95. Friend of Saint David’s Hall
Wednesday night is Quiz Night at The Packet, but this Wednesday I have deserted my team. Bernard, Quizmaster, will call out, “Are you ready, Bruce!” signifying a question about the United States and I won’t be there to answer it for my mates. I had a ticket for the concert at Saint David’s Hall. Vladimir Ashkenazy was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Brahms: Violin Concerto and Sibelius: Symphony No. 2. The violinist was Sayaka Shoji.
Ashkenazy was a favorite pianist, whose concerts and recitals I had attended in New York City. I had more recordings of his than any other pianist, with the exception of Bill Evans. I was heartbroken to learn Ashkenazy now didn’t perform on the piano as much, if at all, due to arthritis. I had never seen Ashkenazy conduct.
The Violin Concerto is not my favorite Brahms piece and I don’t care much for Sibelius, but with this orchestra and if Ashkenazy is presenting it, I was willing to give Sibelius another chance.
I did not know a thing about Ms Shoji, the violinist.
As for the Saint David’s Hall, blocks of concrete growing zigzag out of the Saint David's Shopping Centre form an ugly, multifaceted carbuncle; it was built in 1982, in the Brutalist style. A large digital marquee on the front of the concert hall faces the Hayes and displays commercials unrelated to the events inside.
The zigzagging continues inside in the lobby. There are plenty of straight lines, but no symmetry. There is a long counter where tickets are sold and two escalators that are not parallel. There is a single tiny elevator squeezed into the wall for the benefit of the disabled patrons, but it won’t move very many at a time. (Note: What us Americans call an elevator the British call a lift, and the Welsh spell it lifft.)
The escalator takes you to the first level. There is nothing on the first level but a mysterious glass door. On the first level, you must reverse your direction to take one of two escalators to the second level, another zigzag. Things become more interesting on the second level, where you find a large cloakroom and small refreshment stand. From here the zigzagging continues in a climb on a wide staircase to the remaining levels. It is the next several levels, beginning with level three, that provide access to the concert hall. (Note: I have since learned the glass door on the first level leads to the Day Stage, a small theater for children.)
There is a reason for the strange configuration of Saint David’s Hall. The architects were restricted to a cramped space of the already planned and partially built shopping center. The concert hall and associated accoutrements, offices, dressing rooms, lounges, et cetera, were built on to and on top of Saint David Shopping Centre.
I climbed only as high as the third level. The crowded lounge area with its long bar was being entertained by the Willow Quartet, a quartet of four young clarinetists. One of the musicians was playing a bass clarinet, which, at a glance, looked like a black saxophone. They were playing Delibes's "Flower Duet" from Lakmé when I reached the lounge. Beautiful, even without singers.
It might be unattractive, but the concert hall is a jewel in its function at the heart of Cardiff. Entering the auditorium you are inside a hollowed gem capable of seating 2,000 and possessing exceptional acoustics. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America in 2016 published an article in which Saint David's Hall ranked among the ten best concert halls in the world.
For this kind of concert, I would have preferred the less expensive seats in the first row of Tier 4, which hangs above the left side of the stage; one sits behind the first violins in the typical arrangement of the orchestra and you can see the face and hands of the conductor. These are seats difficult to get to, requiring an up and down journey along a seeming labyrinth. They were sold out. I settled for a front row seat facing the guest violinist.
Ashkenazy is a short man and from the back he is not fun to watch, although I would not criticize the excellent performance he drew from the orchestra. Still, from the back he seemed stiff, his movements in jerks, and his left arm often at rest. I detested the shoulder pads in his jacket, but then I hate them in any case. I do not understand why the male musicians have to perform in white ties and tails. Especially the violinists, who have to press their instrument against their ties and collars. (Ashkenazy refuses to wear a tie.) I thought back to a concert earlier in the month, to another short conductor, Joseph Swensen, who bounced and leaped and brought much energy to the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathétique". It was the best rendition of that symphony I have ever heard and he elicited it from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Ashkenazy did not bounce; but he is 82-years-old and Swensen was only 69.
I was thrilled with Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and overwhelmed by the amazing Sayaka Shoji with her borrowed "Récamier" Stradivarius - so called because in its long history it once passed as a gift to Madame Récamier from Napoleon. Despite the music not being my favorite, the revelation of talent made it all wonderful.
That I am proud of Saint David’s Hall should be obvious as I am a Member of the Friends of Saint David’s Hall. What great fortune that it is only a two minute walk from where I live, 160 yards. I can wake from a nap on my living room couch and be in my seat at the concert hall in fifteen minutes.
What I cannot understand is how it is with the talent being presented that Cardiff could not fill the concert hall? The following night, Thursday, Ashkenazy, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Sayaka Shoji performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London, a much larger hall, and they were sold out! My fellow Cardiffians do not know what they are missing; great music at a less expensive price in a superior concert hall. They don’t deserve an encore. I fear the great orchestras will stop coming and the local orchestras will become insolvent and disband if we don’t patronize them.