Exalting in experience

As I don’t really have a close family, I don’t get gifts for my birthday, and there are no family get-together’s as there were in the old days. The only birthday present I reliably get is from Donna because she’s a birthday head. At my age, I’m not over-fussed about getting presents, and experiences mean much more to me – they’re the things that stay with you long after conventional gifts wear out or fade away.

This year the gift I got from was an experience.

We met in North Melbourne Thursday night, just around the corner from where I lived about 13 years ago. She was caught in traffic, and so I sat in the restaurant chatting to the middle-aged waiter while I waited.

It was an Italian restaurant I’d been to before, but my memory tantalised – I couldn’t remember when it was or who I ate with. How long have you been here? I asked him. Fourteen years, he said. I figured I was there last about 10 years ago, though perhaps it was before that. It annoyed me that I couldn’t remember. Almost certainly, I was there with a woman.

I was drinking a Vermouth Spritz when Donna arrived. It’s her birthday next week, and so we exchanged cards. Both of us write more than the conventional birthday wish, and so we each took the time to read the birthday prognostications of the other. We had a share plate for entree then pasta for main. We got out of there about 8.20, later than we should have – dessert came late.

Guided by the GPS, we made our way to the next stage of our journey, a mystery location in West Melbourne. We were due at 8.30, but the GPS played silly buggers and took us somewhere different. By the time we made it, we were about 6-7 minutes late.

We were ushered into a nondescript building in the industrial backstreets off Dynon Road. We were led upstairs by an usher who urged us to remain quiet. We could hear the music coming closer, the graceful strings of violin and cello.

We were made to pause at the top of the stairs, pending a break in the performance. We looked across the crowd to a dais lit by electronic candles on which a string quartet was playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This was Donna’s gift to me.

As a movement ended, the crowd applauded, and we were led to our seats just off to the side of the stage. The music began again. Autumn. There was something exalted about it as if it came from a different plane. We were in a broad space – a reception centre normally – with the rustic feel of a country barn. Exposed wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling, lit by the shimmering light of the candles. The quartet – all of them young, elegantly dressed Asian women played the evocative music of Vivaldi.

Everyone knows the Four Seasons, even if they don’t know they know it. It has become a part of popular culture, heard everywhere from commercials to soundtracks. All of it is memorable.

In the breaks between movements, the cello player would describe the scene to us, whether it be Autumn, Winter, Spring or Summer. A picture was sketched for you, which was then painted in by the music. You see it and feel it.

I fell to wondering about Vivaldi as I listened. I imagined him in his long-ago time composing the piece, a time before anyone had yet heard it. I wondered how he conjured the notes out of thin air and then imagined him playing on his violin, experimenting with it, wondering where it should go next. Then, one day, it as done – and into the world, it went, and somewhere, some time, the first performance of it – lauded, I imagine, and acclaimed. The beginning of it, and here we were, in the upstairs of a remote building in faraway Melbourne in a time much distant and Vivaldi long gone.

So much of the piece is vibrant and familiar, and in a setting like that, it etches itself across your memory. My favourite part is Winter, perhaps the moodiest movement of the concerto. It insinuates itself into your mind. I was sitting there on a hard dining chair, surrounded by people from all walks of life silently beholding in the most unlikely of venues, the candles flickering and the musicians bent to their instruments.

It felt like life, tenderness and beauty and unfettered mystery and infinite possibility. This has been true always. It’s what inspired Vivaldi and draws us an audience to him and to others. It’s there now, but we only come to sense it occasionally, the sublime.

It was a great gift and a memory that will abide – even, in years to come, when we laugh about getting lost. These are the things you live for.

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