The answer appeared in front of my third eye with a rare clarity. When asked, not long ago, what I missed most about live performances, I instantly replied: “Everything”.
What don’t I miss? Sure, the online, digital, audio-visual media have their own potential. We can be moved, challenged, intrigued and bored by them. But they do not allow for the enjoyment of a live performance by proxy.
So much was clear last Tuesday, when I had my comeback as a live-spectator in the NedPho Koepel in Amsterdam, during the first one-and-a-half-meter concert by the Dutch Chamber Orchestra, led by Gordan Nikolić. Two notes on context: when it comes to classical music, I am just a hungry layman. When it comes to the ensemble directed by Nikolić, I am just a fan.
Shortly after I moved to Amsterdam in 2014, I attended the program “Balm for the soul”, including Helga Thoene’s arrangement for choir and violin of Bach’s Chaconne. It was one of those evenings. Somewhere in the middle a single sustained high note superseded my ability to cope. I felt a tear roll down my cheek and I took the time to sense it in full, both the tear and where it came from. As the harmonically coated present continued to move forward, the experience added to my recollection of it as something unique. One of the good things about not knowing much is the augmented potential to be surprised, I guess, and there it was: a moment of recreation that did justice to the word, allowing for something within me – paraphrasing Ramsey Nasr – to be rearranged, made anew.
Last Tuesday Nikolić addressed the thirty individuals sitting on individual chairs scattered across the room, individually appointed to us after entering one by one: they would start with the instrumental arrangement of Joseph Rheinberger’s choral Abendlied – another “balm” for us all in this context, and I couldn’t help but smile at his choice of words – leaving the festive Octet for strings in E Flat by Felix Mendelssohn for the end. Soothing and partying. Consolation and joy.
What was it like? It felt familiar, a warm welcome back home. That is, as far as the relationship between myself and the musician’s performance goes. Mendelssohn’s Octet brings the individual ability of each player to the fore, accentuating the tossing around of musical motives between their instruments. A fantastic choice for this first post-lockdown concert, as it put the finger precisely on that essential part of a performance no recording is able to deliver: the astounding, ephemeral power of the event, the organised game of crafts bringing this sound to life in this there and now by means of a felt and shared playfulness amongst people. They do it together, and they do it for you.
As for the Covid-measures, their effect on me were twofold. The limited capacity made me feel even more privileged than I usually do. I felt lucky and grateful to be there, plain and simple. But I also felt more visible and alone, as I didn’t disappear into a collective body in semi-darkness. The longed-for feeling of togetherness got lost in between the chairs. After the concert, the dryness of the exit-protocol (again, a choreographic organisation of bodies moving one at a time, this is not a drill, ladies and gentleman, follow the marks and don’t rush towards the exit) felt other-worldly. In that awkwardness I chose to find solace, a silent act of resistance. Because while I understand the measures, I refuse to accept them as any form of new normality. As Nikolić remarked in his introduction, let us hope this is just the end of the beginning.
Jordi Ribot Thunnissen. Originally published: June 5 2020, Movement Exposed