Boris Giltburg

Never play Ravel to bats!

This article was originally published in The Guardian

There I was in a verdant valley, playing an open-air concert to 2,000 people, with snow-capped mountains rising off in the distance behind the stage. The scene was truly breathtaking and, when I arrived earlier in the day, I had been constantly grabbing my camera to try to capture its majesty. But what happened later was like a creepy horror movie.

As night fell, the brightly lit piano became a shining beacon in the surrounding blackness. It also became, I now realise, an immensely attractive object to various heat- and light-loving creatures. Shortly after the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No 1, a thin black insect landed on the keyboard. Before long, it was joined by another, then a few more, and by the time I got to the whirlwind of passages in the coda, I was fighting a mounting panic – as there were insects everywhere.

‘The scene was truly breathtaking’ … the verdant valley where Giltburg was swarmed. Photo: Boris Giltburg

Those critters just wouldn’t budge. They seemed to appear on the keyboard out of nowhere and then stayed there, lethargically, utterly unresponsive to any shooing movement I managed to produce while playing. I had a choice: to close my eyes and constantly risk my fingers landing on one, or keep my eyes open and observe a mass of insects all moving ever so slightly on the keyboard.

In the interval, the promoters sprayed me all over with insect repellant. It made me very sticky – and it seemed to matter not a bit to the crawlies occupying the keyboard. If anything, they seemed to actually be attracted to it, with several now landing on my ears and a few others exploring the nape of my neck. I dearly love performing but that night I was inordinately happy to come to the end.

And then there are all my encounters with bats. Bats like to live in theatres, particularly in old Italian-style ones that provide them with comfortable rafters above the stage, and plenty of flying space in the darkness above. I discovered this fact during a rehearsal in one such theatre, when loud, neurotic squeaks erupted above me as I started playing. “Ah, the bats!” the promoters said with smiles, in reply to my slightly concerned questions. “They’ve lived here since always. Don’t worry – you can’t hear them from the hall. The sound only carries down to the stage.” This was at least somewhat reassuring and, during rehearsals, I grew accustomed to the occasional squeak.

That night during the concert, though, it turned out that having had the theatre as their residence for ages, the bats had become very cultured – and also very opinionated. They liked the Rachmaninov preludes well enough and listened politely. The darkening mood of Prokofiev’s 8th sonata, however, put them into a state of nervous agitation. They clearly didn’t like my take on it and I heard them fluttering above me, conversing in worried squeaks.

First came one, then many brown-black signs of the animals' displeasure Then came Ravel’s La Valse, darker still. That turned out to be too much. At first there was ominous silence from above but then in the coda, as the demise of the Old World inescapably approached in rising waves, first one and then many black-brown signs of the bats’ displeasure rained down on to the stage.

“Do you mind,” I’m sometimes asked, “if there’s noise from the audience?” I don’t, but I never knew until that evening how very much I did mind when dark stuff fell from above on my hands and the very brightly lit keyboard. The first made me jump – literally — and I pulled my hands off the keys for a split second. I then managed to go on, all the while noticing in growing discomfort and disbelief the continued delivery of the bats’ verdict on my performance. I think that was the bat equivalent of zero stars.

Boris Giltburg. Indignation … Boris Giltburg. Photograph: Sasha Gusov After the concert, I was livid with indignation and shock. I expected the same sort of reaction from the promoters, but they took a much more pragmatic and good-natured view of the situation. Bats lived in theatres, they said, and that was that. Apparently they saw the discharge from their vantage point in the hall and thought it quite funny.

They also told me of a previous attempt to curtail the bats’ activity (and population) with the help of an owl – but the owl proved to be just as, well, opinionated as the bats. It had nothing against Ravel, but seemed to show a particular dislike of the cello, which it let be known in no uncertain terms. After two cellos and their adjoining players had to be wiped clean, the owl was dismissed, and the bats had free rein to continue their musical education.

I go back to that theatre almost every year. The audience is wonderfully enthusiastic, the acoustics clear and carrying, and the promoters’ hospitality among the warmest I’ve ever experienced. But I still haven’t been able to win over the bats. During my last visit, they pooh-poohed the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. “You might be getting it wrong,” a friend said. “Or maybe it’s their seal of approval.” “Apooval,” I answered grimly.

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