‘Sound needs space to breathe, just as we need air’. Michael Morpurgo’s words reverberate around the towering ceilings of the York Minster. A lone violin joins as he reads to a silent, five hundred-strong crowd. A tale of love and loss is taking shape in the cavernous space above our heads, shaped by Morpurgo’s plaintive voice.
He reaches the end of a phrase, and a string quintet, The Storytellers Ensemble, takes over, complementing his lingering words, yet turning them into something quite different. Together with actress Alison Reid, they are telling the Morpurgo’s short story The Mozart Question.
Headlining in the York minster
This is the headline event of 2015’s York Festival of Ideas, a celebration of all things thoughtful presented under the thematic banner of “Secrets and Discoveries”. Fittingly, Morpurgo’s reading of a tale about what it means to keep secrets and promises was also the opening event.
The author of hundreds of stories of all kinds is something of a deity to those of us who grew up reading The Butterfly Lion, Why The Whales Came and Private Peaceful until the bindings frayed. To hear the former Children’s Laureate read his own words in a place of such scale and significance as York’s Minster was nothing short of a spiritual encounter that took 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) took to the stage to the side of the pulpit. The Ensemble commenced a sweeping opening movement that allowed their sound to feel and inhabit the space as it rose, ebbed and flowed. Reid then began the reading as the protagonist of Morpurgo’s story, Leslie, a journalist, secures an interview with Paulo Levi, a reclusive yet genius violinist.
Leslie must travel to Venice to speak to Levi, but there is one caveat: she must not ask the ‘Mozart Question’, whatever that may be. In her performance of the text Reid brought theatrical dynamism and gentle comedy, lending Morpurgo the space to form the character of Levi with a quieter grace.
He, in turn, displayed a surprising emotional range over the course of the narrative, finding pathos in Levi’s memory of childhood as well as anger and joy. Together, the duo breathed The Mozart Question into life.
Pioro and the Ensemble meanwhile played some greater and lesser known Mozart works flawlessly. The only criticism would perhaps be a slight disconnect between the Ensemble’s music and the storytelling: the string interludes playing out like an overlaid concert with pauses, rather than a true accompaniment.
Yet the collision was effective; the musical interludes worked to embody sub-plot and space, creating a new sensory experience in its relation with the spoken word. The horror of the Holocaust and familial love are in The Mozart Question bound together, the latter healing some of the wounds of the former. It’s a tale that finds such sad beauty in the telling. As sound fills the space, we listen, and remember.