- Birmingham Conservatoire
- West Midlands
Visitors cautiously enter the quite ordinary, but hallowed interior of the city’s Conservatoire. The home of prodigious, youthful talent is an astute frame for today’s marathon performance. And the Recital Hall which echoes of past dreams, successes and failures, is the perfect setting for the unpracticed concert, in which Sarah-Jane Norman invites seven ex-pianists to join her in performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No 3, a notoriously complex and technical piece.
The basic concept recalls the Portsmouth Sinfonia: the infamous orchestra formed completely by untrained art college students in 1970, with hilarious and quite joyful results. But the performers in Concerto No 3 are not untrained musicians: instead they are piano players who have stopped practicing, switched to other instruments or who choose to compose rather than perform. The outcome is far more sombre and moving.
In the hands of the first pianist witnessed, the music takes on a markedly different rhythm than that which Rachmaninoff intended: it is a slow, tentative tempo with stray bursts of confidence, retreating into hesitancy. In the more complex areas, it slows almost to a halt. Although the performer clearly has some skill, notions of genius and virtuosity are neatly deflected in the space of the artwork. Instead, it’s the persistence that is captivating, conjuring up the hours of practice; the agony of music lessons; the exclusivity of the grand piano; the loneliness of the solitary pianist.
Solitude is emphasised in the programme notes, which include a lengthy accompanying text by Norman. She describes her lonely journey from a ‘gifted’ young prodigy to a rebelliously unpracticed teenager to a ‘failed’ musician who does not touch a piano for fifteen years. Her personal story is the wounding and winding thread that weaves through the durational piece – to the extent that it is a little unclear why she did not take on the full twelve hour performance on her own.
But the artist is indeed present: Sarah Jane Norman oversees the handover of musicians, who bow solemnly on exiting. The replacement pianist struggles with the notation, is perhaps more afraid of failure or maybe has yet to warm up. He leans in to scrutinise the music. It would seem that each performer comes with their own degree of confidence; their own style of uncertainty. Behind their gestures lie their own stories of training and practice, of high expectations, of dashed dreams.
Of course, the performers demonstrate that not everyone can be or wants to be a concert pianist. But with melancholic notes seeping from the stage and trickling through the darkness, Concerto No 3 plays precisely and perhaps indulgently on the audience’s own forgotten ambitions. Norman writes that her father has: “the hands of a pianist – they’re expressive and intelligent, his fingers are long, slender, tensile. My father is not and has never been a pianist.”
In the dark, I flex my long, slender, tensile fingers and wonder.
Review originally commissioned and published by this is tomorrow.
Photograph (C) James Allan.