BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 22 – Haydn and Vaughan Williams from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

If this is to be a diary entry, you need a bit of backstory first.

I tried again to listen to last night’s Strauss at home this morning. My mind was distracted by a brass quintet website I’m building at the moment – adding the sound files could be made slightly less onerous a task in the next iteration of the development software I think.

The window cleaner and his gang turned up twenty minutes into the piece and, as my desk sits directly in front of the office window, I had to move the furniture so that the chap with the beard could get to the window. Why can’t they put the furniture back when they’ve finished? Also, why did I feel the need to switch off the music when they were in the house, as though I was faintly embarrassed by playing it? Odd.

I’ve got into the habit of checking my bank balance nearly every day. I hate doing this. I screw up my face when I tap in the code and wait in agony while the ‘loading’ graphic wurrs around and around. I try to absent-mindedly avoid the ‘number one account’ balance (because of course, denial is the best way of dealing with things) but it never works. I knew the mortgage was coming out today, so it really wasn’t a surprise. But even though there’s a handful of outstanding invoices (some in fairness only sent out in the last few days), seeing the balance drop so much in such a short space of time was the equivalent of a school bully whispering in my ear, “I told you this would happen and its only going to get worse – you’re fucked now. Why did you think any of this freelance career would work?”

This unhelpful and familiar thinking hung around for most of the day, gnawing at the inside of my stomach, leaving me breathless whenever I broke into anything over a gentle stroll, and resulting in beads of sweat sliding now the back of my neck for most of my journey into London. An hour-long meeting about social media and professional musicians saw some surprising ideas emerge and the symptoms temporarily abate. After which a rich coaching session with a client successfully distracted me to such an extent that it almost felt like I’d been on holiday from my own thoughts.

And then on to the Royal Albert Hall for my first Prom. Sat down in the stalls, minutes before the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra walked onto stage everything flooded back. I might as well have been swigging on acid for most of the afternoon the way my stomach was reacting.

The music, and more specifically the way the BBC Scottish played under the direction of Andrew Manze, triggered some emotional reactions too. They play with such precision during the Haydn symphony, paying as much attention to the time necessary for the silences in the music to reach all of the 6000 strong audience, as they do the clear articulation in the strings and the sparkling brass. The exuberance Manze displays on the podium is matched by the players. It is an invigorating and magical execution, packed full of playful dynamic contrasts. A musical spectacle. 

I look around the auditorium and reckon I can spot two familiar former colleagues. They’re too far away for me to be sure. But they might as well be them.

My eyes well up. I miss them.

There are moments – like this moment sitting in the stalls at the Royal Albert Hall – when I realise how much I miss not being able to fly down the stairs in Broadcasting House and breeze into the Proms office. I didn’t think I missed them. I didn’t think I would ever miss any of the people I worked with at the BBC (except for two). It’s not that I want to go back either. It was in many respects the very worst place for someone like me.

But, in this moment I can picture the people who worked on the thing that seemed to escape the everyday criticism and realise that I do miss them. It’s not that irritating yearning Thomas Hardy kept endlessly indulging in when I was studying my A-Levels. The insight was something far more fleeting and matter of fact, like passing a road traffic accident and observing the flashing blue lights surrounding it as everyday and inconsequential.

A short surprise conversation with a BBC associate sat across the aisle from me preceeded what would later turn out to be a trascendental performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony.

Despite the composer’s detailed clarification to the contrary, Vaughan Williams’ music brought London alive for me. Grand, dark, ambiguous in places, and achingly proud without being cloyingly nostalgic. I heard the musical equivalent of cognitive dissonance laid out in the score. Reassuringly authentic without being trite.

The epic second movement conjured up a jaw-dropping atmosphere amongst the audience, all of them in the zone, none of them moving a muscle. Exquisite tension hung around the auditorium pushing to a point that was almost too much to bear.

The Albert Hall was the perfect setting for the vast expanse of the second movement, offering a three-dimensional quality to the performance I’ve rarely experienced in the venue before now. Part of that is down to conductor Andrew Manze understanding how to capitalise on the acoustic’s inherent properties. And the audience’s responsibility, to breathe deeply, matching the long phrasing. Just the kind of personal intervention one might mount to overcome a hefty dose of anxiety. 

And when the baton went down at the end of the second movement, a moment of realisation.

Thoughts are not facts. We have millions of thoughts every day. Far too many of them to be facts. Those thoughts are either assumptions or perceptions. Be on your guard for assumptions and perceptions which present themselves as facts. The only facts are those things which have gone before. Anything else is a construct based on fear, joy, hope or yearning (to name a few). Nothing is ever completely over – Vaughan Williams revised the London Symphony three times over a twenty-year period. There are no manuals (though there are plenty of spectacularly unhelpful self-help books) on being a freelancer. The only way to live this life is to get on and live it.

By the end of the symphony I was an entirely different person. The pains in my stomach had gone. The lethargy had disappeared. And in leaving the Albert Hall and stepping out into the cool air around Kensington Gore, something else came into focus.

Experiences like the one I’d had at the Proms tonight succeeded in fusing a number of important thoughts and feelings into one potent memory (what’s referred to in NLP terms as an anchor) – an unbreakable link between me, the man across the aisle, the conductor on the stage, the orchestra, the work and the audience around me.

This was the 2018 equivalent of the Mahler from the World Orchestra of Peace a few years back when at the end of the symphony, instinctively, I turned to the friend sat next to me and we hugged.

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