Prom 38: Daniel Barenboim / West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

I feel wretched. Tonight was a big night at the Royal Albert Hall and yet I failed to consume anymore than five or six minutes of the actual concert.

I know. It’s no big deal really, is it? It happens to all of us. We all sit down in front of the TV and for one reason or another find ourselves distracted by something going on in the kitchen, the telephone ringing or an incoming SMS.

In fairness, today has been a bit of a weird day. I didn’t intend to spend most of the day working from home. I’d hoped I’d do some work in the morning and making it to west London by 11.30am. My best laid plans ended up being a complete disaster however, almost as soon as I woke up this morning.

I’ve been obsessing about some bizarre pains in my chest just recently. Am I drinking too much? Do I need to exercise more? Is day to day life getting me down just that little bit too much? Is the pain across my chest some kind of warning signal?

The doctor at the neighbourhood surgery whose name I can’t and won’t even attempt to spell was suitably reassuring before proposing it might be a good idea for me to go to the nearby walk-in clinic for a series of blood tests. He was such a charming man, terribly effecient too. Despite his reassurances however, I have spent the entire day obsessing about what that chest pain might be.

I opted not to go to the Albert Hall. There was a heavy camera to carry home from work, things to think about for the recording tomorrow and a spot of work to attend to in the morning. It was important not to cram too much in, I thought. “And, look!” I thought as I looked in the Proms brochure for tonight’s gig,  “It’s being relayed on BBC Four. Why go to the Albert Hall? I’ll watch it on TV instead.”

In between sneezing, snoozing a little and engaging in conversation with my mother about something she took a dislike too on TV recently, I only managed to get part way through the Haydn Concertante from tonight’s concert. I feel like a complete let down as a result.

Call youself a Proms fan Jacob? Surely you could have stayed the course for this important gig?

Sadly not.  I’m disappointed that for one reason or another tonight’s concert has passed me by. I’m banking on some free time tomorrow morning to catch up on what I missed. And if I manage to watch it back from the PVR, I promise I’ll report back. In the meantime, let me know what you think should you have an opinion when you listen via iPlayer.

Prom 37: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique

I loathe Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. The composer’s triumph of orchestration has been eclipsed by the work’s ubiquity. Everyone loves it. I hate that. 

In fact, I really wouldn’t be surprised if one fine day I trotted down to our nearby mini-mart to buy some milk only to discover it being pumped over the public address system in the foolish belief it will encourage people to spend more money.

It won’t. It would only make me run out of the door throwing what I had originally considered purchasing down on the floor before I leave.

I missed the first half of tonight’s prom. I swore out loud when I discovered the clock on the kitchen wall didn’t read half past seven. It wasn’t that I’d missed half a prom, more I’d missed the clarinet concerto. I did feel terribly dirty, like I’d callously snubbed a friend. I play the clarinet, you see. I’m always interested to hear clarinet stuff. Mind you, clarinet soloist Martin Frost got a massive cheer for his perky sounding encore. On that basis alone I will listen to the first half on iPlayer to catch up.

As much as I didn’t want to listen to the Berlioz in the second half, I reckoned I ought to. The Symphonie Fantastique would have to be today’s fix.

It’s a good symphony. I’ve played it and enjoyed it. But there’s something inherent in it’s accessibility and it’s resulting popularity which has resulted it in almost acquiring the same status as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I was an idiot to think that, however. Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra did what was necessary to challenge the assumptions I had in my head. Not only that, I was reminded just how much more satisfying a live ambient broadcast of a symphony is over a dry, soulless studio recording.

The crowd went wild – so much so that I wish I’d been there. And to repay the appreciative audience, Gustav and his merry band provided us with not one, but two encores. We feel so special when there are encores.

Prom 37 on iPlayer

Prom 35: Vaughan Williams & Elgar

The BBC Philharmonic was playing tonight, all of the players gracing the stage in their white tuxedos. (I’m sorry to say I can’t recall exactly what the ladies were wearing.) They looked the business too – there’s a lot to be said for good posture and excellent bow technique – none more so than the lead Yuri Torchinsky whose energy and enthusiasm was clear to see during the opening number, Elgar’s Alassio.

Given my seemingly never-ending amounts of enthusiasm for the Proms season, you’d think I’d be enthusiastic every time I set foot in the building. Not so tonight. This evening, a familiar and relentless series of negative thoughts consumed me. I was focussing on things beyond my control. I was, frankly, obsessing and I was feeling angry as a result.

Of course, part of the problem might have been the Elgar itself. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Elgar at all. It opens with a brilliant flourish and whisks the audience off to the Italian Rivera swiftly and deftly. Everyone in the hall loved it and yet, I could only muster the weakest of applause. Clearly, Elgar had failed on this particular occasion to shake my self-imposed fug.

I opted to sit on the floor of the arena from that moment on.

