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls (which is currently used for some Proms), or St John’s Smith Square and St James’s? Rather like the London Open House and Art Open Studios events which take place periodically, I would love to see as many music/arts venues as possible across the capital throw open their doors to concert-goers. London is blessed with so many great venues, but which are only known to a select few. One could enjoy a sort of “musical safari”, going from Handel at Cadogan Hall (Chelsea) to Haydn at the Wigmore (West End), Vivaldi at a City church, then up to Highgate for Schubert at The Red Hedgehog, heading south to the Purcell Room for a drop of Bach, east to Shostakovich at Sutton House (a charming National Trust property in Hackney with a very nice, intimate concert space), finishing off with Korngold at King’s Place…..

Another argument for the continuation of the Proms at RAH is its inclusiveness. Anyone can attend a Prom, everyone is welcome, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Actually, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing at any concert venue – and I believe that it’s often the personality or manner of the soloist/orchestra/musical director which sets the tone for the evening rather than what the audience are wearing. Mitsuko Uchida can, for example, make the large space of the Royal Festival Hall feel as intimate as Schubert’s salon. Maria Joao Pires at the Wigmore made us feel we were enjoying music at home with her and her friends, while Stephen Hough turned the hall into a vast, cold and unfriendly place, and Paul Lewis always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere than on the concert platform. When I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Beethoven piano sonatas a couple of years ago, when he presented the entire cycle at RFH, the sense of awed reverence had begun even before we entered the hall, and it felt as if a vast barrier had been put up between him on the stage and us, the audience.

Of course, this whole argument for a change of venue for the Proms is hypothetical, as the process of moving such a great leviathan as the Proms would be far too complex and expensive, and I suspect the vast majority of people – audience, performers, concert promoters – are quite content to remain at the RAH, accepting its shortcomings and embracing its (few, in my view) benefits (capacity being the main one).

But we have a coalition government, which somehow, seems rather daring and new (though not unprecedented). So, why not a coalition of music venues with the single purpose of presenting music for all?

Just a thought……!

A friend of mine, who subscribes to this blog, asked me recently, “What I want to know, Fran, is how the F— do you find the time to write all that stuff?!”. Another friend said, “Why write it if you don’t know if anyone reads it”, evidently completely missing the point of why one writes anything. In anwer to the second question, I write because I enjoy it, and I find that writing about the music I am learning or am interested in, helps to crystallise my thoughts and feelings about it, allowing me time to consider it away from the keyboard.  Also, my visits to my teacher are very precious and valuable, and I would rather work with her than muse about music.

I am often asked how much piano practise I do; when I reply casually, “Oh, about two or three hours a day”, this statement is met with much exclaiming and pulling of eyes: “How do you find the time for that?!”. Sometimes, I am tempted to point out that Liszt allegedly practised for 12 hours a day, and that the average professional pianist puts in at least five or six hours per day, every day. The old adage “practise makes perfect” is definitely borne out by hours of repetitive practise: it’s the only way to improve muscular memory and it breeds a familiarity with the score – its shapes and patterns – that is invaluable. “Thinking time” away from the keyboard can also be classed as practising, as well as reading the score, going through it with a pencil, and listening and reading around the subject.

Regular practise gives structure to my day (and I am the world’s greatest procrastinator when it comes to boring reality tasks!), and a productive practise session can leave me on a “high”, with a self-satisfied sense of a job well done. And, as those who live with me will attest, not being able to practise – for reasons of absence from the piano, illness, tiredness etc – can leave me very grumpy indeed. The sheer physical effort of piano playing is akin to going to the gym: both activities release endorphins, the happy hormones which induce feelings of exhilaration, the so-called “runner’s high”.

During term time, when my time is limited by my teaching schedule (some 8-10 hours per week), my practising has to be highly organised. I don’t do exercises, in the traditional sense of 20 minutes warm up with scales and arpeggios, though I do create my own exercises out of the pieces I am working on (the Chopin Ballade has some useful arpeggiated passages, while the Gershwin Prelude No 1 is an exercise in syncopation and pulse). With at least three pieces on the go at any given time, I set myself clear targets for each practise session to ensure I cover everything I have set out to do. I set my iPhone to “airplane mode”, which means no one can call, email or text me, and try to ignore the doorbell. Then, armed with a mug of Lapsang Souchong, I begin.

