Art Ravishing the Soul – Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in the hands of pianist Angela Hewitt and novelist Madeleine Thien 

What an artistically rich evening last night at Toronto Summer Music with two Canadian cultural treasures: pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach’s entire Goldberg Variations preceded by an interview with author Madeleine Thien whose award-winning novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing has classical music (including the Goldberg Variations) as a pervasive metaphor.

In the pre-concert chat between Madeleine Thien and CBC’s Eric Friesen, Thien talked about how the Goldberg Variations broke her open emotionally during a particularly difficult time in her life. She was walking in Berlin where she was living at the time after having completed a previous book with painful themes. The Goldberg Variations came on her playlist and spoke to her at a level of intensity that she had never experienced previously. She began listening to them over and over during the next five years as she worked on Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Bach’s masterpiece wove itself into her novel not only as content but also in structure, atmosphere, discipline, and metaphor.

Though an author whose currency is the written word, Thien spoke last night of the mystery of how music can speak to us at a level of profoundness that words can’t match. I can attest to her brilliance as a writer that she succeeded in her written novel in evoking that profound level of connection to the human soul that music, and the Goldberg Variations specifically in this instance, achieves. Do Not Say We Have Nothing melds language and music … they communicate with each other and enrich each other in the process.

It’s a mystery how Madeleine Thien was able to accomplish that. My guess is that she did it because she was writing the novel while listening to the music. The Goldberg Variations were entering her ears on their way to her heart as her heart was informing her brain on what to write next on the page.

What an experience it was to go from listening to this intimate conversation to then hearing Angela Hewitt playing the entirety of the Goldberg Variations without interruption.

I had one of the cheaper seats in Koerner Hall for the concert last night. I was in what’s called the “Loge” of the Right Lower Balcony, a couple rows of seats that run along the side of and look down upon the stage. They are not considered as good seats as those in the orchestra or the balconies that have a straight-on view of the stage. But, as it happened, my seat in A4 had a direct view of Angela Hewitt’s face as she played the Steinway piano. There was not much distance, maybe twenty feet or so, between my seat at the side of the stage and Hewitt on her piano bench in the centre of the stage.

Hewitt played much of the concert with her eyes closed. But when she lifted her head and if she opened her eyes, she would be looking directly toward where I was seated.

Hewitt’s body was constantly but subtly animated throughout the performance. Her head would sometimes be buried in the piano almost grazing the keyboard, sometimes rising up pointing toward the ceiling as her body arched backwards. Her fingers at times flew across the octaves with bravura and at times gently depressed a single key to elicit the whisper of a note.

Though Hewitt didn’t mumble to herself as Glenn Gould famously did when he played and on his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, her face was in constant animation with expressions ranging from playful delight to furious intensity to deep sorrow to spiritual contemplation.

I sat immobilized for the entire time. Initially, I was listening keenly to the fine nuances of her playing in the opening aria and then the technical virtuosity as she moved into subsequent variations. But by about the fourth variation, I wasn’t attending to the playing with the same intellectual focus. The music was drifting into my ears while my eyes were riveted on her face.

Much like Madeleine Thien melding music and language in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, so for me during the performance of the Goldberg Variations, the auditory and the visual, Bach and Hewitt, were fused in one.

I couldn’t, I didn’t, move. I found myself in a trance.

Hewitt left the ever-so-tranquil last note of the final aria suspended in Koerner Hall for a long time. After she released it to be only a memory, her head remained bowed, virtually touching the keyboard. She didn’t move … neither did the audience … for almost a minute of pure silence. Slowly she raised her head. The audience members burst into applause and jumped to their feet. She still remained seated, eyes closed. Gradually, she opened her eyes and a quiet smile emerged across her face. She stood and began to acknowledge the cheers.

I remained seated, motionless. I didn’t want to break the trance. It wasn’t until her second entrance back onto the stage as the standing ovation rolled on that I got to my feet and joined the applause.

What an evening of mystery and trance, an evening of art ravishing the soul.

* * *

My review of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing can be found on my blog site at: https://davidghallman.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/devastating-beauty-and-tragedy-madeleine-thiens-do-not-say-we-have-nothing/

Information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales can be found on my website at: http://www.DavidGHallman.com

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