Yesterday, Shannon and I went to see Lang Lang give a piano, master class at the Sheldonian Theatre, which we had bought tickets for back when we had first arrived in Oxford. Sixth week finally rolled around today and we sat with excited anticipation in Blackwell’s cafe, enjoying hot chocolate and cramming in a little study time in before queuing up to get our tickets outside the theatre.
We walked in Door A, and up a set of winding stairs which led us to the balcony of the theatre. I skipped around to the center of the theatre, which was oddly shaped-- kind of like an oval, with one flat wall, which we were facing. On that wall was a large, ornate, silver organ. In the center of the floor was one grande piano and chairs surrounded it on all sides. The range of ages in the audience was surprising. Elderly people, students, and very young kids in little suits, fidgeting in their seats, awaited the beginning of the class.
As Shannon and I sat down, we couldn’t help but admire the sheer splendor of the place. The ceiling was painted with a heavenly scene of angels, gods and goddesses sprawled out on rose-colored clouds. Probably patrons gods of music, I would assume. A plump, baby angel above my head seemed to be wrestling with another baby, and simultaneously trying to shoot someone with one of the arrows in his quiver-- an arrow of love maybe? Long portraits of Victorian-looking men hung on either side of the straight-backed theatre, their eyes looking down at the performers from their perch. The windows on every side let in a good deal of light, so the theatre attained an even more ethereal, airy feel.
The audience hushed as Lang Lang stood and welcomed the crowd. He then had three Oxford pianists come forward, one at a time, and play a piece, then he would critique their performance. As the first player began, I slipped out a bag of starbursts from my purple backpack, trying to hide the candy from the hawk-eyes of the balcony attendant, and we quietly munched on the fruit-flavored candy as music began to swell and fill up the theatre with its presence.
I thought the first player was pretty talented. A young man, quiet and somewhat shy, who seemed to play fairly flawlessly. When he was finished, Lang Lang said he had a nice touch, but there were certain things he could improve on regarding the emotions he brought to the piece. He could play this bit with more gentleness, this bob with sharper ferocity. When he demonstrated how bits should be played, my mouth almost dropped open. He was magnifacent. His fingers stroked the keys, coaxing a sound out of the instrument that I almost didn’t know it was capable of producing. His fingers were delicate, like a dancer’s foot rolling through a tondue, into a ron de jambe, with such strong grace. One thing that interested me was the way he explained how the pianist should play by telling him, with language. He said at one point, playing strongly, “And then this is another world”, and he paused and began to play with a caressing, soft touch. We were in awe. The last player was also phenomenal. Shannon was unsettled, calling the piece “sneaky”, but as he finished I let out a relieved exhale-- finding that I had been holding my breath the entire time. This piece was just that powerful.
For those few hours, I wondered if these exact feelings had been experienced by people scores, or even hundreds of years before me. I could imagine the audience in Edwardian or Victorian dress, fanning themselves and discussing Darwin’s new theories in the wings. For that instant, I sensed history coagulating in my mind, and couldn’t help but feel delighted.