Alexa Mason @CBAllan 2008


My man don’t do contemporary classical.

All those shrieking and hollering, tremulous cacophonies?   He gets enough of it at home.

He likes his art served up world-class, populist, with lyrical rhythms and a rollicking narrative.

As with many audiences, he wants to be entertained, informed and educated: the only challenge required is on the WOW factor.

“I don’t need any pretentious university twat trying to ‘get me to think’ and ‘see the spaces between the characters’ and ‘understand their neo-gothisms’ as if I’m some kind of dimwit.”

On Tuesday 12th October, I took the man to see the Auricle Ensemble free performance of Robin Holloway and Peter Maxwell Davies.  Two living composers who have passed through the annals of academe to become Britain’s foremost composers of contemporary classical music.

We weren’t getting on so it was a particularly vicious kiss-and-make-up challenge, I know.  He’d be struggling to come up with something ‘nice’ to say about the event but if he really believed in ‘us’ …

The one-hour lunchtime show at the Reid Concert Hall gave us a brief 10 minutes of Holloway with his ‘Five Haydn Miniatures’.   Written in 1999, it was a very gentle introduction to this challenging style of music.

Holloway used genial Haydn phrases then crashed them at the end.  But not in an aggressive, smashing of lyrical icons-style.  It was more a meandering … here we go down a beautiful English country lane, and whoops, we’re now on an extreme bike ride.  It’s a contemporary meets classical mash-up: Marie Antoinette wearing Vivienne Westwood shoes; an Edwardian car with GPS or Partridge Pie with poached tofu.


Auricle Ensemble


The main course was Peter Maxwell Davies’ ‘Fantasia Upon One Note, After Purcell’ followed swiftly by ‘Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot’ both written in the early 70’s.

Here, we trod more firmly into the cacophonous range of music.  We had creepy banjos, rattling football whistles, scraping cellos and even a plodding metronome.  Suddenly a shrieking bride glided mournfully down the steps towards the ensemble.  Alexa Mason, aka Miss Donnithorne, aka Miss Haversham then proceeded to swagger and weep; whisper and grimace; jerk and lilt dementedly in an incredible performance on the theme of the jilted bride.

My man gradually dozed off as Miss Donnithorne started ripping up the conductor, Christopher Swaffer’s music.  He was startled awake only when the shrieking became more high-pitched and insistent than usual.  Our tryst was doomed.

Miss Donnithorne held her Adam’s apple and shook it, squeaked like a mouse and got drunk on dandelion wine.  It was enormous fun to watch and stimulating to hear.  At one point, she aimed her imaginary rifle over our heads to “shoot boys, masters, life-takers …”  She clamped her hand over her mouth declaring, “55 and never been … oh!”  She tore off the ring, screaming “Stupid fuckin bit of tin.”

Alexa Mason’s exhilarating performance punched through any discomforts and unfamiliarities anybody could have had with this type of music.  Hard to comprehend, it sure is.  But in the context of a woman losing her mind, it was drop-dead genius.

The performance was met with hearty applause by a wide-ranging audience of young and old.  And also by my man, who leapt to his feet enthusiastically to join in with the appreciation.

Later, I sat sullenly in a sunny Teviot Square, watching the skate-boarders and listening to him wax lyrical on” the incredibly experimentalist music, the intimate salon experience, the elevated University setting, the young musicians expressing themselves through contemporary music …”

“Yes, it’s High Art and you’ve got to work at it,” he expounded. “It’s not easily consumable for a mass audience but it was brilliant.  The performer, the music and the drama gave the theme of madness laldy.  I’m sure at one point they were free-styling” (Christopher Swaffer later confirmed there was a recitative part).

“It was so Scottish,” he continued, warming to his theme.  “You could imagine it being performed in a grand salon in front of a roaring fire with a choppy sea view.  Challenging, but thoroughly enjoyable and the first time I’ve genuinely appreciated this type of music.”

“Asleep?” I spat.

“There’s no right or wrong way to consume art,” he remonstrated, hurt.  “Is there a manual that states it must be consumed a particular way? There’s nothing better than dozing off, enfolded by high art, absorbed and buffeted by its intensity, allowing it to draw and waft your dreams with its passions, depth and ferocity.”

Hmmm, he lives to see another day … for now.

©Fin Wycherley

  • What do you think of contemporary classical music?
  • Who drags the other half to consume art?  Is it always the female of the species?
  • Please leave a comment and let me know.  I’d be fascinated to hear your views.
  1. What an interesting and entertaining blog! I like your style. I think in general, women are usually dragging men to high art events. In my own household, this is the exact opposite as my wife would much rather attend a musical than a concert of contemporary classical music (a style of music which I adore!).
    Musicals almost make me sick with the syrupy sentiment. But, to each their own.

    American Composer Ralph Kendrick

    • leithtonight says:

      Hey Ralph, thanks for that. I’ve checked your music and understand completely why musicals wouldn’t be to your taste. Amazing pieces. I’m listening to ‘Rough Hewn and Silky Smooth’ as I write. Quite Bartok-y.

      So what drove you along the eclectic music path and force you to abandon your gender stereotypes, lol?

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