Venue: The Minster, York
‘Sound needs space to breathe, just as we need air’. Michael Morpurgo’s words reverberate around the upper depths of York Minster. A lone violin joins as he reads to a silent, five hundred-strong crowd. A tale of the art of love and the loss of art is taking shape in the cavernous space above our heads, shaped by Morpurgo’s plaintive voice. He reaches the end of a phrase, and string quintet, The Storytellers Ensemble, takes over, twisting his lingering words into something quite different, yet very much the same. Together with actress Alison Reid, they are telling the story of The Mozart Question. This is how stories are supposed to be told.
This is the headline event of the York Festival of Ideas, a celebration of all things thoughtful presented in 2015 under the thematic banner of ‘Secrets and Discoveries’. Fittingly, Morpurgo’s reading of his own short story, a tale of what it means to keep secrets and promises, is also the opening event. The author of hundreds of tales, short and long, is something of a mythical deity to those of us who grew up reading The Butterfly Lion, Why The Whales Came and Private Peaceful until the binding had crumbled. To hear the former Children’s Laureate read his own words in a place of such scale and significance is nothing short of a spiritual encounter that takes me back to being six years old and lost in the world of Kensuke’s Kingdom.
Morpurgo, Reid and violinist Daniel Pioro who leads the Ensemble take to the simple stage to the side of the pulpit. The Ensemble commences a sweeping opening movement that allows their sound to feel and inhabit the space as it builds, ebbs and flows. Reid then begins the reading as Leslie, the narrative lens of Morpurgo’s story – in her first few weeks as a journalist she gets to interview Paulo Levi, a violin genius and media recluse. Leslie must travel to Venice to speak to Levi, but there is one caveat. She must not ask the Mozart Question, whatever it may be.
Reid is a consummate professional and effortless performer, balancing theatrical dynamism with gentle human comedy, and overplaying just enough to lend Morpurgo the space to create Levi with a quieter yet fuller grace. He, in turn, lets a surprising range unfold over the course of the telling, finding equal bathos in Levi’s melancholy memory and childhood anger and joy. It’s plain to see this is a double act carefully honed to breathe The Mozart Question’s examination history and humanity into tender life.
Pioro and the Ensemble play some greater and lesser known works flawlessly and with the staunch enthusiasm of the professional musicians. There is perhaps a slight disconnect in how the Ensemble’s music and the storytelling intertwine structurally, with the string interludes playing out like an overlaid concert with deliberate points of complimenting poignancy, rather than a soundtrack or accompaniment. Yet this finds equal affectation; the interludes embody sub-plot, distance and space, creating the telling as a literary experience in and of itself.
The horror of the Holocaust and the quiet safety of family are in The Mozart Question bound by classical music. In the end, it helps the latter to heal some wounds of the former. It’s a tale of suffering and hope that finds such sad beauty in the telling. As sound fills the space, we listen, and remember.