Prom 8: Largely disappointing

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Last night (Thursday) was going to be my night at the Royal Albert Hall. I was going to feel all superior about it too. I’d prepared the blog entry well in advance. I could even taste my air of moral superiority 24 hours before I actually got there. I would go to great lengths to explain how much nicer it is not to follow the crowd and go to the first night of the Proms but instead to take pot luck and indulge myself with something unexpected.

I was thinking that right up until the point my colleague George reminded me that I was covering his on-call shift during the evening. The colleague who conveyed the message from George to me sat at her desk and watched me as I turned around and, with my back towards her, started gesticulating wildly. Had I spoken out loud she probably would have winced and reported me to HR.

So, I thought, I’ll have to listen to it on the radio. I’ll indulge myself at home. I’ll settle down with a gin and tonic, my notebook and my programme notes and I’ll sit and listen to the programme.

The first element – Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten by Arvo Part – was absolutely stunning. I’d not heard the seven minute work before but when I read in the notes that the composer Arvo Part had felt such a sense of loss when Benjamin Britten had died in 1977 that he felt the need to write the memorial music, I was immediately hooked in before I’d even heard a note. Part had commented how he’d wished he’d been able to meet Britten face to face before the man had died. Speaking as someone who comes from the same county as Britten and who was inspired to take up music as a result of his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I felt a strange affinity with the work before I’d even heard it.

Second part of the first half offered a real treat. Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini is a brilliant work giving everybody involved the opportunity to show off some bravura playing. After nearly a week of a lot of new sounds in the other concerts to hear this would be like having something terribly reassuringly familiar .. like a teddy bear.

Things got off to a slow start which I did overlook. In fact, it didn’t really dawn on me to tell the truth. Variation One seemed to adopt the same speed, variation two was similar. I decided not to let any internal criticism dampen my self-indulgent experience and overlooked these points.

By the time variation six has cruised up at exactly the same speed I began to get a little dispondent. Then there was mild irritation , followed by rising fury, mounting rage and focussed determination to effect some kind of resolution to the woeful problem of a lack-lustre performance which was emerging from the Royal Albert Hall.

After some thought, I concluded that there was only one option available: to communicate my feelings in such a way as to make people feel totally sorry for me for what turned out to be the only truly disappointing element in the Proms so far this season.

I tried to listen to the second half – billed as the “epic third symphony by Gliere” – but to be completely honest with you .. I did drop off to sleep by that stage. Terrible shame.

Prom 7: Wedding favours

Melting Moments recipe

I’d not heard of a “favour” before. At least, not the kind that get handed out at wedding receptions.

A friend of seven years suggested she and I made a batch of fifty “melting moments” biscuits a couple of days before her big wedding down on the south coast. These biscuits woudl be handed out at the reception with the coffee at the end of the meal. Everyone will get one.

It’s the first time I’ve ever contributed something to a wedding celebration in such a way. A terribly special evening made marked not only by our industry but also by events relayed from the Royal Albert Hall this evening.

I’d been listening to Tchaikowsky’s Serenade for Strings in the car on the way to the pet shop. I missed a couple of movements whilst I was in the store purchasing some flea killer for the carpets but did make it back just in time to hear the audience applaud erroneously in between movements.

The audience’s performance to one side, the orchestra sounded fantastic, delivering a rich, fat sound I’d not heard in the Serenade ever before.

We were making the biscuit dough during the Bruckner, both me and my friend remarking that it did “go on rather”. It wasn’t until the encore (Meistersingers Overture thingy by Wagner) we both looked up from our little biscuit production lines and said, “Oh, we rather like this one.”

Fifty-five melting moments were completed using the recipe pictured. My friend said I was doing her a favour helping her out. I pointed out it was a complete pleasure to be involved. I can’t wait for her wedding on Saturday.

Prom 6: Flea infestation

Evidence of fleas

Given it’s billing as “Renaissance choral music”, Prom 6 wasn’t a concert I necessarily gravitated too. Still, given that it was a late night Prom I did rather like the idea of snuggling up with my teddy bear (Simon’s away on training this week – I’m home alone) and listening in on Radio 3 to see whether I’d enjoy it.

I’d hoped that the friend who would be visiting in between Prom 5 and 6 would understand the importance of the season and slip away quietly and swiftly. As it was, we soon realised we hadn’t seen each other for a year. Consequently there was much to catch up on. The late-night Prom seemed seriously less important in comparison. Our time together was long overdue and an absolute pleasure.

Soon after he went – the beginning of the concert had been and gone, so too the impetus to tune in – both Cromarty and Faero (our fluffy cats, in case you were wondering) were observed in the corner of the living room scratching furiously. Such action could only mean one thing. The murderously expensive flea treatment both Simon and I had administered late last night hadn’t worked as well as we might have hoped. I went to the kitchen to retrieve the comb. Both cats trembled in the corner.

