Having now experienced one of the most beautiful and intriguing cities in the world, I can’t believe how little I knew of Bilbao.
Last Saturday was the first concert of the year for both Alexei and me, and our first ever performance of Beethoven’s epic Kreutzer sonata. Which I now know to be one of those pieces – the kind where the experience of practicing is, in many ways, nothing at all like the experience of playing it for people. You have to watch out for those ones. Although, Alexei says I’m more sensitive to the difference than most, and therefore perhaps it’s only me who has to watch out.
We arrived late the evening before the concert and roamed the city looking for food. Our hopes weren’t too high, it being midnight. But oh were we wrong. Firstly, the look and the feel of the city is breathtaking. Such stunning and contrasting architecture all neatly packed, equally elegant and noble as it is fiercely bold and wild. We eventually stumbled across an old restaurant that looked closed but wasn’t, with two elderly men sitting at the bar eating something that looked so good we simply said ‘we’ll have what they’re having’. I had also noticed an entire fridge full of multicoloured mushrooms and figured it might be sensible to ask for some of those. We received an entire plate of mushrooms, which felt like a complete meal in itself. But was followed by fried sardines, garlic prawns, some sort of stew with tripe, and more. We went to bed full and happy.
The next day was serious – we had to perform this 40-something minute sonata for the first time. And the seriousness we felt deepened upon entering the Sociedad Filarmonica de Bilbao .
Concert halls are often old and grand – we are used to feeling the weight of history and of joining a long lineage of musicians who have played where we are about to. But Alexei and I were not expecting what we found here. The corridors, and every single room, covered from top to bottom with signed and dedicated photos of every great artist you can think of from the last one hundred plus years. We were transfixed, trying to work out who they all were and how did many of them perform in the unbelievably cumbersome clothes they were wearing. It took us some time to get professional and go rehearse. The hall requires nothing of you but to play. No need to overly project, or to especially try and create a pianissimo out of a too noisy acoustic. We barely noticed where we were once we began to play, which to me is the best kind of hall.
Playing a concert after some weeks without performing always feels strange to me. Not a good or a bad strange, just slightly unfamiliar.
Our first half was one we know well, Elgar sonata and Mozart E minor. And then came the Kreutzer. The notes of the first movement’s Presto hit me like a shock wave. Their drama and intensity and ferocity hadn’t been fully revealed within the cosiness of a practice room.
We are performing this sonata throughout the coming month, and I doubt very much this sensation will dull with repetition. Not with a work this great.
The following morning I walked the streets of Bilbao once more, in the rain this time which sent me into a reflective state, something that often happens the morning after performances anyway. I got lost amongst the mazes of Richard Serra’s installation in the spectacular Guggenheim museum and sadly didn’t quite make it to the Old Town. But there will be a next time, for this beautiful city in the Basque region of Spain and me.