Some of the regulars in the arena looked me confused when I said I was moving to the gallery to listen to the second half of the Prom 65. Why on earth would an arena season ticket holder choose to hear the finest orchestra in the world play a Shostakovich symphony up where the sound is muddy?
It’s not muddy at all. Most of us just assume it’s muddy when we stare up at the rows of people leaning over the railings at the top of the Royal Albert Hall. From the arena, the gallery looks so distant and removed from the action that the idea of going up there to hear a piece of music seems like a risk not worth taking. Nothing, surely, could be better than be being as close to what’s going on on stage as it is in the arena?
There’s more space up in the gallery, considerably more space in fact. In comparison to the Arena last night with prommers (some of whom were still queuing half way down Prince Consort Road at seven o’clock), the gallery has a far more relaxed feel. There’s space to stretch out. People lounge around, slumped against the back wall, blankets spread out on the floor while others lay flat out on the floor. Some read books, others do crosswords. Only a handful actually stand at the railings looking down on the auditorium below.
I gingerly emptied the entire contents of my bag during the first movement of the Shostakovich, only to repack the items in a slightly more organised way (I wanted to avoid the panic I’d had the night before at South Ken tube when I couldn’t find my Oyster card).
The sight of one man wandering around the gallery barefoot towards the end of the first movement prompted me to kick off my shoes and do the same during the second. It felt like the most fitting thing to do for the orchestrated venom Shostakovich had so skilfully orchestrated in the second movement.
Earlier on in the day I’d found the Simon Bolivier Youth Orchestra’s performance from 2007 of the same work on YouTube and got ridiculously excited about hearing the dramatics again. This time I was wandering around the gallery listening to the drama unfold somewhere below me. Not seeing the orchestra playing only added to inevitable imagery.
There is something refreshing and reassuring about Shostakovich’s orchestral works. I can’t work out whether it’s the chuntering rhythms, the signature woodwind flourishes or the symptomatic warmth resulting from the definitely Russian-sounding string writing. It seems odd that the sound of the string harmonies can be both warm and cold at the same time but it just is. That was Shostakovich is. I wonder whether it’s a mixture of pity and admiration for what the man had to suffer in his life.
These are the thoughts which I can have up in the gallery. Up here I get the ambient mix minus the visual indulgence of being within only a few metres of seeing a professional band play. Up in the gallery I don’t have the nagging pain of my back. Neither do I find myself keeping a beady eye on my personal space to make sure no-one invades it or, worse, barges in front of it.
A change is as good as a rest, after all. And the marvellous thing about this particular change is that I get to see it all on TV on BBC Four on Sunday night.