"The timpani fell over and bounced down the steps"
Ian McEwan stepped back in time to introduce a special 50th anniversary concert at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts this month.
The Booker Prize-winning novelist had been invited to read aloud the original programme notes he wrote as a University of Sussex English undergraduate for the arts centre’s opening performance in 1969.
But as he took to the stage, with the University of Sussex Symphony Orchestra behind him preparing to reprise Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no 3, and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, he confessed: “I have no recollection of writing these notes. I don’t even know how they came about.”
Nevertheless the occasion gave McEwan, whose celebrated books included Atonement and The Children Act, an opportunity to reflect on his many other musical experiences at Sussex.
“I was in the choir and we did a Dvorak mass, we sang the Mozart Dixit Dominus…and the most ambitious thing we ever did was a piece called The Story of Flight by Henze. A completely atonal piece. There was not a single harmonic relationship between one note and another.”
He recalled that the piece became a “musical worm” for him, so much so that while working on a building site during the subsequent summer, the foreman asked him what he was constantly whistling.
“I told him it was The Story of Flight by Henze. He said, ‘If you whistle that again, I’m going to throw you off that ladder’.”
As for the original concert, performed when the building was known as the Gardner Arts Centre, McEwan admitted that his memory of it was a little sketchy too - until it came to the Beethoven piece.
“An extraordinary thing happened,” he said. “Just as the pianist was about to iterate the first theme, the timpani fell over and bounced down the steps. This was a very solemn and proud occasion. But the pianist stood up, and someone laughed. And then everyone laughed.”
McEwan then read snippets from his notes, which included mentioning that Beethoven’s first performance of his own piece was hampered by the great composer playing from “a few sheets of self-invented shorthand on a miserable little box of wires, hardly more sonorous than a spinet”.
“So there are two disastrous performances of the piano concerto,” said McEwan. “But I know it will be completely redeemed this evening, and it is a great honour to be here.”
Attenborough Centre creative director Laura McDermott, who had invited the writer to read his notes, introduced the evening by reminding the audience that the Beethoven concerto was to be played on a Steinway D grand piano, which was bought with a generous donation by another Sussex alumnus and Genesis keyboard player, Tony Banks, who was also there for the occasion.
Much to the audience’s relief and enjoyment a third Sussex alumnus, concert pianist and composer Shin Suzuma, gave an outstanding performance of the piece, with the orchestra being conducted by Professor Ed Hughes, deputy head of the School of Media, Film and Music.
Professor Hughes said afterwards: “We’re so proud to have Shin as a music graduate. And the orchestra were heroic in tackling the Stravinsky.”