Door 4, Circle R, Row 7, Seat 81

Amid the suffocating heat of a temperatures in central London, I found what might have been the only cool air at the Royal Albert Hall tonight sat on a bench on the the Second Tier walkway.

From there I watched Katie Derham preparing for her pre-record for next Sunday’s BBC Two broadcast, until one eager lady blocked my view and asked, “where did you get that wine?”

I had clear objectives for the evening. I wanted to escape from the self-obsessed thoughts which had taken hold and grown out of control in the heat of the day. Quite a lot of soul searching and telephone calls. On the train in to Charing Cross memories of the words of a former boss uttered in one of our weekly catch-ups rung around my head: “It’s not all about you Jon.”

Had he been around in the box office pre-concert, he would have rolled his eyes, no doubt. Twelve years may have passed, but nothing has changed.

It’s not been a great day. Actually, it’s been a bit shit. To go into the details would be boring, but take it from me, by the time I arrived at the Royal Albert Hall box office any hopes the train journey might have ironed out my niggles were dashed. Still obsessing about some work-related stuff from earlier in the day, I growled at people in my way. Didn’t they realise I had a fold up bike with me? Ian Fletcher didn’t have this problem (to the best of my knowledge).

I handed over my debit card. The man checked the name on the card, retrieved the ticket, handed them over and then said the sweetest, most unexpected, thing. Stunned, I smiled, thanked him and turned around, searching for a way out of the crowd.

I really appreciated it, even if at that moment in time the only thing I wanted to do was cry a little. Simon wasn’t around to share in the moment. I’ll save it for when I get to Cornwall where I’m told this evening “it’s much cooler here than it is in London.”

So yeah, the concert. Of course.

There’s a weird thing that happens when you actually go to a concert and the band are from the other side of the world. And they open the concert with something you wouldn’t normally assume an orchestra from the likes of China would play. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.4? Er, hello? A mean programming trick on the part of outgoing Director Roger Wright? Or did the CPO think this was an easy way to hook their first London audience in? Either way, you sit there like I did high up on the back row of the Circle and start forming a sympathetic relationship with a group of people you can’t see because they’re so far away and you’re never going to meet. In the space of two hours the China Philharmonic became my best friends by virtue of their pluckiness and the story they told (musically) on stage.

China Philharmonic on stage at the BBC Proms 2014
China Philharmonic on stage at the BBC Proms 2014

In truth it felt a little odd hearing Pomp and Circumstance on the second night. This stuff is normally left until the Last Night. A fair fist was made of what turned out to be an interesting rendition. Free of the schmaltz those with a cliched view of Victorian England and the music which has come to represent it, it was refreshing to hear an efficient performance of the march. Whilst it didn’t stir, it did make me think. And it did make me think about the players on stage, where they had come from and what they were performing.

I didn’t especially warm to the Tchaikovsky (there were one or two moments which raised an eyebrow), but Lizst’s first Piano Concerto did what I hoped it might, summarising and dramatising my day, somehow making sense of it. Pianist Zhang’s encore – La Campanella – was a slow burner and without doubt stole the show. It’s easy to take this kind of stuff for granted. We shouldn’t.

Qigang Chen’s Joie eternelle, the UK premiere of a BBC co-commission, reminded me how new stuff can command my attention. In the hall, Chen’s harmonic palette (shoot me), made for the most arresting and compelling experience of the night, exactly what I expect from the Proms. Listening back an hour or so later, I’m excited to have discovered something new. Something I want to listen to again. Yes. Contemporary music I want to listen to again. Accessible contemporary music that isn’t naff. Yay.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures began tentatively, secured an unexpected sense of vulnerability and totally seduced me with the saxophone solo in The Old Castle. That was when it felt like the China Philharmonic had got into their stride.

And God bless them for offering up a series of variations on the theme of .. our national anthem. The laugh the audience responded with was a measure of how we’d bonded with the band by the end of proceedings.

I really hope they visit again. Delightful.

 

 

 

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