Prom 58: Exruciating

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What could be better for a self-confessed of musical theatre and a strange, if slightly-obsessive Proms fan * but an evening of excerpts from a variety of different stage works sung by UK musical theatre chieftan Michael Ball?

Here’s what could have been better.

A concert performance of one entire stage show (preferrably something by Sondheim – say Into the Woods) with a varied cast and absolutely no anecdotes from Michael Ball.

Last night’s Prom was a frightfully disappointing affair. Enough said. Let’s move on. Let’s not dwell.

* Who obviously only ever listens on the radio or watches on TV.

Prom 56: Hardly any comment

As usual, I’ve found myself fending off a steady stream of contrary opinions regarding last night’s Prom concert from Proms fans who (to the best of my knowledge) didn’t actually attend/watch/listen to last night’s concert.

I have to be completely honest. We didn’t watch very much of it ourselves nor did we watch it live. So, that combined with my usual defence about why I hardly ever go to the Royal Albert Hall because it’s better at home, I do realised that I’m probably not in the best position to offer any thorough review of last night’s gig.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra promised Britten, Martinu and Prokofiev. Either I truly am some kind of slack fan but it wasn’t long into Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes that I rapidly began to lose interest.

Something was happening in the hall, it seemed to me. Few of the players seemed to be able to hear or concentrating on what they could hear and, as a result, there were moments when it was obvious the band wasn’t playing as one. The brass left me clawing at the sofa cushions as though I was looking for an escape and had failed to remember I was watching a recording and could therefore switch it off.

The most telling moment however was the sight of the entire front row of Prommers looking up to their left. Something had grabbed their attention mid-performance and it wasn’t the orchestra or the conductor on stage. Voices could be heard – one in particular – although the words were indistinct.

At the end of one movement in the Britten there was a agonising pause as the conductor, his baton still hovering over the orchestra glared in the same direction as the Prommers. The voice continued, so too the orchestra almost defiantly.

No mention of it can be found anywhere today and the only mention of it I noticed last night was when the Proms’ broadcast pundits (pictured) crow-barred it into the introduction of their own account of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s opening effort.

Prom 41: Oh dear God

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I was tired tonight. I had a rare work-spurt early this morning. My tiredness was understandable.So, when I arrived home earlier than usual, I figured I’d relax, have a bath, maybe a beer, maybe even a beer before my bath and then, finally settle down to tonight’s Prom live on BBC 4. It would be my early-week treat, if such a term exists.

I plumped the cushions and cracked open beer number one just as American jazz pianist Marcus Roberts and two other chappies strolled onto the Royal Albert Hall ahead of a new performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Oooh, I thought, that will be nice.

And they were .. very nice. They were .. very good. They were .. clearly able to deliver astonishing moments of clarity in the kind of jazz improvisation which does (I’m sorry to confess) always leave absolutely deflated.

To be fair, Gershwin’s cartoon music is well-known. It’s almost supermarket music, it’s so well-known. Consequently if you’re used to the “traditional” recordings of it, any new intrepretations with big drum sequences, alternative rhythms and groovy solo double bass lines is always going to be a little challenging.

But I can confirm that this was a performance which left me feeling a little disappointed. I am open minded and I did want to enjoy it, but the thing is it really didn’t push any of the right buttons for me.

Interesting though. And I almost certainly would have tripped up the principal clarinettist of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on his way in to the Royal Albert Hall this evening if only to get an opportunity to play the solo he had this evening.

Riding on her coat tails

Guardian Review

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in the Weekend Guardian today. After I’d recovered from the gay rights forum report, I skirted over various other pages until my eyes landed on a review of the BBC National Orchestra’s performance of Guto Puw’s commission “( … unless I open the door … )”.

I wrote a “review” * of that, I thought. I rather enjoyed it, in fact. After a tough day it was a real treat to revisit the Royal Albert Hall from the comfort of my leather sofa and listen to a piece of newly composed music which didn’t come with the same kind of demands as the supposed “classics” of orchestral music like Beethoven or Mozart.

I read the review in the Guardian and marvelled at how the writer had managed to describe Puw’s work so much more successfully than I did. All I do is say how much I enjoyed it and why, rarely giving out the technical information which so many quite rightly consider is appropriate to well-rounded journalism.

Not only was it fabulous writing, the reviewer seemed to largely enjoy the concert too. Yes, there may not have been as much to say about the Viola concerto but whoever this person was, he or she still enjoyed it.

I sat back in my chair in the garden, looked at the blue sky and smiled. Someone else felt the same way I did.

I looked back at the newspaper and looked for the name of the person who wrote. I was stunned. This was someone who was in the year below me at school. She sat in the viola section of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra when I played clarinet and percussion. We got drunk together on youth orchestra courses. We both sang in the choir at school. I helped her use Macromedia Dreamweaver.

Not only that, we’d both had the same music lessons from the same music teacher who introduced the music of John Cage to Suffolk schoolchildren twenty-odd years ago. We’d both listened to the same event and in our totally separate ways both commented on it too.

On a Saturday morning, sitting in the warming glow of the midday sun, here was another Proms-related moment which tapped into my past and made one concert this week all the more memorable.

Very special indeed.

* I use the term in it’s loosest sense, obviously.

Prom 36: Made things better

I didn’t get to hear all of Prom 36. Sorry, I mean I know I’m a Proms fan supposedly, but the thing is that we were interrupted during the live relay on Radio 3. *

I had also dropped in five minutes after the beginning of the broadcast which meant of the 15 minutes of newly composed music by Guto Puw, I only really heard 10 minutes of it.

Mind you, one of my school music teachers did spring to mind as I listened to Puw’s Proms commission “(…unless I open the door..)”.

It was no easy feat teaching class music lessons at the school I went to. Noone seemed particularly interested. It must have been a tough job to do.

One music teacher was unusual. He had an unusual surname. He also doubled up as a games teacher, specialising it seemed in rugby, something I wasn’t particularly keen on. Still, everybody around me seemed rather impressed as his relative grooviness.

When his friendship blossomed with the big, burly, proper full-time sports teacher, our class music teacher’s status suddenly rocketed. This man was deeply cool, even though I didn’t quite understand what deeply cool was or felt like.

It was the same music teacher who introduced a bit of a challenge on what I thought music was. Up until then I was a connosseur of such musical theatre classics as The Sound of Music and Half a Sixpence. I also could be found listening to the music of Glen Miller as played by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. All of it very good. Things were about to change when our music teacher introduced John Cage’s 4’33” silence.

He even got the class to perform it. We all sat for 4’33” in complete silence. A music lesson of which 4’33” was in total silence.

Afterwards he asked us what we had heard during that time. Then, as he explained some more about John Cage he persuaded us into thinking about what it was that defined the word “music”. Could it be possible that “msuic” could be sounds as unusual on the ear and even more unusual to create? What if “music” could be nothing more than sounds you hear when there’s silence. 4’33” silence.

There was a time when i was scared of new music, petrified when I saw the word “commission” in the Proms brochure.

Now, listening to Guto Puw’s fascinating and gratifying work I’m remembering the way my music teacher opened my mind all those years back and how I want to hear what more amazing effects composers can cajole musicians into creating.

Just to be clear, a Proms commission quite unexpectedly transformed my day and I have Guto Puw and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to thank for that.

* That’s what they’re called. Live Relays. Sexy sounding, aren’t they?