Ageing audiences a privilege to play for

In an excerpt from his book Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More in the current issue of Limelight magazine, Stephen Hough wrote of his reaction on seeing an elderly man being wheeled into the concert hall where Hough was about to perform.

‘My heart instantly lifted,’ he wrote. ‘It struck me as wonderful that he was here to hear Beethoven and I was the one who this evening was to bring that music to life.’

For Hough, an ageing audience was not a cause for consternation, but a privilege.

I have lamented before about the sea of silver heads in any classical concert audience, and the ‘need to attract the next generation and the one after that.’

My focus in that piece was on finding ways to foster a love of the classics in young hearts and thus fund future performances. It was not my intention to detract from the merits of an ageing audience of music lovers. If I’m honest, I’m one of them (although one of the more junior, I hasten to add).

Ageing audience, grey heads
Photo credit: Elizabeth Quinn

Hough’s anecdote took me back to early December last year.

My friend Margaret, a generation older than me, had travelled down to Melbourne from Newcastle for the final performance of Sir Andrew Davis as Chief Conductor of the MSO. Crippled with arthritis now, Margaret must make her slow and painful way through life with a high tech walker that scissors inwards for those hard-to-navigate narrow corridors. Her refusal to succumb to being permanently wheelchair-bound is close to heroic.

When, prior to our outing, I described the length of the walk from the Arts Centre carpark to Hamer Hall, she graciously accepted my suggestion we borrow a wheelchair from the venue. What she didn’t know was that my partner – a member of the MSO chorale – had orchestrated an after-concert introduction for Margaret to her hero Sir Andrew. It was to take place backstage in the bowels of Hamer Hall, a journey much too far for a walker-wielding Margaret, given Sir Andrew’s tight timeline. He was due to catch a flight back to London that evening.

Margaret knew nothing of my devious plan when we were ushered into the spacious disabled space at the centre rear of the dress circle. We discreetly high-fived each other when the attendant left us, delighted with our seating. I took a selfie of us smiling gleefully at the camera, a clear view of the stage in the background.

Two women in an ageing audience, dress circle, stage in the background
Photo credit: Elizabeth Quinn

As the lights dimmed, Margaret whispered ‘Do you think he’ll forgive me for not standing up in the Hallelujah Chorus?’ I’m still not sure whether she was talking about Sir Andrew, or Handel, or God. Either way I reassured her and we settled down to listen to two of the most magnificent hours of music ever written.

As the opening bars of the Hallelujah Chorus sounded, the audience rose to its feet.

To my astonishment, I saw Margaret grip the back of the seat in front of her and stand up, bent over but on her feet nonetheless. It brought tears to my eyes, but hers were clear and focused on the stage. As the maestro was taking his final bows at performance end, we made our way out of the hall and into the lift. I don’t remember what story I spun about our destination or why we ended up at the stage door, but whatever it was, it worked.

‘We might bump into his nibs!’ she said excitedly as I wheeled her through the door then turned first left, straight into Sir Andrew’s dressing room. He was waiting for us with a half-eaten banana and a nervous PA by his side. I have a memorable photo of a beatific Margaret and a smiling Sir Andrew – clutching the remains of his banana – shaking hands.

Elderly woman shaking hands with a man in a black suit holding a banana, ageing audience
Photo credit: Elizabeth Quinn

Reading Stephen Hough’s take on the ‘privilege’ of performing to the wheelchair-bound man, I wondered what he would have made of my friend Margaret’s effort. Here was a woman approaching her own century who had travelled 1000 kilometres to attend Sir Andrew’s final performance as conductor of a masterpiece written three centuries ago. I like to imagine Hough would have respectfully pointed out to Sir Andrew how lucky he was.

This story first appeared in Limelight Magazine on March 13 2020.

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