I HATE “I might not know art, but I know what I like.”

I hate that.

“I might not know art, but I know what I like.” But also – you do know art. You might not know all the words around it but you are sentient and it is happening around you all the time. What you are saying is I can’t be bothered thinking about it.


It’s reductive and so I hate it. The reductive is the worst. It is the lowest of the low. The reductive stinks to high heaven. In everything. Art, music, politics, football, life. If you seek to reduce the complexity of a piece of work, of a real-life situation, of 22 humans kicking a ball around a field in front of other humans, in order to make things more straightforward for your own understanding rather than consider it further, then ultimately what was the point of confronting it in the first place?

Why bother?

Which brings me to the tricky – and possibly hypocritical – ground I occupy here. I don’t really know the first thing about Classical Music. You know how much I don’t know? I just capitalised the words “Classical Music”. You don’t see me doing that with “indie”, “hiphop” or “techno”. Though perhaps with “Rockabilly.” It feels that in not knowing the first thing about Classical Music I might just be about to make a fool of myself. Classical Music, as I understand it, always seems to be about something I don’t know or have motifs I’m not well enough informed to follow. Someone else does it. It happens elsewhere. It doesn’t happen in front of me.

Last night I went – paying my own money, I hasten to add; this review is entirely impromptu – to the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Why? Mostly because they are there. And because I hadn’t before. I saw some of it in Sefton Park this year but it was all stuff from films being played a million miles away. The programme I saw last night consisted of:

  • Mahler – Blumine
  • Strauss – Horn Concerto No.2
  • Elgar – Symphony No.2

Vasily Petrenko conductor; Timothy Jackson horn.

OK – quick things out the way. Timothy Jackson is brilliant at playing the horn. You’d expect that. He’s a soloist at the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. But brilliant. I obviously don’t know how brilliant but there was this moment once he’d finished where one of the women on violin turned to a colleague and her face lit up with a beatific smile as she clearly enthused over how brilliant he is. And I think she’d definitely know.

But the Elgar. Let’s talk about the Elgar. Crashing Elgar. What did I hear? Well I definitely heard. I heard a great many aspects at the most spectacular volume, crashing in and out of each other. By Christ it is loud when it wants to be. I heard drama; I saw drama, great swaying, soaring playing full of determination and vigour, its pace never letting up. (I’m stunned how still the rest of the audience appeared to manage to sit. My head had gone a bit I think).

In the first movement I heard an initially joyous loss of innocence which became restless and regretful as it wore on. There was tenderness to the second movement, mourning the thing that had been regretted, not entirely able to let it go. In third movement there was crushing process and in the fourth we are churned along before we return to the first initial flush though are probably a bit wiser, a bit smarter. Across the four movements, it was vigorously wistful if such a thing is possible. It confronted its reality but still wants to strive for more. Still believes more is possible.


There’s a quote that I’m not going to ascertain because it isn’t that important to this writing that I think belongs to Nick Cave or maybe he regurgitated it and it belongs to someone else but the essence of it is that there are basically two types of writing. There is the writing which says “I’ve made sense of the Universe and this is it so read it,” and the writing which exists in order to help the writer make sense of the Universe.

I was asked by my companion why I was looking wistful afterwards. This music was making me think of the second type of writing, the type I never have time to do these days (these days! As though this is a blip or something. This decade more like) when there is little but organising and tight, functioning script to be written. The music felt like that second type of writing, it was writing itself, working itself out, not pre-determined into shape. It knew more of what it was about when finished than the composer did at the start.

The programme notes for this are here >>

Reading those programme notes I did OK. I didn’t know the Edwardian into Georgian thing or any of that but now I do and that’s good. I reckon me and Elgar hit it off. However it isn’t a test. They don’t give you marks. You don’t pass or fail. You experience. And it’s an experience that doesn’t need that explanation or base knowledge. You already have the base knowledge. You are a human that thinks and feels.

I do know art. I do know music. I do know what I like as well. And so do you. You know that. And so know this: this music is neither dead nor dying. It’s being played with startling aggression and pride in most cities in the country, most cities in the world. Yes, it’s being played with incredible virtuosity but much more than that it is being played with soul searing passion. It is music of soul searing passion, not smooth, not relaxing, not the soundtrack to a drive home or a commercial or a Hollywood film, not supplementary to the product but there, THERE! – demanding your attention, your contemplation, your catharsis.

They are doing this at the top of your road on a regular basis practically wherever you are. And if you are in Liverpool John Gibbons tells me they are one of the very best orchestras in the world. At the top of the road! I trust him on this. So let’s go. Let’s all go. Petrenko Ultras.