One of the things I like about the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of peak experiences is its implication that the human being is best defined not by what it can be reduced to but by what it aspires to. I must explain that I am talking about non-materialistic aspiration, which might already sound odd. But not so odd when you reflect on what really defines music, or sporting prowess, or love for that matter.
All music could be seen as a gesture in the direction of Bach and Mozart; every forehand at a tennis club is a faltering step on the road that leads to the sublime strokes of Roger Federer; every child’s playground pass is a distant imitation of Lionel Messi. We play or listen to music, we play or watch sport, because we have been inspired by something breathtaking and apparently impossible, something that made us feel different, better, more human. A statistician concerned with normality would probably disregard peak experiences because they are so atypical but Maslow’s point is that the atypical is precisely what makes us human.
So to my peak experiences of 2009, a sobering year when all sorts of material aspirations crashed to earth. This was also a year for me marked by a spate of serious illnesses among friends of my own age – a sudden cold blast of mortality. A sobering year could also be a good time to sort the wheat from the chaff, like a whole year of winter light when things stand out more truly in their essential nature.
My musical highlight was difficult to decide. I’ve already paid tribute to Bernard Haitink’s conducting of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, marked by what I could only call a blazing humility. Two of my favourite pianists, about as different from each other as you could imagine, also gave great performances. In Stephen Hough’s epic Festival Hall recital, it was the late Romantic French repertoire that stood out for me: César Franck’s initially despairing, ultimately triumphant Prelude, Chorale and Fugue and the infinitely subtle undulations of Fauré’s fifth impromptu and his fifth barcarolle. Mitsuko Uchida, also at the Festival Hall, made Beethoven seem as strange as Boulez and Webern as familiar as Mozart; but above all brought Schumann’s Fantasy in C major to a fulfilment so hushed and complete that the audience could only sustain the silence.
All the same my ultimate musical highlight was spread over a couple of days in April when I eavesdropped on Gustavo Dudamel rehearsing with his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and talked to José Antonio Abreu, the visionary founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema youth music education programme. Revelatory was not just the wholehearted, red-blooded commitment and quality of the playing but also the way Dudamel, Abreu and the orchestra definitively exploded the myth that classical music is a socially exclusive activity.
The sporting highlight had to come from Roger Federer. His emotional victory in the French Open over the impressive Robin Soderling was not the best tennis match of the year but, by winning the only grand slam that had previously eluded him, it was the moment that sealed a compact with greatness. Federer is the most stylishly attacking player I have seen, the one with the most trust in the power and beauty of his own game, who relies least on the mistakes of others. His Wimbledon victory over the unfortunate Andy Roddick came down to a serving contest but it was also a shining example of nerve under pressure – something for all of us to aspire to.
In the world of wine, 2009 turned out to be one of those years saved in some northerly areas by September sun. September also brought my wine of the year, a bottle of 1957 Lafite from a forgotten recess of my father’s cellar. Old and dusty at first, the wine gathered fruit purity and sweetness as it opened itself up to the air, showing the peculiar grace of older wines, like the beauty of some older people or days in winter when the sun glows for not that long and without much heat but with no less loveliness than on a July scorcher. It was a bottle that gave a lesson in how to age and, in a strange way, how to live and die.
I am adding a new category of broadcasting highlight so that I can praise Roger Scruton’s wonderfully idiosyncratic BBC2 essay Why Beauty Matters. Scruton’s idea of beauty sometimes seemed nostalgic and elegiac but he argued for it with passionate eloquence, as if the ghost of Kenneth Clark had been summoned to contemplate the ruinous effects of 1960s town planning. And above all he raised Antonio Machado’s questioning riposte to utilitarianism – what is the use of all our utilities?
Bird-watching moments were fewer and further between than I would have liked in 2009 but two stand out. The first was in the bayou country of Louisiana where I was entranced to see not just pint-sized alligators but great white egrets. Then a few weeks later, crossing Elvet Bridge in Durham, north-east England, I saw a kingfisher flash over the River Wear, as brilliantly and eternally blue as a medieval stained glass window.
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