BBC Proms 2016 / 33: Elgar Symphony No. 1

Returning home from an interview early this morning, I sat on the platform waiting for the next overdue service to Catford. I had a thought about my waistline. I was reminded me of the double chin which presents itself whenever I get my picture taken. The spectre of exercise reared itself soon after. Yes, I might have a sore elbow which prevents me from riding my bike, but I should probably make more of an effort to get moving.

Beside me on the platform bench, I glanced a picture of Rio 2016 Olympic Bronze medallist Tom Daley’s torso, skimpy swimming trunks perched on an unfairly lean frame. Irritating white teeth glinted in the sunlight. Damn you and your stupid thumbs-up to the crowd, Daley. I don’t need you to remind me how I really ought to be pushing myself a little harder.

By pushing myself, I really mean squeezing at least some exercise into my day. The thing is that I can’t even lift a pillow without feeling a twinge up my arm. It’s the latest in a long line of stupid middle-age ailments which have afflicted me this year. Everyone is bored of hearing about them. The daily pill-popping is equally tiresome.

The 22-day push-up challenge was a non-starter. Maybe I should run instead.

The fact is that I hate running. Running is the only pastime guaranteed to test my stamina which will nearly always be found to be lacking when I’m sweating, puffing and generally looking like a twat. Fortunately, the NHS recommends walking before running anyway, and suggests a good beginner’s target for getting the 8required exercise is 10K steps a day. I follow up with an email to a colleague – a poster girl for dramatic walk-induced weight loss – asking her how many steps she advocates a day. “I’m asking for a friend,” I say. She recommends between 11K and 15K.

I make a private bid to walk to tonight’s Prom, but am unexpectedly diverted by peer pressure. A colleague has unexpectedly announced her departure. She doesn’t realise it at the time, but my world momentarily shuddered, I was so unprepared for it. Shall we all follow up with a drink, she proposes? Everyone is agreement. Yes, we would meet in the Green Man.

It would have taken 45 minutes to walk to the Royal Albert Hall. I could have left at 6.30pm but – schoolboy error – I end up staying for another half. I stare at myself in the mirror of the gents and promise myself I’ll never wear the chinos and denim combination again. It does nothing for me, not least because the colour of the shirt fails to cast a much-needed shadow under my chin.

A timely Uber gets me deep into Hyde Park, somewhere near the Serpentine Gallery. “What time do you need to be where you’re going?” asks the driver. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself trotting to the concert hall, only minutes to get to my seat.

I explain all of this because I think the detail rules. In addition, in stark contrast to other recent concert experiences, I want to illustrate the kind of banality can get in the way of moments of great artistry.

Dutilleux is, without doubt, my new most favourite composer. The man loved sound, and revelled in creating all sorts of exotic and evocative soundscapes. The opening of what amounts to his cello concerto was tense. At the same time, the opening sequence deftly illustrated the melodic and textural range of the instrument. Within minutes I was convinced: this was far more engaging than Elgar’s rather staid concerto. Taut harmonies followed in the second movement over which a strung out melody hovered high above. It was a combination that shimmered as miraculously as the filament in an electric fire from the 1970s. The third contained sparkling woodwind sequences combined with more evidence of the extent to which Dutilleux loves the cello and its range. The fourth movement was a blissful escape – tortured but cathartic at the same time. There was a fifth movement, but to be honest, I didn’t write any notes about that.

It was the Elgar symphony in the second half I’d really come for. The opening theme remains both enigmatic and somehow the most potent piece of melodic writing Elgar ever penned. It is arresting. Captivating. It will always remain, as Tom Service said a few years ago live on BBC Four, “proper Elgar”.

The slow movement – the third – transported me. This was the moment the BBC Philharmonic created something miraculous and much-needed. If magical moments are characterised by people stopping in their tracks and collectively holding their breath, the third movement adagio was it.

I closed my eyes. Tears rolled down my face. It wasn’t all to do with the music, of course. Some of it was enabled by the lager I’d consumed earlier in the evening. Regardless of who or what ultimately takes the credit, it was an incredibly special moment. There was a release.

The symphony finished ahead of time. I hit South Kensington tube three minutes to ten. I’ll complete the long 54-minute walk from the Royal Albert Hall to Charing Cross Station another time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.