The power of music
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - October 3, 2020 - 12:00am

I had a renewed appreciation for the wonder of live music at a concert this week. For months London’s storied venues for drama and music of all sorts have been shuttered. People in the entertainment industry are deeply concerned that COVID-19 will take live performance itself among its casualties. It’s hard to imagine such a situation here, where for centuries the streets have bustled every evening with audiences seeking the latest musicals and plays.

The oldest theater site that’s still in use in the West End (as the entertainment district here is known) is the Theater Royal Drury Lane which opened in 1663. It’s just one of many theaters in the area and it might give you an idea of how busy and vibrant the area is if you consider that at this theater alone some of the world’s most popular musicals had their London outings. Best known to Filipinos will be Miss Saigon starring Lea Salonga which ran for nine years from 1990 to 1999; it’s also where The King and I (1953-1956) and My Fair Lady (1958-1963) played. Right now, Frozen is supposed to be playing but instead the theater – like all the others – is empty.

The UK government gave the go-ahead for theaters to open in mid-August but many still haven’t reopened because of the onerous health and safety requirements during the pandemic. It really is an existential crisis for everyone involved and it’s affecting the whole country. The Music Venue Trust, a charity that aims to protect, secure and improve venues, says 90 percent of the UK’s grassroots music venues may never reopen their doors unless the government continues with a financial support plan that has been in place since March. Owners say they cannot operate at reduced capacity to comply with social distancing rules and still pay rents and rates.

That’s not to say that people are giving up. It’s been inspiring to see how this most creative of communities is living up to its billing. The Barbican, a Brutalist structure in the heart of the old City of London, has announced a reimagined autumn season. There will be a digital audience alongside a socially-distanced live one which will take up less than a sixth of the seats in the hall, which normally accommodates seats close to 2,000 people. This is Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year so the London Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the year is to feature all five of his piano concertos in an extended performance by the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman. The Barbican’s management say it’s “a significant step forward” and will gradually open up venues and provide space for artists and communities to connect online as well as in person.

Another date on the Barbican calendar is the first London concert of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family of seven children ranging in ages from 24 to 11 who play cello, violin and piano. Best known is cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who shot to fame when he played a solo at the royal wedding of Prince Harry to Megan Markle. They’ve been wonderful at keeping people’s spirits up during the lockdown with Facebook lives that provide snippets of beautiful music and glimpses of a family in harmony.

Most moving was the day when they gathered together to play a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” after their mother, Kadiatu, had read a simple message. She even apologized for reading from a piece of paper but said it was “too emotional and too personal to speak off the cuff and it’s too important.” She continued: “George Floyd’s death as the result of racist policy brutality is not a new or isolated phenomenon. The fact it was filmed in such unrelenting detail and therefore witnessed by so many globally, that has, we hope, started a renewed call for change.

“Stuart (the father) and I were young when Stephen Lawrence was killed in London in a violent racist attack. That was 22 April 1993. We were traumatized then and we had hoped that our own children would not have to live in a world where black communities and black families are at the frontline of this social, political and institutional crisis. It is attacking us, spiritually, emotionally and personally. And it is killing us.

“Today’s music is a tribute to those in our communities who have suffered from racism and racist violence, either at the hands of police or others. Music is a testament to suffering, to hope and to love. Let it be a testament to change.”

I could not miss the opportunity to see Sheku Kanneh-Mason play with the small orchestra of young musicians at a small concert organized with great care by a friend at a church in Kensington. There were only two groups per pew and seating only on every other pew. The Fantasia Orchestra could not play in full force because they had to distance themselves too. Even the music was rearranged to accommodate the situation. It worked beautifully.

I always find the experience of a live orchestra intensely moving. There are so many different and complex processes going on in each individual player, each section and the piece itself; the wall of sound they create is a physical force that can hurl the listener to the depths of despair or the heights of indescribable joy. It may well be that the long months without live music meant that I felt its power all the more that afternoon. The sun shone through the stained glass windows as the orchestra and Sheku’s cello gathered us up in the confident generous embrace of truly great music that no pandemic can silence: it’s the creative force of humanity itself.

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