Prom 53: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Gatti

My journey to the Royal Albert Hall this evening didn’t go quite as smoothly as I’d hoped it might. Police dog “Diesel” reckoned he’d smelt drugs on my person when I strolled into Lewisham train station with my bike. The place was swarming with representatives from the British Transport Police. They were looking for law-breakers with a vengance.

Naturally, I protested my innocence. My face must have said it all. What on earth was the dog thinking when he rubbed his nose up and down my leg? When the lovely policewoman failed to find anything but my cheese and tomato ciabattas, I was certain I could tell the animal was embarrassed.

Events at Lewisham train station only added to the excitement of today’s Prom. I’d wanted to go all weekend, especially seeing as I hadn’t been able to get to there last week. By the time I’d cycled from Charing Cross to Prince Consort Road, I’d reckoned I’d be a ridiculously long way down the season ticket queue.

As it was, the rest of the season ticket holders had, apparently, made a value judgement on tonight’s conductor. Consequently, whilst the day ticket queue stretched way down the steps and quite possibly down Prince Consort Road, I skipped to the end of my queue little knowing quite how close to the front I’d be when I got in to the arena.

I was in the second row, directly opposite the leader of the orchestra and within spitting distance of the conductor. For those of us who used to work in orchestral management, this was the perfect spot. I could assess the first violins and have line of site of the first desk of the cellos and pretty much most of the violas too. Those of us who enjoy judging like this kind of position.

There were two works in what felt like a short, intense gig. The first half’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music by Prokofiev is bound to be recognisable to all. The “big tune” – the Montagues and Capulets – is at the top and pales into insignificance in comparison to the rest of the suite which did at times leave me breathless.

It was Tchaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony I was really looking forward to, something a pal who was on the front row during the first half didn’t know when he offered to swap with me after the interval. It was my first time on the front row in a long, long time and the Royal Philharmonic’s stunning performance made it perfect, no mistake.

Prom 53 on the BBC iPlayer

London 2012: Team GB return

For all my sniping about our ability to present a suitably gripping Olympics in 2012 and despite my lack of interest in sport (except for the sight of the sportsmen themselves), I did end up feeling rather excited about the prospect of Team GB returning to the UK today.

It was billed on the BBC website. I’m a sucker for anything broadcast live and in light of our surprising performance in the Beijing Olympics, perhaps it wasn’t really that surprising I ended up feeling really rather proud of our boys and girls.

Well done to them. And pity Lord Coe – he looked and sounded absolutely exhausted when he stepped back on to British soil – who not only had the Olympics to deal with in the run up to the handover but also suffered the death of his father in early August 2008.

London 2012: It’s our responsibility now

I could have gone to the Notting Hill Carnival. I could have even gone to see my parents for a Sunday roast this Bank Holiday weekend. Instead I chose to stay home, get my haircut by a good friend (she’s a smasher with the clippers) and get my head around taking some decent pictures with my digital SLR.

Thus, our TV brought us images of Beijing’s closing Olympic ceremony. Thousands of performers convened on the Birds’ Nest who, along with countless thousand others, witnessed Boris Johnson shuffle forward and wave the Olympic flag from side to side for a while. Visual displays indulged the viewer. Fireworks fired off seemingly all over Beijing. One or two were definitely superimposed over images of the Birds’ Nest. I know. I could tell.

Then the pace changed when London got it’s corner of the stadium to tempt a global audience with what we could offer in 2012. A big red double decker bus moved it’s way around the stadium. Some of us back home winced.

Leona Lewis rose majestically above the assembled British dance troups and then, as if by magic, David Beckham appears and kicks a football which inadvertently lands on the head of one of the Chinese Olympic volunteers standing somewhere on the other side of the stadium. This doesn’t bode well.

Now, outside Buckingham Palace, thousands of excited people wave their Visa London 2012 flags as London celebrates its’ new identity: The Olympic City.

God help us.

Prom 49: National Youth Orchestra / Antonio Pappano

Watching an NYO concert is always a difficult affair for me. I’m nearly always reminded of my failed attempts at gaining entry to the band when I was a teenager. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get in. I didn’t even get an audition. (I wasn’t terribly good at my ‘tonguing’ and sometimes my intonation did leave a lot to be desired.) Even so, watching each successive NYO does tend to fill me with bitterness and resetment. I’m nothing if not predictable.

I caught the first work in this evening’s concert – Varese’s Amériques – on the live Radio 3 relay and wasn’t entirely convinced about it. Contrary to what I’ve thought for many years, I don’t think you need to know very much about a composer or the work itself in order to enjoy it. You’ll just enjoy it if it’s good. Varese’s creation didn’t appeal to me and watching the TV broadcast later in the evening did little to change my opinion.