In the midst of combing the cats’ fur, carefully decanting my “findings” into a tray of washing-up liquid, I received a text message. “Just finished at the late-night Prom. Wow! It was fantastic.”

My heart stopped for a moment. I had to remind myself that I loathed the music on offer at the late-night Prom. Why would it be such a big deal I had missed it on account of a friend’s visit and the major but forgivable incovenience of a flea infestation. I explained I had missed the event, wondering whether my brief text would communicate my disappointment at not being present at such an apparently amazing event.

“You can always listen on Listen Again!” came the reply.

It’s not the same, I thought to myself. The moment has passed.

Therein lies one of the secret things about the Proms not many people confess to. Yes, theoretically, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t hear it live. You can always catch up online or hear the repeat a few days after on Radio 3.

But, there’s a perceived collective experience to be indulged in either attending or listening to a live concert. Similarly obsessive people reading this will concur that if you’re not listening live it really doesn’t count. Thank God I’ve reserved Thursday as my night at the Royal Albert Hall. I’ll be roping off a special area in the gallery especially for me. There’ll be a picnic and a small(ish) bottle of wine and maybe even a book if I’m feeling especially indulgent and belligerent.

And for those of you who’ve been reading for a long time, it won’t take much to realise that in this respect the Proms shares one key similarity with another live TV and radio event .. the Eurovision Song Contest. If you miss it live, it really doesn’t count. Given the efforts that many put into such an event (composers, technicians, researchers and presenters) that admission really does seem like quite a shame.

Prom 4: Berio wins me over

Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about the composer Luciano Berio. I didn’t earlier on today and, seeing as I’ve made a bee-line to listen to his work called Sinfonia from this evening’s Prom (#4)I made a point of reading up on him.

What I discovered wasn’t initially easy reading. A number of people waxed lyrical about his big work Sinfonia but few were able to allay my fears. This was music written in the late 1960s. There was talk of electronic music, a sneaking regard for John Cage (who is a god, quite frankly, but still only one of the few composers of the time I actually warm to) and lots of indecipherable speech emanating from the soloists during the performance.

I wasn’t convinced I knew enough about the piece to enjoy it and yet when I finally settled down to listen to the performance on Radio 3 this evening * I was amazed to discover that the commentator for the evening – the adorable Penny Gore – didn’t impart any more information than I knew already. That truly was reassuring.

The performance of Berio’s Sinfonia was absolutely stunning. True, the band could have played any old shit and I still wouldn’t have known but would have loved it, but even so I found myself doing something I don’t normally do when I’m sat on the sofa.

Focussed on hearing music I’d never heard before I soon found myself relaxing to Berio’s bizarre orchestrations and controlling vocal directions. The Swingle Singers and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia both turned in excellent performances demonstrating both a demanding score and their own accomplishment.

It might be a little odd to listen to initially, but try it. Berio’s Sinfonia was a joy of a discovery and one which comes with a Thoroughly Good Recommendation from me

Listen again on the Radio 3 website. The Berio is in the first half.

When fear takes hold

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at dealing with fear. 

I’m fine with the obvious kind – you know, the times when you look down to the ground from a great height and all you can feel are your legs trembling uncontrollably – I know what I need to do in order to overcome that. Just move away from the edge and take a few deep breaths and you’ll be fine.

There’s another kind of fear which, for me, at least is far more debilitating.

It happened today. The problem raised its ugly head without a moments notice. No-one else saw it. Everyone, in fact, seemed almost bemused when I spoke of it with them. But I know I saw it.

It happened in a split second. I overheard someone at the queue for coffee this morning mention something which was a blatant lie. I knew it as soon as they said it. Sure, I didn’t have any evidence for it and if I was to stand up in a court of law and denounce him I wouldn’t, as the saying goes, have a leg to stand on. But I know it was a lie. I could feel it.

The lie felt like a soft pillow. Soft, comforting but ultimately dangerous. That’s what was in my mind when I heard him say it. “You’re saying like you’re being cool and laid back,” I thought to myself, “You’re saying it like it was fact. But how can it be fact. I know what I heard you say before and I know it was nothing like you said just now.” I didn’t say it, obviously. I just thought it. But in that split second of thinking it, something inside me began to change.

When I witness these moments I’m like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I look around in desperate search of a trusting face. Someone who will look and speak in a reassuring way. For the lie to be dismissed and the person lying to be disarmed takes a very special person with whom I have a very special relationship to tap me on the shoulder and point out that, “everything will be OK .. we’re all on to him, don’t you worry.”

I’m happy to say that this situation doesn’t occur so much as it used to, but when it does it’s like a thunderbolt. Time suddenly stands still. Indistinct faces laugh at my integrity, jumping out at me from unexpected places. I stand seemingly powerless to do anything, in awe of the power a liar has in undermining my very foundations.

They are the most destructive of individuals. I only wish they’d destroy themselves first before they attempt to lay claim on others around them.