Prom 69: RSNO / Roussel & Musgrave / Deneve

Prom 69: Second violin part, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Second consecutive night I have tickets to the Proms. The pal who’d got the tickets had, inexplicably, scheduled a trip to Bulgaria at the same time. What was he thinking?

So tonight’s special treat at the Royal Albert Hall went to me and colleague/pal Lisa who is soon to be leaving the UK to return to the US and who, coiicidentally, has never been to the Royal Albert Hall.

Lisa didn’t want a programme so I hung on to it. I followed her lead and resisted the temptation to read up on the first work in the programme – a ballet suite by Roussel, a composer I hadn’t heard of before.

The piece was packed full of melodrama. If you like Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice you’re bound to warm to this little number. I did. I’d never heard it before.

Thea Musgrave’s programmatic work Rainbow was a Proms premiere and quite interesting too. Debussy’s La Mer was a bit of a joy too. Yet another work in this year’s Proms season I hadn’t heard before. Quite how I passed my music exams I don’t know.

Also in the programme was Stephen Hough’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. One smashing effort.

Prom 68: LPO / Stravinsky / Jurowski

Prom 68, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

What feels like the first Friday night at the Proms in ages I don’t attend. Shame on me.

I couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy. Here was an opportunity to spend some quality time with the significant other, something i didn’t want to miss out on.

So, when the opportunity of being sloppy seconds for some tickets in the Grand Tier came up, I passed the chance onto good pal Peter and his significant other Adam.

I was pleased to pass on the tickets but later felt a little concerned that the first half (an hour of vocal music by Rimsky Korsakov sung in Russian) may possibly have been a little overwhelming.

A text message from said pal’s partner suggested otherwise. I was rather glad.

Prom 65: Berlin Phil / Shostakovich 7 / Rattle

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.


Prom 64: Berlin Phil / Turangalila / Rattle

Prom 64: Turangalila, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Messiaen was one composer which was flagged up pretty early on in my Proms experience this year. In truth, I probably made a bee-line for all of the concerts in which his works featured heavily because I knew it was an easy hit. Pick out the ones you’re least comfortable with and they’re guaranteed to be thought-provoking. I’m always up for being challenged. I’m not generally someone who will only listen to the stuff he knows. I do rather like being taken out of my comfort zone .. for the most part.

I wasn’t anxious about attending tonight’s concert. My only thought had been whether or not I’d be able to stand for the 78 minutes the Turangalila Symphony was supposed to last for. As it was I didn’t stand for the entiriety preferring instead to sit for three movements somewhere in the middle. Sitting is OK, by the way. It’s allowed.

The man stood next to me summed everything I was feeling up when he licked his lips and cracked his knuckles shortly after Sir Simon Rattle stepped up on to his podium. This was a major work and perhaps one not for the faint-hearted. At least, that’s what I assumed to begin with. The man beside me was obviously getting himself psyched-up for the ocassion. I had to admire that.

Of course I was wrong. There was nothing to get psyched up for. Nearly every concert I’ve initially assumed would be heavy weather hasn’t been. The one’s I’ve not given a second thought too have, conversely, thrown unexpected spanners in the works. The Turangalila however was nothing short of pure indulgence.

There are discernible melodies. There are sections you’ll come away from remembering even if you can’t initially whistle them. What’s important – at least to me – is how Messiaen paints and enormous picture orchestrating his ideas with such deft precision that I wonder why we bother listening to any composer in existence before him.

I hadn’t anticipated to what extent it would be such a physical experience either. Sure, you can listen to it and possibly enjoy it on CD, but there’s nothing better than hearing the strange yet reassuring textures Messiaen conjurs up say by combining piccolo trumpet with unison strings wtih the ocassional ondnes martinot thrown in with an ocassional sprinkling of triangle for good measure. There are moments which straddle both the grotesque and the beautiful all at the same time, moments when the orchestra I saw on stage played seemingly disparate melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas and yet executed it in such a way that I never thought to question it.

Tonight was an event. If you were listening on the radio you may not have got that although I’d wager the cheers at the end might possibly have given an indication. For those of us there – and really, there wasn’t much room for anyone else – we all rose to the ocassion. It was the Berlin Phil playing after all. It’s not often you get a chance to stand this close to the first violins of the Berlin Phil and marvel at their cool exterior and equally cool yet accomplished dexterity and musicality.

To watch the much-touted finest orchestra in the world conductor by Rattle only served to reinforce something in my mind I could now finally say that after years of assuming that Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony was impenetrable rubbish, it was Rattle conducting the Berlin Phil who convinced me otherwise is really quite a special thing, if a little pretentious. (Give me a wide berth at parties just in case I use that line, won’t you?)

But there was one other thing which occurred this evening which will make the performance memorable. Part way through the interval, intent on writing something inspired by the first half of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Prelude and Liebestod that I ended up being unexpectedly flattered by someone sat behind me.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I’m sorry to interrupt but you’re writing. Do you write for anyone in particular?”

I hesitated at first before getting a grip. “I write a blog,” I replied beaming.

“Oh, really? What’s it called?”

“The Thoroughly Good Blog.”

“Good name,” he smiled back at me.

“Isn’t it.”

Prom 62: Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra / Davis

I fear I’m beginning to flag just a bit when it comes to promming. I’m still as committed as I was to begin with (even if some other people I know may question this given my comparatively poor attendance – Prom 62 brings my personal best to 23, I think) but having stood for three hours at the concert in a packed arena my back is telling me what my thighs and feet have been feeling for ages. I’m getting tired.

This might be why I spent a great deal of time concentrating on other things during the Beethoven Violin Concerto. At first I was struck by how people weren’t coughing that much. I started trying to work out what the reason might be. Was it that the audience – a full house – were on the whole quite a healthy bunch? Had people watched the video? Had they taken notes ? Was the message getting through?

(Self-obsesion is a nasty trait. I must do more to stamp it out.)

I suspect the real reason was that Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is unusual in its’ dynamic range. Orchestra and soloist have to get to grips with what might at first seems like a fairly straightforward score. But factor in the pianissimos daubed all over the score and the idea of breathing let alone coughing during the performance is would guarantee embarrassment. There was no way anyone wanted to disturb the atmosphere in this one and risk drawing attention to any ills or stubborn medical conditions.

Personally, I want to listen to this back if only to give the entire concert a second go. Assessing why everyone was so unusually quiet had taken up quite a lot of my attention not to mention the sight of one man in front of me in the arena who’d missed a loop with his belt when he dressed himself in the morning. This and a definite case of broken wind emanating from the second row (I was on the fourth row, I hasten to add) towards the end of the first movement of Sibelius’ second symphony made this evening’s concert quite an arduous task.

Still, some others rather liked it and at least there’s iPlayer and a modest sound system at home to go some way to recreate the experience.