August 10th had been just another dull Monday. Watching Coronation Street on television looked like being as exciting as it would get until our telephone rang just as the programme finished. "Hello, is that Mark Perry?" enquired a well-spoken female voice when I answered. "Er, yes..." I replied, guardedly, anticipating the inevitable attempt to sell me a new bathroom suite or fitted kitchen. As I debated whether simply to slam the receiver down, or to await an appropriate opening for a polite refusal, the voice continued: "This is Jacqui Thomas from The Brodsky Quartet..." What did she say? I ran the words through my mind again and this time they registered some sort of sense. Fortunately, my power of speech had returned just in time. "Oh, hello" I said, my studiously nonchalant tone clearly implying that it was a matter of mere routine for members of internationally famous string quartets to be calling me at home...
Following the premiere of The Juliet Letters in London on 1st July, we had written to thank The Brodsky Quartet for their part in a wonderful evening. Now, in reply, came this telephone call out of the blue informing us that they were in the middle of a residency at the Dartington International Summer School. Miss Thomas thought we might like to know that Elvis was there too and that another joint performance was planned for the coming Thursday night. I managed to blurt out some sort of half-witted thanks before her money ran out and the call was out off. Moments later my wife came into the room to help me up from the floor!
Thus it was that Thursday evening found us driving west over the Somerset-Devon border in virtual monsoon weather conditions towards Dartington; a village set on a small hill by the River Dart whose life centres on the 4,000-acre Dartington Hall complex. As well as having large farming and forestry concerns, the estate also houses a thriving Arts Society. In addition, it plays host once a year to the Dartington International Summer School; a large musical gathering which comprises masterclasses, daily workshops, specialist courses and a variety of events which are open to the general public.
The concert was scheduled to take place in the restored 14th century Great Hall but, unfortunately, the weather did not allow us to fully appreciate the beauty of the surroundings as we hurried across a large quadrangle to shelter from the rain in the entrance porch. Here, with students scurrying around us, the surroundings suddenly took on a slightly intimidating scholarly air. A large notice board displayed the following day's timetable, including the Songwriters Class (for which a certain Declan MacManus was listed among the teachers) scheduled for a 10am start in Studio 14. Also pinned to the board was a copy of the school newsletter Dissonance which included a brief article alluding to EC's prowess on the croquet field.
The organisation, in keeping with the time-honoured traditions of a school production, constantly threatened to collapse into chaos but tickets, programmes and ushers all miraculously materialised at the last minute and, finally, we were allowed into the hall. Measuring 80 x 40 feet, I was told it contained seating for around 400 people, this being arranged in rows with additional steeply-tiered benches at either side and a large wooden gallery at the rear. The two end seats a couple of rows in front of us had green strips of card marking them as reserved for "Elvis" and "Cait" and, sure enough, the pair of them arrived about five minutes before the start of the concert, everyone making a point of not staring at them. EC, resplendent in a black shirt with white polka dot pattern (!), fixed his gaze in celebrity neutral at some indeterminate point in the distance and fidgeted uncomfortably until the music started. The first half of the concert was an enjoyable performance by pianist Julian Jacobson and The Brodsky Quartet of Bartok's Piano Quintet. This was followed by a long interval and it was 10.05pm when Elvis finally appeared on stage.
Framed by an enormous boarded-up fireplace, the musicians began the beautiful opening to "For Other Eyes" with no spoken introduction, Elvis again waiting until the end of the first song before giving his brief speech explaining the nature of the work. Given that he was probably the only major performer without a background of formal musical training taking part in the Summer School, one might have expected a degree of nervousness; especially with the majority of the audience consisting of music students rather than his more usual following. In fact, there was no sign of this at all and, if anything, he seemed more at home in these surroundings than he has sometimes appeared in the often more artificial world of popular music.
I sensed that all of the musicians were even more relaxed than at the London premiere. There were a lot of smiles and knowing glances exchanged between the five of them and the audience responded warmly. Nowhere was this more evident than during the undoubted triumph of the whole evening: "I Almost Had A Weakness" which, as they say, brought the house down following some mid-song clowning from Elvis. During the instrumental sections he listened with exaggerated expressions of musical rapture and even attempted to distract viola player Paul Cassidy by moving up close to him and trying to catch his eye.
"Taking My Life In Your Hands" was again a highlight with its soaring cello chords imparting tension as Elvis delivered another towering vocal performance. In fact, I suspect he may even have overdone it a little as he would begin the second half of the concert with a slightly hoarse-sounding voice which, thankfully, did not seem to trouble him too much for the rest of the evening. There was a tremendous ovation at the interval and the players were forced to return for a curtain-call before taking their break.
Opening with the chain letter of dubious origins "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," full of joke musical repetitions which deliberately undermine the title's claim, the longer second half was, if anything, even more enjoyable. The best-received song seemed to be "Romeo's Seance" which Elvis introduced by alluding to rumours that the hall was haunted. The loud applause and stamping of feet which followed it were, I suspect, due in no small measure to Messrs. Thomas and Cassidy's brief burst of harmony singing which produced loud laughter around the hall.
For me the most memorable moment came at the end of "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet" where the first violin gave a perfect imitation of an air-raid siren, fading into perhaps the most beautiful piece of music in the whole work: the instrumental section which introduces The First To Leave." During this, Elvis crouched over his music folder in the background, frowning with concentration as he prepared himself for another moving performance of a great song.
Not surprisingly, "I Almost Had A Weakness" was reprised as the first encore; this time in a still more light-hearted version with EC even essaying a few dance steps using his music folder as partner and moving to the front of the stage with a menacing sneer as he attempted to convey an impression of the dotty old aunt who is the song's narrator. Prolonged applause and a stamping which threatened to bring the gallery crashing down succeeded in bringing them back for a second, and final, encore. This time there was a surprise as Elvis introduced a new song, written during his stay at Dartington. "It's only an outline..." he claimed deferentially beforehand, but it sounded pretty complete to me. The title, I think, was "The Favourite Hour" and it's going to be some song when he gets around to finishing it!