I shall open with a confession, and I’m sorry if this shocks anyone: I have never seen The Life of Brian. It is an area of our culture that I have acquired entirely by osmosis and a having seen a few clips – usually after alcohol has been taken. There are other whole swathes of popular culture for which I can talk a good (or if not good, than usually sufficiently convincing) game but have never experienced directly – these may be revealed in later posts, or I may take some shameful secrets with me to the grave.
Talking of the grave, I like to think that I am raging against the dying of the light: quick before Chaos’ dread empire is restored and universal darkness buries all. I like to think that my foolish attempts to become a multi-instrumentalist and gymnast (among other manifestations of the mid-life crisis) in my early fifties – despite little previous indication of any innate ability in either sphere – set me well ahead of the vast majority of my cohort. Last night I had the great joy to meet someone who makes my raging look more like the work of a man only vaguely disappointed before the uncreating word.
Yester e’en, I took myself I took myself by Sprinter Express to Romsey to see a performance of Handel’s Messiah (hence the title) by the Hanover Band and Chorus, plus some rather fine soloists. Arriving a little early (always safest when relying on public transport), I had time for a rather pleasant pint of Tessellate at the Tipsy Pig.
The gig was held in the impressive space of Romsey Abbey and described as The Messiah by Candlelight – and there were certainly lit candles present, but the vast majority of the light was powered electrically. While I may quibble about the light and the lack of heating (the poor choir must have been frozen by the end of the gig), there was no room for complaint about the quality of the music. The Hanover Band play on period instruments and play them with surpassing skill – and the soloists were excellent. Sitting in the front row – my feet were in a position to trip the tenor on his way to perform each aria – the quality of the sound was excellent (it may have been good elsewhere, but I have no direct evidence for this). It was great to be so close to the action for such an iconic choral work, it was particularly astonishing watching the bass (as I am one) singing The trumpet shall sound and his extraordinary breath control – I couldn’t even tell he needed to breathe (if I attempted that aria, people would know of my need to inhale from a couple of counties away!). However, if there is one tune in the Messiah which really grabs at my very vitals, it must be the soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth – somehow it always catches me by surprise (it’s right up there with Ruht wohl from the St John Passion for emotional punch).
During the interval, while a chap raced to tune the harpsichord and I assume the choir tried to get warm, I was somewhat surprised to be recognised by one of the second violins. Now, I have seen the Haonver Band once before but it was ~15 years ago and I was part of an anonymous crowd at the Wigmore Hall. As it transpired, he had played at an Out-take Ensemble gig and remembered my skilled audience-work from there – truly I do need to permanently be on my best behaviour as I could be recognised anywhere!
I was sitting on the right-hand edge of the front row of the central nave and found myself chatting to the pair of ladies sitting next to me. Somehow conversation turned to my attempts to play Valse Lente and Cruella de Vil on the piano and the joy that I find in the slow process of mastery. Not only did one of my new companions (I shall call her J for the rest of this post) also love these pieces, but she could also recommend Joc cu bâtă by Bartók and the Bach A Minor Invention from the same book! The three of us got on like a house on fire – including some mischievous football-related banter between J and the tenor – so well, in fact, that they offered me a lift home (saving a longish wait on the platform at Romsey station). It was on this journey that I discovered just how extraordinary J was.
I would say that J was certainly well into her sixties and quite possibly beyond, but I already knew that she had cycled 20 miles that day. As it transpired, this was very much one of her lesser feats. In very recent years she has skydived, para-glided, climbed Kilimanjaro, Go(ne) Ape and abseiled off the Spinnaker Tower. In her day-job, she is a piano teacher and is corrupting her young female charges in ways that frankly their parents probably don’t (initially) expect from a woman of her age. She also makes my own recent bike accident and recovery look very tame. Recently, she was rear-ended by a car at a roundabout and really quite seriously injured – quite the range of broken bones and lesser abrasions and contusions. Lying on the ground she heard a woman screaming and wondered who it was, before realising she was the one making the noise. Nevertheless, she refused an ambulance and instead insisted – very forcefully – on being taken to the crematorium. Not to cut out the middleman, but because she was due to play the organ at a funeral – which she proceeded to do. She has also continued working through Hepatitis B and her survival from this continues to amaze the medical profession. What a woman! What a role model! I shall have to seriously up my game…
There has been a recent “thing” on Twitter after someone asked users to “name a badder bitch than Taylor Swift”, probably rhetorically. Historians (among others) led, on my feed at least by the lovely Greg Jenner, have been offering some stunning examples from the past. I would definitely add J to the list – and to think, if I hadn’t gone out last night and chatted with complete strangers, I would never have known that such amazing folk live among us!