I play the ‘cello. In London that admission had to be forced from me: I muttered it, blushing scarlet. You see, unlike being a bit nifty with a set of decks, outside a few unusual social circles (usually identifiable by their left-leaning, deodorant-defying, muesli-munching, earnest Beowulf-reading worthiness), playing the ‘cello was a hobby with the potential to demolish every last inch of any meagre street-cred that I had managed to accumulate. In the world in which I moved, even astrophysics had more cachet than string quartets. In social situations, if forced to confess to my liking for Mahler, say, or even Mozart, the best I could hope for would be a blank look. More usually I met with a chippy “oooooooooo, la-di-da”; a disingenuous remark about my being “far too brainy”; or just a gaze of open bafflement. Who, after all, would choose to get themselves up in black tie and ponce about with a piece of Stravinsky on a Saturday night, when they could be better occupied watching the football, hosting a fabulous dinner party, working late on some mega corporate deal, or simply drinking themselves into noisy oblivion?
In England it is relatively rare, outside the seasonal madness of the Proms, to see classical concert audiences get to their feet at the end of a performance. For elite professional orchestras standing ovations are given, of course, but often in a predictably muted British way, with at least half the participants looking sheepishly around them to make sure that they do not become stranded in their conspicuously vertical positions. It is no wonder in such an environment that, as a child, one of my biggest sources of mortification was the tendency of my father to leap up as soon as the performance had ended, emitting noises somewhere between an excited squeak and a delighted roar before he would begin thundering his palms together and shouting bravo in defiance of the astonished stares from everyone around us. Back in the days when I had the privilege to play in some fairly exciting orchestras, as young amateurs, the best we could hope for was that the applause sounded more enthusiastic than was strictly compulsory and that my dad might shout encore out of solidarity.
Having now attended a few concerts here in Lyon it comes as no surprise to me that the words shouted out by my father to show his appreciation at the end of concerts are Mediterranean in origin. Take a friend’s performance of Handel’s Messiah last week, for example. This was an amateur choir, of mixed abilities, singing a piece of music which, whilst having the advantages of being joyful and well known, is also rather lengthy and full of pronunciation traps for French-speakers (for we like ship, for example, or for ze glary, ze glary of ze Lard). The choir performed alongside four excellent soloists and a group of period instrumentalists who were utterly virtuosic but who, for all that, from the look of them were members of the aforementioned muesli and Beowulf crowd. The total effect was nonetheless very impressive and I enjoyed the concert very much, which is why I applauded loudly and lengthily at the end.
Nothing, however, prepared me for the ecstatic reaction of the remainder of the audience. Within seconds of the baton going down, they broke out clapping with wild, unrestrained enthusiasm and, within a minute, the first of them were on their feet. Pretty soon entire rows were standing up, applauding, calling out bravo and encore, and, much to my very British stupefaction, some people, quite ancient ones at that, were even wolf-whistling. It is not an exaggeration to describe the applause as having been deafening. Looking round in bewilderment, I realised that the church where I had been sitting was jammed to the very rafters with these fervent spectators from many different age brackets who were, quite literally, standing in the aisles. Eventually the applause turned to rhythmic stamping which, having been sustained for no short while, produced the desired encore. You should bear in mind that, by this point, it was nearly half past eleven, and absolutely nobody was doing the customarily discreet scurry to the exit. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine an amateur choir of a similarly mixed standard attracting such a throng of enthusiasts to one of its concerts in London and then provoking such fervent calls for more, even into the middle of the night. Nope. It just wouldn’t happen.
Thus, whatever the relatively lowly standing of “cultural” subjects such as literature, art or music within the formal education system in France, I have discovered that the cultural life of ordinary French people is much freer and richer than it is for their counterparts in the UK. Here the fact that I play the ‘cello is a badge of honour rather than one of shame. Here, there is far less of a sense of them and us when it comes to classical music. If someone is prepared to put on a concert, they will find no shortage of people beyond their circle of dutiful friends who are willing to attend. I am delighted to be in a place where people can partake of “culture” with such unbridled joy. And who knows, perhaps I become less embarrassed by my father’s musical appreciation now that I know that it will be stifled by the whoops and stampings of the dignified old dear sitting next to him…