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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


I have been faced with an unexpected realisation -- at least in the concert context; that concentration is a fragile commodity. I should have realised, of course, for all around us is the advocacy of the 'sound bite'; the need to capture attention within the first few moments or risk losing them; the four-minute pop song; the CD compilations of short classical extracts or truncated concoctions; the radio station day and night filled with single movements, or parts of them, great musical creations served up in small pieces, eventually losing their grandeur to take a place among 'tunes from the shows' and 'greatest film themes'.

My realisation of the fragility of concentration came where I least expected it -- surrounded by a concert audience. We were listening to a strong enough programme, Sibelius, Kodály, Rachmaninov, and I indulged my great joy in having the scores with me, discreetly following the fine orchestra through its paces. After the first piece, a neighbour to my left leaned over and told me, softly through the applause, that he found my page turning 'most disturbing'. I exchanged seats with my companion to put a courteous distance between my pages and the offended one only, to my greater surprise, to have the lady on my other side say she found my 'reading of the book irritating and distracting'.

I began to wonder what was the state of focussed concentration among just those we might expect to be supremely capable of it. What hope, I wondered, for the symphonic argument, the subtlety of the fugue, the masterly manipulation of thematic fragments if the quiet turning of pages could irritate and disturb. Should perhaps even the players refrain from travelling from one page to another, or perhaps the conductor refrain from flailing the air with riotous arms, or the soloist from moving beyond the small space beside the podium, lest the sensitive listener in the audience be distracted. And distracted from what?

I can hardly believe that my neighbours were quite so keen not to miss any semitone and semiquaver in that fleeting moment of disturbance as a page softly turned beside them! Perhaps there is a new medical condition among listeners. Composers seemed to manage. Bach would contend with all his children, Mendelssohn with the Hebrides, Hindemith compose in a crowded railway station and Britten on the top of a London bus. Perhaps I have a mistaken idea of musical concentration, but I had always assumed that it could transcend movement, gesture, even animated page turning (and mine was very quiet) -- anything but intrusive noise which, of course, is sacrilegious.

Copyright © 29 December 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK




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