Advice from my teacher about good working habits has been invaluable; also the book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green taught me useful concentration and confidence-boosting techniques, which I now try to encourage in my students, especially the adults, who seem far more nervous and unsure of their abilities than the children I teach. But by far the biggest encouragement to keep going is actually being able to appreciate how much I have improved in the last eighteen months: I can hear the difference! And my confidence has been sufficiently raised that now when I open new music, I don’t immediately think “Ooh no, I couldn’t possibly…..”. I do admit, though, to being slightly fazed by Evgeny Kissin’s performance of the Chopin Ballade I am learning: I made the mistake of listening to him playing it only a few days into my work on the piece. It left me feeling utterly demoralised, but now, six weeks into the learning process, and roughly halfway through the piece (with all the really stormy, speedy passages still to learn!), I am delighted with the progress I have made, and am actively looking forward to playing it for my teacher next month.

And I’ve stopped listening to Kissin….

At my recent piano lesson, my teacher suggested I set Chopin’s Etude Opus 10, No. 3 aside for a few months and turn my attention to “one of the bigger works, perhaps a Scherzo or a Ballade?”. Eighteen months ago, not long after I started having lessons again, I would have said “Oh, I’m not sure I am up to it”, and my teacher would have had to bolster my confidence sufficiently for me to actually open the manuscript. This time, I replied, most emphatically, that I would love to learn at least one of the Ballades. In fact, I heard the third and fourth Ballades at the Chopin evening at the Wigmore last Sunday and was struck, not for the first time, at how beautiful and varied they are.

“Learn the first or the third, for sure!” Sylvia said over pre-concert drinks at Tuesday’s concert. The first was in my head already, as I’d been listening to it on my iPod. “I just love the ‘ticking clock’ in the third.”

They are all wonderful, and looking through my just-received Dover edition of the Ballades, Impromptus and Sonatas, it occurred to me, yet again, how lucky we pianists are: to have so much repertoire to choose from. Every taste and ability is catered for. One could spend a lifetime only learning Chopin’s music and still one would not have time to tackle his entire ouevre.

“Too much fodder, not enough time!” is one of my oft-repeated laments, as I consider all the music I want to learn. My obsession with Chopin continues, but I love Schubert too, and Beethoven. Oh, and while we’re about it, I love Mozart, especially his later piano music. And Haydn. Then there’s the Bach Italian Suite I heard on Radio Three the other morning and thought “Ooh, I fancy that too!”. This time last year I was “into” the English Romantics – Delius, Ireland, Bridge. Before that, it was Albeniz, his exotic melodies reminding me of holidays in Andalucia. I am always hearing things on the radio, looking them up and thinking, “I’ll have a look at that next”. This is how I came to learn Chopin’s Etude Opus 25 No. 7, a deeply melancholic work, and my first ever Chopin Etude. By beginning a study of the Etudes, I felt I was striding with giants, for to me, and, I suspect, most serious pianists, the Etudes represent the high Himalayan peaks of the classical piano repertoire. With two now learnt (kinda), it has given me the confidence to tackle some of Chopin’s bigger works. One day I might even learn a Sonata…..

Selecting an appropriate programme for my Performance Diploma could be a nightmare, as I have such varied tastes at present. But that is one of the great pleasures of studying for the Diploma: the opportunity to study repertoire I might have otherwise ignored.

