Tales from Valparaiso No. 3

Robert reports on illness and strange concert-going experiences...

I spent much of last week ill with various manifestations of a cold. I was up mid-week, breezing (and sneezing) about Viña del Mar looking for English teaching work. Then, by the end of the week, I was laid up again. While laid up I enjoyed trying to put together bits of subject matter for future “table talk” English language sessions, which I've started offering at our local café. Pink Floyd led me to an extraordinary YouTube clip of Hans Keller taking Roger Waters and Syd Barrett to task on British television in interview following their “taking over” the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a concert sometime in 1967. He tries to treat them as naughty boys. In the event they come out looking intelligent and pleasant, while he comes out looking completely ludicrous. How things have changed! Now interviewers fawn over pop stars and classical musicians are made to feel like naughty children for being so out of touch and elitist.

These extraordinary cultural shifts were in evidence on Saturday when Ann and I went to a concert put on by a string ensemble called “Orquesta Marga Marga” at the San Sebastiana cultural centre, housed in Neruda's old house near here. The players were a mixture of Russians and Chileans, conducted by a Chilean who had lived most of his life in Russia (no doubt his father had been a keen communist back in the seventies). As Ann and I sat there the conductor made a longish speech to his players, and then launched into the first piece about seven minutes before the advertised start time for the concert, most of the audience (small in any case) being still outside. I've never seen a group of musicians ignore their public to that extent, nor a public ignore the music – people came in and out, held conversations, looked at the pictures on the walls and generally treated it as an exhibition, rather than a performance – something quite odd going on in that room. The group played Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, which, as we all know, is not an easy play. It was clean and accurate, but somehow disengaged – no real shaping to the phrases, no real attempt to make a musical statement. The programme was largely different from the one advertised, but no-one seemed to notice (Ann: “Is that it, then?” “Yes, why?” “Well, they've only played two pieces” - “Have they?”)

Afterwards the immensely tall Russian principal second violin and his diminutive Chilean girlfriend (she it was who hadn't realised how many pieces they'd played) were keen to invite us to supper, which was, of course, terribly nice of them. The conductor and his Russian wife, who was the leader and a very fine player, explained that theirs was the only professional orchestra in this region of the country, and they perform on the last Wednesday of each month at the German Club, somewhere down in the “plan”, the flat part of town down near the docks.

Is this the way we're going – into a culture where no-one's heard of The Death and the Maiden apart from Germans? But where millions flock to hear yet another rehash of Roger Walter's “The Wall”? Will string quartets be castigated for “taking over” concert halls occasionally?
Tonight Ann and I are off to the North of Chile – to San Pedro de la Atacama – in the heart of the Atacama Desert. This was a snap decision in view of the continuation of the students' strike coinciding with a good time of year to be up North, before it gets too hot. I'm hoping, not for interesting music, but for some immense silences!

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