Peter Phillips

Death by laptop

Peter Phillips on taking Victoria's Requiem to the college campuses of America

Touring the more rural college campuses in the United States with Victoria’s Requiem is a very modern challenge. To be sure, the inmates of these Young People’s Homes have little experience of performers and performances which do not actively sell themselves, so I can imagine that the reality of 11 people standing more or less motionless on a stage, singing one of the most contemplative pieces of music ever written for 45 minutes, might come over as a bit novel. In fact it must count as the polar opposite of literally everything the television stations serve them up.

Mindful of the difficulty, I recently introduced a performance of this Requiem at a university in Tennessee by pointing out that it was not intended as concert music, but as music for a funeral. I invited the audience, largely made up of students, to imagine they were in a Gothic chapel with a stiff laid out in an open coffin in front of them. This had a mixed reception, perhaps helping those who then listened quietly, but setting off a small group near the front giggling for the next ten minutes or so at the sight and sound (we think) of our countertenor, Patrick Craig. (This would not have been an unusual experience for Alfred Deller, incidentally.) Half an hour later one of these young persons appeared to have fallen asleep. In fact, she had passed into a coma, so that by the time the concert ended the building was surrounded by emergency-services vehicles and peopled by paramedics, who made a far more compelling backdrop for the music than any hypothetical Gothic chapel.

Another feature of our student audiences has been the prevalence of laptops. Whereas ten years ago the severest headache confronting the authorities was the lack of sufficient parking for the first-years — everyone was expected to have a sports car and a pick-up truck — now it is the incessant clicking of laptops around every corner and in every situation, rendering their operators oblivious to the outside world.

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