“Oh, I wish I played the cello. If I could go back and do it all over again and learn an instrument, it would be the cello.” I hear this sentiment expressed about twice a week by people from every walk of life. My first instinct is always to ask them if they’d like to get as close to that as possible and become a cello carrier. If I’d known what it was going to be like to schlep one of these monsters all over the world, I might have thought twice about this cello thing. I do understand the appeal, of course. It’s big and curvy like a woman, not too big like the poor-postured, sloping-shouldered contrabass, and not as high and squeaky as the violin. It encompasses nearly every range of the human voice and, well, it goes between your legs. How much more sensual can you get?
It also happens to be an essential part of a piano trio, and this is why I’ve flown out from Berlin to join my new friends Ben and Emma on their Streeton Trio tour of Australia. I’m the second person to replace their regular cellist Martin, who is still recovering from the consequences of a bicycle accident (kids, please don’t ride your bike with a cello on your back. Get one of those cello lovers to carry it for you).
Our first concert together in this formation is in Dunnolly, a Victorian country town that reminds me of Wild West towns in the States, where I come from, although I’m from the east coast. There’s an old brick town hall and a county courthouse that begs to be filled with a mob of angry townspeople and a red-faced horse thief, and an old two-story hotel hidden behind two incongruous palm trees as if it were embarrassed about its past. We arrived at one for a three o’clock concert at Wright on Broadway, a very cute café with a sophisticated menu.
It was an ideal start to my segment of the tour, actually – low key (quite literally; it was an upright piano) with a very appreciative audience.
Before the show, Fiona, the small, energetic restaurant owner, served us homemade sweet potato frittata with salad. We later learned that Fiona was singlehandedly responsible for getting a huge grant to have the Dunnolly town hall restored. It would be worth coming back to this town just for the frittata and to see what they’ve done with the town hall in a year’s time.
It’s been a pretty long time since I’ve played a concert in a café, but this one was special in many ways, including our ‘green room’: the tree-lined back lot of the café.
I was still jet-lagged – the concert started at 7AM Berlin time – but we had the feeling that the people who came to hear us were drinking up the music the way the parched earth would drink up rain if it ever came. After the show, we hung around and spoke to some of our audience members, local residents involved in everything from importing antiques to starting a musical production society. This, for me, is the way to get to know a country and one of the privileges of being a musician, no matter how grand or small the stage.
The next day we drove up to wine country to play for the Macedon Music Society in one of the most beautiful private homes I’ve ever seen. Ben was thrilled (as we all were) with the superb Hamburg Steinway standing before a wall of windows overlooking a verdant park sloping down towards a lily pond. It had just rained when we arrived and the sun was out again, making everything glisten greenly. It was an afternoon concert and I told our hosts I was glad we were sitting in front of the windows rather than facing them, because I would have spent the whole concert daydreaming about that green paradise out there.
The audience must have already been spoiled for the view, because I have rarely experienced such concentration in a group of nearly a hundred. As I told them, we could hear them not
breathing. Still, there is a difference between a silent audience and one that is truly participating in the collective act of making music, which requires good listeners just as much as good performers, and this was definitely of the latter category. It’s hard to define what makes this happen or exactly what quality is present in their attention, but as a performer it feels as if the audience is helping you shape each phrase, and that is a great gift for any musician or ensemble.
Nevertheless, we came back down to earth afterwards and went for some great Nepalese food in Melbourne that evening on the way to Torquay, where we would spend a few days before our next concerts. Lucky me: I had the opportunity to drive down part of the Great Ocean Road with my husband and go for bush walks and see some of the incredible wildlife Aussies are so used to but which make us foreigners go wild with our cameras.
Our next trio trip was overland to Hamilton, which describes itself as the ‘ideal stopover’ between Colac and the Great Ocean Road. Admittedly, there is probably not much else that would inspire one to spend the night here, but we were very pleasantly surprised by the wonderful performing arts centre in town. Some of the subscribers apparently felt very much at home in their hall; one couple in the front row took off their shoes and stretched out their legs as if they were in the front row of an aeroplane. I wondered whether they thought this was going to be a long-haul flight. Still, we tried to take it as a compliment. They obviously felt comfortable enough to do that, and hey, classical music should be about the music and about communication, not about what you have to wear or do to listen to it.
Have you ever wondered, as an audience member, what musicians do all day before going on stage at 8 PM? Does it sound like a pretty cushy setup to just lounge around all day and then show up and play beautiful music and make people happy? Let me destroy your illusions.
On the morning of our concert in Mornington, Ben was pasty white, lying in bed after having been up all night with food poisoning. We’d all had the same fish and chips, so it couldn’t have been that, but it didn’t really matter; sick is sick, no matter where it came from. We were late leaving because it took longer to get everything together with one member out of commission, and Emma did her best racecar driver impression on the way to the ferry that would take us to the Mornington Peninsula. We made it, and while we went up on deck to have a coffee, Ben stayed in the car and slept, probably trying his best not to feel the waves. We did most of our sound check without him while he slept some more in the car, and then, magically, about five minutes before eight, he started to look human again. He walked out on stage and played beautifully, and the audience was so entranced they bought out the entire box of Streeton Trio CDs being sold in the foyer. There was no need to make one of those opera house announcements: “So-and-so has a slight cold but has agreed to sing for you anyway…” Music does have healing power, even for, or maybe especially for, those playing it.
That brings us up to tonight’s show at fortyfive downstairs in Melbourne, my last concert in Australia for some time. Every five minutes my husband keeps saying, “we could move here, you know,” so I have the feeling we’ll be back sometime soon, for something or other. Australia, we love you: your food, your audiences, your little country towns, your stunning coastlines, your noisy, beautiful birds, and your friendly people. Till next time!