Prom 58: New York Philharmonic / Lorin Maazel

It was a big night at the Royal Albert Hall tonight. At least it felt that way as I sat in the bar beforehand chatting to a handful of familiar looking people.

I knew I’d wanted to go to tonight’s concert when I was traveling back down to London the night before, listening to the New York Phil give the first of their two Proms on Radio 3. It’s the New York Phil, I thought. I want to be there tomorrow night. I’ve heard people mutter about the New York Phil. I definitely want to go.

The first half certainly didn’t dissapoint. The excitement partly came from this being a visiting orchestra. We want to show the visitors a good time. We want them to feel as though we appreciate them coming all this way. Give ’em a good show and they’ll give us a good show.

They certainly seemed like a different crowd on stage. Calm and collected. Focussed. They had stamina. They were cool. They looked good on the platform. And stylish conductor Lorin Maazel came with his own special, rather tasteful looking podium.

I must be a sucker for the popular stuff, because Ravel’s Mother Goose essentially seduced me from the start.

I’ve heard more orchestral music over the past few weeks (both at the Proms and on Radio 3) than I dare calculate. Maybe it’s that which fine-tunes the senses. Many more regular concert-goers I know comment on how individual orchestras have an individual sound.

Outside the stage door post-concert

To be honest, I’d not really appreciated exactly what they meant. Maybe I’d looked on them cynically. Surely, orchestras all sound the same?

This year, however, I’ve come to trust my judgement. I realise now that it doesn’t take long to hear how different individual orchestras can sound and it was really refreshing to hear the New York Phil’s individual sound. Just don’t ask me to describe it. This blog entry could go on for ever. And none of us want that.

It was the Tchaikowsky symphony I was really looking forward to. After the thrill of hearing the RPO play the 5th symphony last week, I wanted a similar style of transportation with what I thought was going to be an unfamiliar work.

I was wrong. So very wrong. I knew the work well. I’d played it in Suffolk Youth years back. The initial opening chords were an unexpected surprise as a result. But to then hear what Maazel did with the rest of the work was an even bigger thrill.

I’ve not seen the man conduct before, but it was apparent soon after he raised his rather long baton that this man was a real showman. Knowing the work myself probably helped a great deal, but there is something the man does with speeds which leaves me breathless and clearly kept the adept orchestra on it’s toes as well. The audience didn’t disappoint either with their appreciation. Maazel repaid them with a good three encores.

Prom 58 (Part One – Ravel / Bartok) on the BBC iPLayer
Prom 58 (Part Two – Tchaikowsky – Symphony 5) on the BBC iPlayer

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