Suffolk churches 95: St Edmundsbury Cathedral (September 2018)

St James’, Bury St Edmunds
It was the autumn equinox, and in some ways felt like the end of the year: my recital in St Edmundsbury Cathedral was the culmination of a season’s concerts, and a season’s cello practice. It was the end of a busy summer of B&B guests, and a few days after the recital I would go on holiday.

I had performed the first and last pieces of the programme before; but the other two – by Debussy and Martinu – turned out to be harder than I anticipated. Not technically or in terms of stamina – unlike the programme I had chosen last year when I started my church tour – but mathematically. Learning the notes and how the music went was the easy part, relatively speaking. Putting the pieces together with piano was much, much harder.

I had listened to the music over and over, but still I could rarely tell where the first beat of the bar was, and during rehearsals was constantly having to write in the piano rhythms above my line of music so that I could have a chance of staying in the right place. In some instances I simply couldn’t count the beats and the best I could manage was an approximation, based on what the piano was playing. If I lost concentration for a second, that was that.

I have heard it said that Sudoku can protect your brain from decline. My experience of learning these pieces was that they would be extremely effective in achieving the same end. My brain felt positively scrambled by the end of the first rehearsal: it seemed strange and impossible, but I had the sensation that it had been physically exercised in the way my body would be by going for a run.

The mathematical difficulties meant that a certain amount of anxiety was involved until a few days before the concert. James, my accompanist, was patient, and our last rehearsal was three hours long – definitely a record for me. But, finally, I felt more or less confident that I knew what I was doing, and I turned up at the cathedral with a sense of excitement about the performance. My remaining apprehension was mostly to do with the acoustic and the size of the building, as I was used to much smaller ones. You can feel very small, playing in such a big space, as though the sound generated by your instrument disappears into space rather than filling the building.

I opened the door to the cathedral and stopped in horror. It was a building site. Half the pews had been moved, there were red and white plastic barriers surrounding the central part of the nave, and men were sawing through floorboards. I could smell sawdust. My excitement turned to alarm. Why hadn’t anyone thought to inform us? Would this be the environment in which we would be giving our concert? We would have to perform to the pillars in the aisle, if the audience was going to be sitting only in one half of the church.

Someone kindly assured us that the work would stop for the recital. This was only mildly comforting. My anxiety had risen tenfold and I hadn’t yet played a note. James was calm; he rarely gets flustered, and he told me that such things had happened to him plenty of times before in this building. We worked out where to put the piano, and started to rehearse, accompanied by the noise of electric saws outside the door, and hand saws inside, breathing in sawdust all the while. Eventually I had to ask them to close the door when they were using the electric saw – it was filling the building with even more dust, and we could barely hear ourselves play. I was noticing the tension in my hands and shoulders from unconsciously trying to compete with the background noise.

St Edmundsbury recitalBy the end of the rehearsal, I had calmed down and felt as ready as I was going to be. The workmen had stopped and tidied up, so it looked a little more like a passable concert venue, although it still felt odd playing to only one half of the building. Between the pulling of gaffa tape to stick boards onto the (lack of) floor – which was possibly even louder than the electric saw – I felt I had a chance to get used to the acoustic and realised it wasn’t necessary to work so hard to make the sound carry.

The concert was well attended and the audience seemed to enjoy it. One of my cello pupils even managed to bring a group of children from his school: an ‘educational’ trip, he said, so would I mind answering some of the children’s questions afterwards? I was pleased as I could be with a first performance of such difficult pieces: nothing went seriously wrong, and I enjoyed it. Nevertheless, halfway through the Debussy the thought went through my mind that after two more performances of this programme perhaps I would feel comfortable with it. The first time you are anxious about getting notes and counting right. The second time you can think more about the music. The third time, with any luck, you can relax into the performance and everything comes together. This is my dream, anyway, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play a difficult programme three times. Arranging it is more problematic than it might sound, given the rarity of good pianos in Suffolk churches. Perhaps we’ll have to think about other venues…

Total churches to the end of September: 229 + 3 chapels

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