My students are equally spoilt for choice, though they do not realise it yet. At the beginner and early intermediate level, there is a wealth of music, not just “standards” such as easy-peasy Bach, Haydn, Dussek, but reductions of famous works (two of my students played a simplified version of ‘l’Autunno’ from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi for Grade 1 – an imaginative and enjoyable piece), plus huge amounts of newly-written music. One of the most popular pieces I have taught in the last year is John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’, a joyful piece in F major, with a relaxed township lilt and echoes of jazz in its harmonies and syncopation. I try to select music that will suit the individual personalities of my students: most of the boys want to do jazzy, fast, loud pieces or theme tunes like ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘The Great Escape’, but sometimes, doing something like Bartok’s ‘Former Friends’ can be a good lesson in thoughtful, careful playing. Then there is Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. I have taught the Andantino from this suite to about five students, adults and children, and they are all hooked by it. It is easy under the fingers, requiring no hand jumps nor tricky fingerings, but it sounds “different”, with some interesting “crunchy” harmonies. It’s pretty and quirky, and a great introduction to twentieth-century repertoire.

Going back to the Ballades, I sight-read through the first Ballade yesterday, and skimmed through the other three. It’s definitely the No. 1 for me, with its rather stately opening achieved through the use of a Neapolitan chord, and questioning harmonies at the end of the introduction, not fully resolved until later in the piece. It has one of the most memorable melodies (the second theme, introduced at bar 68), and is a work full of contrasting textures and moods. Played badly, it can sound self-indulgent and egotistical. Played well, it spoils the senses, “pure music” in its finest form, allowing both listener and player to form their own personal narrative as the music unfolds.

So, which would you choose?

In the last thirty-six hours my musical life has gone from one extreme to the other, both in terms of genre and venue. Saturday night: jazz legend Courtney Pine at an open-air swimming pool. Sunday night: Chopin at the Wigmore Hall. Monday morning: my monthly piano lesson in Finsbury Park. All special and memorable musical experiences in their own way.

I nearly didn’t make it to the Wigmore. Living in leafy suburbia can be delightful, but on a Sunday there is a frustrating lack of trains into the capital, and if you don’t time your arrival at the station correctly, you can be left waiting for half an hour. It takes me an hour to get to the Wigmore from home and so in order to arrive in time for pre-concert drinks and chat with my friends, I needed to be on the train at 6pm. I arrived at the station, after a somewhat fraught consultation with my son about his plans for the evening (he is just 12, and has the sort of complicated social life no A-list celebrity would tolerate). Having established that he would be having a sleepover with a friend, I set off for the concert. Arriving at the station in the warm early evening sunshine, I wanted to purchase a bottle of water. I reached into my handbag: no wallet, and therefore no concert tickets. I had already missed one train by a whisker, and as I stomped back home to collect my purse, another train swept into the station. The next train was 20 minutes later, thereby denying me my pre-concert drink.

On reflection, I could have gone up to town without my wallet. Sylvia, my regular concert companion and the person who books all the tickets, would have been able to procure a replacement ticket for me at the box office, and I know she would have stood me a drink or two. I was pondering this while broiling on the Bakerloo line. I was alone in the carriage but for two men sitting opposite me, one of whom I recognised as the radio presenter Paul Gambacini. I have enjoyed his programmes, especially his music quiz and the one about the Oscars, but since it was a Sunday evening and he was clearly “off duty”, I didn’t tell him this. I followed him and his friend out of Oxford Circus station and across Cavendish Square, and when they turned into Wigmore Street, like me, I concluded they may well be attending the same concert.

At the Wigmore, the vestibule was crowded with people still hopeful of returned tickets. I bolted down the stairs to the loo, as far as it is possible to “bolt” against a tide of (mostly very) elderly people tottering up the stairs, and then followed the tide back upstairs to the hall. At the door, the young man who had been sitting with Mr Gambacini turned to me and said “Oh, hello! I saw you on the tube. I hope you enjoy the concert.” I was flattered that he had noticed me and said “It should be really lovely. Just the thing for a Sunday evening!”. We took our seats in different parts of the hall (I’m always near the back as Sylvia prefers economy to enjoying a good view of the stage). Sylvia was waiting for me, fanning her face with the very thin programme (“£3! For this!!” she grumbled), and soon after Gefry joined us, and we settled down for what promised to be a delightful evening of readings about and by Chopin – from his letters, from George Sand’s diaries and letters, and observations from other friends and colleagues who had known him (Lizst, Charles Hallé, Delacroix). The readers were the actors Sam West, who looked the part in his long velvet coat, and the painfully thin Harriet Walter. The pianist was Lucy Parham.

