The Beast of Beethoven
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The first person we met in Townsville was Kirtley Leigh Payne, the Barrier Reef Orchestra's glamorous guest concertmaster. She had been chauffeured from her home in Cairns by Bobby, a large, affable Englishman of pastel colours: white hair, pink skin, watery blue eyes. He handed me his business card. Gentleman at Large, it read, against a tastefully lit photo of a naked breast, with a Latin inscription: tete fututure, te saluto (you who are about to go fuck yourselves, I salute you).
Ominous words. I was in Townsville with my trio, Seraphim, rehearsing Beethoven's Triple Concerto for the Barrier Reef Orchestra's ‘Beethoven Extravaganza'. Founded seven years ago, the orchestra is made up of people from Townsville and Cairns, and like any community orchestra it is a mixed bag: conservatory-trained musicians, high-school students, hobbyists. At our first rehearsal, numbers were a little depleted. The principal horn had flown interstate for family reasons, and her replacement had not played the instrument for several years. There had recently been a management coup; several players boycotted the Beethoven project in protest.
Nevertheless, the orchestra made an enthusiastic sound. Payne stood up midway through the rehearsal. "Ladies and gentlemen, the trio is trying to play nuances," she said, eyes wide and earnest. "You have to let them through."
"Yes, indeed," said the conductor, the legendary John Hopkins. "A shimmering effect is what we're after. I'd like to hear the horns, if I may, in bar 112."
A committee member approached his podium. "Don't pick on the horn," she muttered through a tight smile, "or she'll lose her confidence."
Hopkins called for a break. At nearly 80, after a distinguished international career, he might have been enjoying a well-earned retirement. Instead, he was in the tropics at the end of the wet season, coaxing Beethoven from musicians of uneven quality. "The ABC orchestras will take care of themselves," he explained. "I'm committed to the idea of developing community orchestras."
In the next rehearsal, a wind and brass sectional, he coached the horn player through her part. He played an F on the piano; she ventured a B flat. He repeated his F; she scooped down to somewhere between an A flat and a G, then veered back up again. "It's just not going to happen!" she said cheerfully. "Let's move on."
Hopkins came over to me. "I'd like you to go outside and fetch a committee member," he murmured. "Just so they understand what I am dealing with. You see, it all hinges on the horns."
Outside, two committee members were setting up a trellis table for biscuits and cordial. I described the problem. "What if she practises really hard?" one of them asked.
"It's just not going to happen," I quoted.
"But she's a lovely girl, and she's trying," the other said.
I thought of the unforgivingness of this industry, of my piano teacher's words as I was growing up: "I do not accept try." Ideally, in a community orchestra the amateur's enthusiasm complements the professional's expertise, but there can also be a collision of standards. Was this a semi-professional ensemble or a kind of classical karaoke, in which results were less important than having a go? And if the latter, then what were we doing here - and more importantly, what was John Hopkins doing here?
"Some have called me determined," Hopkins said later, with a mineral glint in his eyes. "I prefer dogged. I stand by what I call the Three Ds: dedication, doggedness and difference. You have to make a difference."
I did not ask the question again.
At the last general rehearsal, a committee member announced proudly that she had found a professional horn player in Brisbane who would be flown up in time for the dress rehearsal. The other horn player had (very politely) been asked not to play. Hopkins was pleased, and the rehearsal progressed well until the third movement of the concerto, when there was an explosion in the cello section: a resonant pop, as if from a giant bow and arrow. A tailpiece had broken off a cello and the instrument's strings gradually unravelled, leaving its body mute, naked, a little indecent. The other musicians put down their instruments and gathered round, marvelling. For a few minutes, Hopkins attempted sympathetic noises. Then he cleared his throat: "I'm very sorry that this has happened, but really we must press on."
At the end of the rehearsal, a committee member passed around a flyer outlining the concert's dress code: For women, black sleeves must extend midway to the elbow. Scarves will be provided. Kirtley Leigh Payne's forehead furrowed. "In this weather? No way am I wearing sleeves!"
Bobby came over to us. "The balance needs work," he offered, referring to the sound. He invited us back to his motel room: "Champagne's on me."
At the dress rehearsal in St James Cathedral, on the afternoon of the concert, a committee member confessed that she had booked the new horn player's flight for the wrong day. This had been remedied, but the horn player would not make it until the end of the rehearsal. Hopkins' gaze became steelier. "We will press on, regardless," he said.
I tried the piano. The damper mechanism was broken, so the strings rang out unstopped, as if my foot was jammed on the pedal. "We'll just have to persevere, I'm afraid," Hopkins said.
We rehearsed the first movement, my unstopped strings vibrating with the orchestra's dissonances as well as my own: a delinquent sensation, like pissing in the bathwater. There is a moment in the Triple Concerto's exposition where the piano stops subito, in a classic Beethoven surprise, and the solo cello emerges. At this point, the piano released a dirty bomb of sound and our cellist looked at me in terror, unsure where to place his note. We hovered on the brink of a tantrum, but Hopkins kept going and so we did, too.
The piano tuner arrived early and fixed the damper mechanism. A committee member then announced that the piano was resting illicitly on new red carpet, laid down that morning for the installation of a bishop, so a team of volunteers rushed on stage and worried the piano onto a slab of plywood, where it perched crookedly, several inches too high.
The horn player arrived with 20 minutes of rehearsal time remaining. At 5 pm, a committee member sprang up to the podium and informed Hopkins that the rehearsal must cease. "No, we will press on to the end of the concerto," he said. We finished 90 minutes before the concert was to start. "Let's go to the Brewery and get pissed!" a bassoonist suggested.
Hopkins was dapper when he returned for the concert, in a tailored jacket with a hint of sparkle in the thread. "It's my Liberace coat," he said.
"Won't you be hot?" asked our violinist.
"There's nothing that can be done about it, I'm afraid," he replied mournfully.
Payne appeared in a strapless satin back dress with silver sequin midriff, drop diamante earrings and cascades of peroxide hair. There was no hint of mid-length sleeves or a scarf. She looked incandescent, and easily outshone us soloists.
"Chookas!" Hopkins called out, twinkling, and we were on stage. It felt like the quietest place we'd been all week: the clamour subsided, and
it was just Beethoven at his most genial, in radiant C major. The orchestra played excellently, sympathetically, and we could be as free and as nuanced as we pleased.
In the second half of the concert, I joined the audience to listen to the Coriolanus Overture and the Seventh Symphony. The air was thick with moisture and the women around me fanned themselves idly. Hopkins' frail form was bathed in perspiration, but his arms were graceful and precise. It was a program of hero's music; coaxing a fine performance from the musicians, Hopkins' own heroism had never been clearer. I looked at the audience, at the faces tilted gratefully towards the sound, and I understood what we were doing here. It is not often that Townsville enjoys the sound of a live symphony, and there was a slaked thirst in the steaming cathedral.
I made my way backstage afterwards, Bobby rushing ahead with a plastic cup of champagne for Payne. ("My medicine!" she squealed, delighted.) John Hopkins fanned himself, and pulled his trousers away from his bird-like frame. "After tonight, I have become considerably slimmer," he declared.