The view from the floor is very odd. Here amongst the bags and programmes, the view is of trousers and ankle socks, the occasional skirt or legs partially covered by lycra shorts. Still, it felt cosy. I occupied my own little cocoon whilst the rest of the prommers stood and craned their necks to get a view of the piano soloist who had arrived on stage.

I picked up my pen and notepad intent on writing out my thoughts in a bid to get rid of them. The first series of repeated chords rung out from piano and orchestra. Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto commanded my attention from the outset. My heart-rate dropped dramatically. I could feel all the tension begin to seep from my body. All that negativity ebbed away.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why, nor give a precise series of explanations as to why this unknown work hit me like a freight train. Despite my unfamiliarity with it, there was something immediately engaging about the unexpected sound world Vaughan Williams had created.

This wasn’t the usual clichéd pastoral world I assume all VW’s music conjurs up. There was something unexpectedly jarring about it. That was refreshing. It was as though the composer himself was prodding me to pay full attention to his creation. Every sound, every texture, every chord and melody was fresh to my ears and yet it all made perfect sense all at the same time.
I sat still, calm and collected, temporarily relieved from all my usual stresses and strains.

That’s possibly why the distant dusting sound on the Royal Albert Hall roof above me took me by surprise. What was the noise? Could anyone else hear it? Was it rain I could hear? Then, when I realised it really was, the heavens opened and the rain got louder. A crack of thunder followed shortly after that.

Tonight’s gig moved me. An unexpected event made for a truly moving experience which in turn introduced me to a new work and one I will no doubt listen to time and time again.

Oh, and the pianist was really good too. He even provided us prommers with an encore.

Listen to Elgar’s Allasio and Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto on BBC iPlayer.

Olympics: Smashing effort

I was thinking about a colleague on the way home today. He dropped a comment which was almost certainly harmless in intent but prompted to obsess between London Charing Cross and Hither Green. He’d joked that because the olympics didn’t feature “classical music” in it, then I wasn’t interested.

It’s true. I have, perhaps, been a little too focussed on the Proms.

It’s a habit. I have a few habits.

However, I am very pleased to announce that I have spent the past ten minutes clicking around various information sources on the internet with the word “research” playing very heavily on my mind.

I am therefore proud to confidently impart something which I suspect everyone knows already.

Great Britain has at the time of writing secured three Olympic medals. One in cycling and two in the same swimming race. Nicole Cooke is responsible for cycling (gold). Rebecca Adlington (gold) and Jo Jackson (bronze) must have swum quite fast in the 400m freestyle thing.

Well done all.

More exciting, up-to-the-minute Olympics news tomorrow (maybe).

Prom 33: Sibelius, Berkeley, MacRae & Elgar

Tonight’s Proms experience kicked off in the Elgar restaurant. I ordered the goats cheese and tomato cheescake, followed by the crispy chicken in a broth, finished off with a cheese plate and washed down by a couple of glasses of red wine. The Elgar restaurant at the Royal Albert Hall comes highly recommended for one of those special indulgences in the company of friends.

Inside the auditorium, the smaller audience didn’t dent my enthusiasm and commitment to the performance. There was something special about the idea that those of us who sat or stood really wanted to be there and as a result really wanted the BBC Symphony Orchestra to know they had all our collective support. 

The Sibelius – a short orchestral piece entitled Night Rides and Sunshine – was a revelation. It was really refreshing to hear something other than Finlandia. The constant rythmic feature in the strings depicting “the ride” was infectious, “the dawn” beautiful.

As the programme ran on, I became increasingly more worried. I know absolutely nothing of Michael Berkeley or his music (clearly, I don’t pay close enough attention to the schedules as Berkeley presents Private Passions on Radio 3 – I really ought to have put two and two together). Tonight’s premiere from him depicted his take on “Dawn” and despite what many might regard as a relatively unconventional compositional style in comparison to Sieblius at least, this new work was totally engaging.

By far the most challenging and thought-provoking was Gaudete from Stuart MacRae. The sound from the band was arresting, the vocals from Susan Anderson eery in places. The fact that I had to follow the words in the programme is no shortcoming. The fact that I will have to listen to it again to get a deeper appreciation of the work isn’t a failure either. Sometimes these things take a few repeat listens before I get the gist.

What was invigorating was how the live performance stoked conversation amongst our group as we queued to get a drink. Not only that, I felt bold enough to go up to a few people, crowbar their way into their conversations and find out what they thought. And no … I won’t be telling what they said – listen to the work yourself and make up your own mind.

The evening was rounded off with a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Everyone knows it and everyone was, undoubtedly sticking around for it too. The BBC Symph didn’t dissapoint either. Much respect to the organist in the finale whose thunderous chords brought a well-known work in the most appropriate of settings to a rousing conclusion.

Listen to the Sibelius, Berkeley and McRae on iPlayer (Proms 33: Part One) and the Enigma Variations (Proms 33: Part Two).