The mood of the evening was immediately set by the first piece, the Nocturne Op 48 No. 1, in which there is only momentary relief from its overriding sense of melancholy and poignancy. The readings were interspersed with music: Mazurkas, Polonaises, Waltzes, each half of the concert ending with a Ballade (the third and fourth). The music was not presented chronologically, rather it was selected to suit the mood or context of the readings. The whole thing worked very well; indeed, as the chronology of the readings drew inexorably towards the composer’s cruel treatment at the hands of Georges Sand marking the end of their relationship, and his tragically early death, there were some deeply moving moments. It is all too easy to present a saccharine, sentimental view of Chopin: the effete pianist with the delicate constitution and fondness for lilac kid gloves, coughing consumptively in a cheap, cold room in an unfashionable arrondissement of Paris. The romance and legend surrounding his death goes on: a Polish friend of mine told me that Poles believe he died of “zal”, that particularly Eastern European condition, an inexpressible longing for the homeland, because he could never return to the country of his birth. True, his music is imbued with “zal” – and trying to recapture that particularly untranslatable emotion is one of the most difficult things to do as a performer of his music – but listen carefully and you hear the sounds of nature too: the flora and fauna of Nohant, Sand’s house in the French countryside, which he loved.

In fact, if his letters to his friend and factotum Julian Fontana are anything to go by, the sickly “Chip Chip” (Sand’s nickname for him) was actually an astute businessman, demanding the best prices for his scores because he had bills to pay. And whatever one may speculate about his relationship with Sand, there was a time when she clearly cared deeply for him, as a lover, artistic companion, champion of his art and craft, and helpmeet when he was ill.

The Wigmore programme, entitled “Nocturne” was really charming, and if the piano playing was a little flat and sloppy in places, it didn’t matter. It was a delightful event, imaginatively presented, and I hope it may encourage similar evenings at the Wigmore.

I was planning to play Chopin at my lesson this morning (the E-major Etude from the Opus 10). Playing it at home before my lesson, I felt it really coming together (at last! After 8 months work on it!) but in the end there wasn’t time to play it for my teacher, as we were busy with Debussy, Gershwin and Poulenc. When I said goodbye to her, she urged me to perform the Chopin for friends, and then put it away for six months. This is wise advice: I did the same thing with Schubert’s D960 sonata, after working on it for over a year, by which time I had developed all manner of “issues” about it and was beginning to resent it. Playing it again after a long absence, I learned to love the piece again and I know I will revisit it, ready and willing to learn the rest of it.

In the meantime, my next challenge is a Chopin Ballade – not sure which one yet, but I was chuffed to bits that my teacher reckons I am at least up to it. “Not for the Diploma, just for fun!” were her parting words. I suppose it depends on what one classes as “fun”!!

The day ended with a trip to the cinema with my son, and my best friend and her kids to see ‘Toy Story 3’: unashamed escapism and the happy ending we all craved.

A summer’s evening in mid-July in the leafy suburbs of south-west London, and we’re queueing patiently outside Hampton Open Air Pool – and to those of us who live in the area, this is a very special place: an old-fashioned lido-style swimming pool which is heated and open 365 days of the year. You can swim there on Christmas Day (as I have) and New Year’s Day, you can swim on a weekday evening in April and have the pool almost to yourself, you can sunbathe on the terrace, or on the grass by the pool, and in the summer you can hear jazz legend Courtney Pine perform there.

I heard Courtney Pine at the pool two summers ago, and he and his band were magnificent. It was my first proper experience of live jazz. For someone who spends most of their concert life inside the rarefied surroundings of the Wigmore Hall in hushed reverential silence, jazz played by a UK jazz legend in the open air was something else, and I was completely blown away by it. Not just his fine skills as a performer, but also his generosity of spirit, introducing each member of the line-up in turn and giving each musician a chance to shine with solos and improvs – and they are all highly talented and very committed musicians.

