OK, so fresh from the political fray with David Miliband, I headed off to Keele University for a performance by the Vanbrugh Quartet, Ireland's foremost classical band - led by my cousin Gregory (though it was so long since we'd last met that I thought the cellist was my relative - good job I didn't give him an enthusiastic hug and kiss).
It wasn't the first performance of the night: I had the dubious pleasure of hearing some fine 1980s thrash metal at full volume on the bus, leaking through the headphones of an antisocial little gimp who should be thrashed to within an inch of his life. I like 1980s thrash metal, but find the reproduction qualities of cheap headphones add very little to the upper frequency ranges.
However, music soothes the furrowed and all that. The programme was Haydn's String Quartet Op. 76 No. 2, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9, Arvo Pärt's Summa and Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4. The Haydn and Beethoven were lovely, but a little pretty for my tastes - what kept me hooked was the quality of the performance.
There's something astonishing about the interplay between four people who have to know absolutely everything about their colleagues' creative abilities, emotional approach and intellectual perspective to produce something that's more than four people playing what's in front of them. It was fascinating to see them wander off to different lodgings afterwards without really saying goodbye to each other, as though the bonds between them are far deeper than quotidian relationships. I wonder if rock bands have the same kinds of links and tensions. Do classical groups snort coke when they go off for the encore? Certainly the groupies differ somewhat - by about 45 years if last night's audience is representative.
The Arvo Pärt piece was short, reflective and pretty typical of the composer's mystical-minimalism - Gregory told me that when they played it for Pärt recently, he was pleased that they played it so much faster than everybody else. For me though, the highlight was the Shostakovich quartet: passages of beauty mixed with snarling, paranoid darkness, demanding total dedication from the musicians. It was disturbing and fascinating at the same time.
The encore piece was a short arrangement of a polka from Shostakovich's The Golden Age: unexpected light and funny.
Some clips (not by the Vanbrugh, sadly):