Had I been lucky enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the NYO administration and end up playing in the orchestra when I was seventeen, I think I probably would have been hugely annoyed to discover I was playing Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto. As a listener coming to the work for the first time, I failed to identify one single discernible theme to latch on to. Sure, BBC 2 commentator Charles Hazlewood might have suggested the concerto was a jamming session between piano soloist and orchestra, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a definite theme, an obvious development and a subsequent recapitulation. There’s a reason we only really hear Rachmaninov’s second symphony and his Paganini Variations. I suspect they’re the best of his orchestral works.

To focus on largely negative and personal views of two thirds of hte programme does the members of this year’s NYO a massive disservice. Tonight was their big night: a televised demonstration of their obvious talent and expertise. I’d always liked the idea of being a member of that particular crowd even if my ambitions were delusions of grandeur. Nevertheless, the end of the Copland Symphony showed how much this event touched the members of the orchestra. I’m sure I observed a number of bottom lips quivering and hands wiping tears from cheeks.

I know, it might be mawkish to flag such an observation up, but its those things which prove that what happened in the Royal Albert Hall was a moving experience for those there. I wouldn’t deny anyone that kind of experience. Good on them.

Prom 49 on the BBC iPlayer

Prom 48: Gurzenich Orchestra / Markus Stenz

I didn’t end up going to the Royal Albert Hall last night. I fully intended to but various things conspired to make the visit impossible. The closest I got to Prince Consort Road was Trafalgar Square.

My bike needed picking up from the bicycle repair shop. In truth, I could have picked it up at the weekend, but after the week I’ve had I figured I was allowed to treat myself. After some complication with my new PIN and getting it unlocked I was soon pedalling my way to White City in the morning on a fully serviced bike.

Test results were the next thing on my personal agenda for the day before I actually got into work. It was those test results which came with the rider that I would need to visit the doctor for a full discussion about them. Inevitably, I worried about them. I’d need to see the doctor before the bank holiday weekend got underway otherwise I’d worry all weekend.

A combination of the only appointment avaialble at the doctor’s being at 5.40pm and me not being able to take my newly reacquired bike back home with me on the commuter train meant I had to leave it at Charing Cross, get to the doctor’s surgery for 5.40pm and then subsequently return to Charing Cross to get my trusty bike. I figured I’d listen on the radio when I finally got home. But would I be able to get home by 7.00pm to hear it live?

The answer was no. Instead I was stranded on a non-moving train somewhere outside London Bridge having to settle with a less than satisfactory FM reception on my mobile phone. Believe me, listening to Mahler’s 5th symphony when the radio signal lurches from mono to stereo and back again does take a little getting used to.

Still, listening to Mahler’s famous work in this way turned out to be quite a special experience. Mahler isn’t the condensed romanticist I had assumed he was. His music doesn’t alienate me in the slightest. In fact, even though I initially considered the first part of the concert – an unwieldly 74 minutes a challenge to get through (hence one of the reasons I wanted to go to the Hall to hear it) – those 74 minutes raced by. Undoubtedly the mark of a work which pulls the listener in, even those listening with poor reception.

I hung around Trafalgar Square for the first and second movements before making my way back on the train from Charing Cross to Catford Bridge. The square was filling up with tourists, drawn to the big screen at the foot of Nelson’s Column on which the BBC’s Olympics coverage was being shown. It was a slightly surreal experience listening to a live broadcast of musicians playing from a location only a few miles away, absorbing the implicit sense of excitement for the 2012 Olympic handover party on Sunday.

You’d think I wasn’t concentrating enough on the music. The truth is, however, that by the time the famous third movement started up (strings only, gorgeous and dangerous listening for anyone on the brink of an unexpected emotional response) I was on the train back home. I was doing battle with more commuters than I anticipated, none of them particularly pleased my bike was taking up valuable space in the compartment. As soon as the opening melody in the third movement emerged from the blackness of the Albert Hall, I felt goosebumps creep up from the bottom of my spine all the way to the top of my neck. If a crappy FM reception of a live broadcast can still do that then that means the music is something special.

I listened again to the Mahler this morning after I made a point of listening to the Leonore Overture which appeared last in Prom 48’s programme. Everything had a historical link (this was repeating a concert the Gurzenich Orchestra had given in 1904 only without the Stockhausen, obviously) as well as a Cologne link. The band were from Cologne, so too Stockhausen, his work Punkte being played on what would have been his 80th birthday.

Flipping the concert order around in the way they had done in 1904 made for one startling observation. Listen to the Leonore Overture which starts around 26 minutes in part 3. It is a startling tight and invigorating performance with a dinstinctly different string sound and a very militaristic sound timpani line. It’s a thrilling listen and demonstrates a well-focussed band delivering a showstopper of an overture. When I stop to consider that the Gurzenich played this at the end of a three-part concert I am even more impressed with their skill, dexterity and musicianship.

For sure, Prom 48 will go down as a personal favourite at the end of this season.

Prom 48 (Part One – Mahler 5) on the BBC iPlayer
Prom 48 (Part Two – Stockhausen) on the BBC iPlayer
Prom 48 (Part Three – Schubert Songs & Beethoven Leonore Overture) on the BBC iPlayer