Glimpses of Heaven


On Saturday evening, Cartmel Priory hosted a remarkable performance by the period instrument group, La Serenissima. The dazzling virtuosity of Adrian Chandler, internationally renowned as a leading interpreter of Italian baroque music, thrilled an appreciative audience of music-lovers. Above all else, Adrian’s performance of  Vivaldi’s Four Season allowed us, in the words of one theologically inclined member of the audience, to ‘glimpse heaven’.  High praise indeed, but this should come as no surprise, for Adrian and his group have won no less than two Gramophone Awards for their outstanding recordings. A recent review of one of their concerts that appeared in ‘The Guardian’ referenced Jimi Hendrix. Adrian’s charisma, formidable technique and first-rate musicianship are complemented by his lifelong determination to promote and perform the music of Vivaldi and his contemporaries. 

    La Serenissima has a back catalogue of over twenty exquisite recordings – each of which is underpinned by impeccable research and a scholarly approach to editorial matters. Drawing together some of the finest early musicians from the UK and overseas, their performances are characterised by energy, excitement and an extraordinary emotional range. The joyful interplay between the members of the group is a world away from the stuffy formality sometimes associated with Classical music.  

    Saturday evening was not the first occasion that I have been captivated by Adrian’s virtuosic brilliance. Just over thirty years ago, I joined the Essex Youth Orchestra at the age of just fourteen. The second bassoonist had got cold feet days before the beginning of the Easter course and Adrian, a friend of my brother, had put my name forward as a suitable replacement. To be honest, I was slightly out of my depth and as a woodwind player there really is nowhere to hide. I was a little envious of the back row of the second violins who enjoyed what I considered to be agreeably low stakes. During my first year with the orchestra, we focused on Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz Overture’ and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Lalo was something of a late starter himself and did not write his first opera until he was well in his forties. Therefore, it is perhaps ironic that his Symphonie Espagnole has so often served as a calling card for child prodigies, most famously, Yehudi Menuhin. 


   In between nervously learning how to become a proficient orchestral bassoonist, I marvelled at Adrian’s musicianship. In truth, there were plenty of talented players in the youth orchestra but Adrian was in a class of his own.   Just two years later, Adrian would leave Colchester Royal Grammar School, progress to the Royal College of Music and start gigging professionally. He always seemed to be in a hurry. 

   Next year, La Serenissima will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. Given that Adrian is still in his forties (just!) that is an incredible achievement. The single-minded determination necessary to run such an ensemble is often underestimated and almost always poorly understood. Drastic cuts to arts funding, the lasting effect of Covid, and the impact of online streaming on the recording industry are just some of the challenges that such groups face. Audiences are dwindling and this is, in part, due to the lamentable standard of music teaching in many schools. Most children grow up without ever having the opportunity to enjoy live performances of great orchestral works.  Of course, the classical music world has not always helped itself. Its fusty image and elitist reputation is alienating. The static formality of a symphony orchestra, the furrowed brows of players archly moving their limbs in tight-fitting dinner-jackets (try playing the bassoon dressed in such a manner) feels rather antiquated and achingly pompous. It is a challenge for classical music to remain relevant and it is rarely commercially viable. Countries that do not subsidise performing arts generously risk becoming anodyne monocultural husks devoid of creativity. 

   At Rossall, we believe that it is vitally  important for our children to have the opportunity to experience great music, art, literature and theatre. This month, our musicians will have had the opportunity to attend Victor Lim’s debut performance with the BBC Philharmonic in Media City. Last  Friday, we were treated to Nishla Smith and Tom Harris’s intimate jazz concert in the Performing Arts Centre, as part of our signature recital series. Yesterday, a group of our musicians travelled to Liverpool to hear the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra perform a programme of Dvorak and Brahms. Last Saturday,  two of our musicians and a couple of members of staff made it to the Lakes for Vivaldi.  Next weekend, we are contemplating the Halle Orchestra in Kendal. 

    Not everything will resonate or ‘stick’, but it is wonderful to have the opportunity to listen to top class performances delivered by outstanding musicians. Some of our pupils will remember such concerts for a lifetime. I am fortunate that my memory is cluttered with such experiences. I remember being present in Birmingham Cathedral in 1988 for a charity performance of Faure’s Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Benjamin Luxon. I can still hear the soaring cello section in the Sanctus and the opening of the Agnus Dei. In a few weeks time, you will get the opportunity to hear our Chapel Choir perform the same work in Blackburn Cathedral. 

Birmingham Cathedral 

     Great artistry inspires us in so many ways. Showmanship and virtuosity thrills and delights us on its own account but it also reminds us of the virtue of hard work and focused practice. As Sean Knox argued last week, practice really does not make perfect but a commitment to the pursuit of excellence should last a lifetime.  Settling for average or deciding to plateau means giving up or giving in. If you want to glimpse heaven, then you need to continue striving for something beautiful and partially unobtainable in a pure sense. Of course, there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ musical performance but even the most seasoned of musicians strive for something fresh in every performance. 

    Of course, a glimpse of heaven may be found within the realm of sports. As any fan knows, football provides us with rare examples of poetry in motion. Similarly, extreme sports such as free-diving  and free-climbing provide us with thrilling moments which appear to be suspended in time. These moments elevate us from that which is ordinary. They remind us that we, too, are capable of extraordinary things if we commit ourselves fully to the pursuit of excellence. The desire to live life intensely is driven, in part, by the inspiration that we draw from those who truly accomplish great things. The sense of urgency that we may  feel is driven, in part, by the finite nature of our existence and the potential beauty waiting to be revealed in each passing moment. 

   Of course, it is easy for us to find reasons not to do things.  After all, we lead demanding and busy lives. After a slightly barren period, I am making the most of every opportunity to attend concerts and so forth. From seeing the acapella pop group ‘The Magnets’ at the Edinburgh Festival to attending a comedy night with just seven other people, I am taking every possible opportunity to enjoy the magic of live performance. 

   As a pianist, I remain a work in progress. I try to practise a little every day. Schubert’s Impromptus, Chopin’s Military Polonaise and Rachmaninov’s Polichinelle are providing me with more than enough stretch and challenge for now but I love the thrill of working towards that which seems just beyond my grasp.  

    One of the true  joys of life at Rossall is that we are lucky to be surrounded by so many extraordinarily talented and hard working young people. Accomplished golfers, brilliant mathematicians and outstanding actors are to be found in abundance but, most importantly, we celebrate the kindness, generosity and compassion of the extraordinary young people in our community. At every turn, they amaze us. 

“Heaven”—is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—
Provided it do hopeless—hang—
That—”Heaven” is—to Me!

The Color, on the Cruising Cloud—
The interdicted Land—
Behind the Hill—the House behind—
There—Paradise—is found!

Her teasing Purples—Afternoons—
The credulous—decoy—
Enamored—of the Conjuror—
That spurned us—Yesterday!                                                                                                           

Emily Dickinson

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School