The opening of the Bath Festival took place on Friday and is an event in itself, an outdoor evening of music, and picnics, and final fantastic fireworks. It’s great. The only trouble is that if you go, you’re tempted to relax and think you’ve done your duty by the Festival and then go to nothing else. So this year my wife and I gave the opening a miss to give ourselves an incentive to attend more concerts (also because it was a bit cold and grey, and we were feeling lazy), so we duly sat down with a Festival programme and both independently ticked a concert taking place at 4.30 pm the next day, on Saturday. So far so good. The odd thing was that they were two different concerts. She had ticked an organ recital in the Abbey given by resident organist Peter King and I had ticked a world/folk concert by guitarists Dan Crary and Beppe Gambetta, even though organ music is not a passion of hers and folk music is only tangential to me.
“So, which shall we go to?” I said.
“Why do we have to compromise?” she said. “You go to yours and I’ll go to mine. I haven’t heard the crashing and roaring of a great organ for a long time.”
I hadn’t even heard of guitarists Dan Crary and Beppe Gambetta before, but the combination of an Italian guitar-picker and an American bluegrass player sounded irresistible, so we drove to Bath, parked and went our separate ways for an hour and a half. When Crary and Gambetta came on stage it was hard to decide which was the American and which was the Italian. One was a squat figure with bushy brown hair and a beard which had not been sprayed with pesticide but allowed to grow wild. He looked very American. The other was tall, thin, silver-haired, wearing a hat and looking like an elderly cowboy. He looked very American. And he was American.
“I actually come from mixed Scottish and German stock,” he told us between songs, “which is a slight curse as it leaves me with two conflicting sides to my personality. There is a Scottish side which likes to stay up late, drink whisky and dance wildly round the landscape. And there is a German side to me which likes to keep the top of the fridge very clean and arrange the spice rack in alphabetical order.”
Folk musicians like to tell audiences things like this. There is a great folk tradition for talk and story-telling between numbers. Sometimes folk singers give up the music altogether and stick to the story-telling alone, which is what happened to Billy Connolly.
“I was going to be a folk star with my first record,” Beppe Gambetta told us. "So I moved to Rome to get a TV or radio show. Unfortunately, it was the time of Berlusconi. You know about Berlusconi ? He controlled everything and would only play things that were commercial, so when I finally got a radio show it was 2.30 am, deep in the night shift. After a while I was still not a folk star, but I became the favourite musician of the bakers. Since then I have been trying to expand the categories I appeal to....”
Meanwhile, in Bath Abbey, my wife had no such entertainment. Mr King addressed the audience beforehand to request them not to clap till the very end of the recital, and then disappeared to that invisible eyrie to which all organists disappear. “The music had an amazing physical presence,” she said, “but the organist as performer had an amazing physical absence. I played the game for a while of looking at the backs of people’s heads and trying to deduce what they look like from in front. There was a man beside me who suddenly got out a packet of freshly developed tourist photographs of Bath and started to show them to his wife... ”
It’s true. With classical music - with all music - there is the perennial problem of knowing what to look at while you’re listening. Orchestral players are not chosen for their beauty, jazz groups are seldom anything but dull to look at, and two guitarists are, well, two guitarists. During one number Gambetta had a string break and Crary had to play solo for a minute or two while Gambetta whipped out the old string, whipped in the new and got a round of applause for his expertise.
“It’s a strange thing,” said Crary after that number, ”but I was playing like a maniac in that tune, and everyone in the room was ignoring me and watching the Signor change a string.”
“Incidentally, what was the music like?“ I asked my wife.
“Absolutely overwhelming,” she said. “Wonderful. And yours?”
“Out of this world,” I said. “They were staggering. I have never heard anything like it.”
So we did catch the fireworks after all.
The Independent Monday May 24 1999