BBC Proms 2016 / 74: Marin Alsop conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi’s Requiem

There’s an unnerving exercise in Professor Steve Peter’s ‘Chimp Paradox’ which helps uncover what your core, unshakeable, belief is.

It goes something like this. Imagine yourself on your deathbed. In the last 60 seconds of your life your grandchildren ask you for one last piece of advice. In the 60 seconds you have left to live, what would you tell them?

Go on, try it.*

The Real Last Night of the Proms** featured the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Marin Alsop, a grand setting of life’s most ultimate ending.

The evening felt as though we were tying-up loose ends too. A season coming to an end prompts inevitable evaluation and reflection. After that, there’s a need to empty the desk, tidy the classroom, switch off the lights, and close the door. Departures shouldn’t be rushed.

I had began the process on the train on my way to the Prom. An exchange between Radio 3 presenter Suzy Klein and Proms Unplucked podcast presenter Vikki Stone on the station’s drive-time programme still rang in my ears.

Suzy Klein: Your twice-weekly podcast throughout the Proms has seen you hang around backstage talking to all sorts of people behind the scenes hasn’t it Vikki?

Vikki Stone: Yes it has. It’s been great.  We didn’t really have a plan. I think that served us very well.

SK: I like the idea of there being a crack team of two people roaming backstage at the Proms asking ‘Hi, can we talk to you?’ – people who are quite busy.

VS: Yes, busy and quite important.

SK: What’s been your highlight?

VS: Well, we’ve been really lucky. I think one of the highlights was talking to Simon Rattle about Boulez. I didn’t know much about Boulez personally and he gave me this really fantastic idiot’s guide to Boulez. He’d just finished his rehearsal, we just stood on the stage – it wasn’t an official interview, we just had a conversation, it was really nice.

SK You just got a masterclass from one of the greatest living conductors on one of the greatest composers?

VS: Yeah, just hanging about.

SK: Who needs to bother going to University to learn about music? You could just hang around and ask really great people for stuff. Maybe that’s the way to just go through life. So, we’ve actually got a clip from the latest instalment of you with David Pickard, is that right?

VS: Yes, so we’ve interviewed David a few times and I suggested for the last episode that – he has on his Twitter profile that he will play piano duet – so we thought …

SK: We should explain that David does have a proper grown up job too – running the Proms.

VS: Yes. So we thought we’d catch up with him to find out how his first Proms has gone. You’re not going to hear all of the piano duet because I was sight-reading and I was just a bit sweary …

The exchange is, of course, benign. It’s just patter, filler, and self-promotion – it’s what I do, just not on the radio. It was the talk of the podcast, the piano duet with the Director of the Proms, and the being backstage ‘just catching people’ which sounded familiar.

No one has ownership of ideas, not really. But when you start remembering that you’d done strangely similar things like that in the past (with a different Proms Director), pitched ideas for podcasts (about six or seven years ago), and produced podcasts with the same spirit of serendipity in mind, an unwelcome feeling starts to crawl all over you. It’s a feeling which can be summed up in an exclamation: That could have been me doing that.

This is all very presumptuous on my part and breathtakingly self-absorbed. I share it because of the way it triggered my thinking right at the end of the season. A seemingly innocent exchange between two presenters on a radio station reminds me of the stuff I’d done years ago, the reasons I’d done them (to get into broadcasting), and a telling reminder that for the most part I’d failed to achieve my ambitions.

The journey to the Royal Albert Hall trundled on slowly; at Waterloo East, heavy congestion at Charing Cross meant the train didn’t move for 15 minutes. Thoughts whirled around. Disappointment, embarrassment, and perhaps a little bit of annoyance too.

“Keep your eye on the prize,” said a pal who had succumbed to a text conversation on the matter with me. If only I actually knew what the prize was then I would at least be able to recognise when I’d won it. If you’re not clear on what you’re hunting then those inevitable moments of evaluation and reflection will always trigger sadness and regret.

Ambition is what fuels all of this. When it’s not realised it stares you in the face accusingly.

But when is ambition realised and at what point in our lives do we get to say: I’m happy, that’s done with, let’s move on?  In the event of the ambition never being realised, what do we do then?  What happens if the ambition is never satisfied? Am I danger of being that person who harps on about the past because of his out of control ambition? Am I in fact that person already?  And if I am, what the hell do I do to stop it? Can it even be stopped?

When I arrived at the Albert Hall I sat down in my seat and immediately recognised the man sat beside from a website I’d written for earlier in the summer. It was the first time we’d met in person. I struck up a conversation. In a few minutes the conversation had taken me out of myself and, importantly, done what Verbier has achieved for two consecutive years: it had shown me a world which exists beyond the BBC, beyond perceived career paths and ambitions.

As the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment walked on to stage, I was reminded of a world I felt more at home in – a place where those who write about classical music reside. That’s somewhere I’d like to spend more time.

On the whole Verdi’s setting is grandiose and bombastic, but in those moments where we hear a stripped back score and simplicity reigns, the music gives us something we can better connect with. Conductor Marin Alsop had at her disposal the quite remarkable BBC Proms Youth Choir, clearly adept at great articulation and stunning pianissimos. The opening Requiem aeternam was a stunning demonstration.  Similarly, the quieter duets and quartets, especially those underpinned with a meandering bassoon line reached places I never thought were possible with Verdi.

A lot of that is down to Marin Alsop. Her detailed conducting style is underpinned with great stamina and warmth, and the results could clearly be heard in this performance. The self-imposed break half-way through before the Offertory saw the atmosphere drop (it’s even more marked in the radio broadcast). As a result, the ensemble had to work harder during the Domine Jesu Christe and the Sanctus to regain what we’d experienced before. But come the transcendent  Agnus Dei the magic had returned.

This was a fitting conclusion to the season, one which the audience repeatedly demanded soloists and conductor return to the stage to receive enthusiastic applause for.

*My response is: if you’re faced with two options and you don’t know which one to take, choose the one which instinctively feels the hardest – the outcome will be more rewarding.

**The actual Last Night isn’t representative of the rest of the season. The event invariably attracts an entirely different crowd to the Albert Hall. Consequently, an unofficial tradition has established itself around the penultimate night, now regarded as the season’s ‘Proper’ Last Night.

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