Two year’s ago it rained, that fine rain that doesn’t look like much, but leaves you quickly soaked. It is a tradition at the Hampton Pool open-air concerts to bring a picnic, meet friends, share food and wine, and wait for the musical event of the evening to begin. We huddled under raincoats and umbrellas, passing food in tupperware boxes along the line of camping chairs, and in true British ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ dug in for a cold, wet evening. The ticket price at Hampton includes a swim, and despite the rain, my son spent most of the evening in the pool, until turfed out by the attendants. Then he surprised us by going right down to the front of stage and strutting his funky stuff, holding his hands up to Courtney. Fortunately, the rain stopped by the time the band took to the stage and we warmed up by hand-clapping above our heads and dancing energetically.

Yesterday evening was perfect: the sun came out and we had our picnic in the last warming rays, while big fluffy clouds scudded high above the stage and the occasional aeroplane shimmered in the clear evening sky. The feast laid out on the picnic rug at our feet was a joint effort, a kind of ‘pot-luck picnic’, and we enjoyed homemade falafels, venison pate, smoked salmon, Serrano ham, and my delicate green pistachio macaroons. Wine was served in a plastic jug in plastic glasses, beer was swigged from cans, people talked and laughed, sprawled on the grass, or settled into their picnic chairs. A typically English summer scene. Meanwhile, my son was diving into the pool, over and over again…..

The warm-up act was a Scottish singer called Eileen Hunter, who had something of Cleo Laine in her voice, and sang some forgettable, but pleasing-on-the-ear tunes, music more suited to the end of an evening in a jazz bar, the lights low, a weary barman cleaning up, pausing in his work to listen…… With my current obsession with Gershwin, I was more interested in getting a look at her hands on the piano, to see if I could pick up any technical tips.

The main event began with deep, rasping notes on the bass, shimmering cymbals and snare drum, some notes picked out on the piano – and then, seeming far away, the unmistakable throaty voice of Courtney’s saxophone. Thus, began nearly two hours of the most enegertic, passionate, raw and committed music-making. Courtney explained that his latest tour was a ‘hommage’ to Sidney Bechet, and many of the pieces he played were from his latest album, some familiar, some unknown. What I loved about the whole performance, aside from the music, was the way the musicians interacted. Watching string players in a quartet, you see the eye contact, the little nods and winks, the feet keeping time, and you sense their connection. It was the same with the musicians on stage last night: you notice that they are all watching each other, waiting for cues, listening, marking time before their solo. There were laughs too, some private shared joke between the drummer and the pianist (the amazing Zoe Rahman), who was laughing so much at one point, she had to stop playing. You sensed their sheer enjoyment in the music, as well as their deep commitment.

Toes tapping on the grass, hands clapping, wine glasss at our feet, one felt the audience, still rooted to their camping chairs, wanted to get up and dance, but were a little too restrained; nice, middle-class, middled-aged people just don’t do that! Or do they?

The final number was a sort of ‘township jive’, and soon, urged on by Courtney, everyone was on their feet, dancing, clapping, waving, all our middle-class, middle-aged inhibitions cast off (“we were wild, in the old days”, as Joni Mitchell once sang). Courtney left the stage, still playing, weaving his way through the moving crowd. I turned, and there he was, in front of me, grasping my hand in his, still playing…. He gathered a crocodile of people behind him, and together they Conga-ed around the grass at Hampton Pool, while the rest of us carried on dancing.

It was a wonderful evening, and he is a wonderful showman, who clearly loves what he does, a superb saxophonist and a fine flautist too. And I’m not sure there are many performers who would lead a Conga around a suburban swimmig pool! We left on a high, picking our way through the debris of other people’s picnics to the car.

“I’m going to the Wigmore tomorow night, for an evening of Chopin,” I told my friends as I said goodnight to them. “From one extreme to another!”

Yet, I have a feeling I will experience something of last night’s performance in tonight’s………though perhaps without the Conga.