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).

Prom 31: Gwilym Simcock’s Progressions

Why go to the Royal Albert Hall when it’s live on TV? I didn’t really see the point. So I devoted Saturday to relaxing, made a lightningly effecient trip to Sydenham Sainsburys and prepared a smashing meat balls in tomato sauce with some left-over pork mince and an old tin of chopped tomatoes. As you see, we’re paying close attention to Gordon Brown’s recent advice.

Sadly, such smug self-satisfaction at having reduced our freezer fodder came at a price. I failed spectacularly to get to the TV screen or a nearby radio in time for the beginning of the concert. Instead, we switched over thirty one minutes after the concert had begun.

No matter really. The high-point was undoubtedly Gwilym Simcock’s Progressions. Here was an orchestrated jazz odyssey in the form of what seemed to me to be a piano concerto with Simcock playing the lead.

Simcock’s contribution to this year’s season made me think of Benjamin Britten at the Proms and his entertaining Piano Concerto. I loved hearing that last year for the first time too. Britten had written something accessible and engaging yet still challenging at the same time.

It struck me that Simcock had done the very same with Progressions and having done all of that at such a relatively young age, to then sit on stage and play the solo line was deeply impressive.  It made Gershwin’s American in Paris which followed, pale into insignificance.

Catch Part One and Part Two (Simcock’s Progression) on iPlayer if you can. Audio only at the time of writing.

Prom 29: Vaughan Williams

Sometimes I listen to music I’ve never heard before and find myself thinking how a composer seems to have this amazing ability to write music in such a way that I feel like I’m watching a film.

Inevitably, keen as I am to think of interesting ways to make films, I start imagining how wonderful it would to make a film where a symphony is the only soundtrack.

Of course, there is an obvious flaw in my thinking. Thirty-five minutes of non-stop music would almost certainly be too much to bare. It wouldn’t much different from listening to me for thirty-five minutes non-stop. Some people have. They never do it twice.

What I realise now – after some time – is that if there is music which makes me think it would work well in a film then that is almost certainly a measure of just how successful a composer has been in producing something truly fantastic. To be able to write sound which conjurs up imagery in the mind of a listener who is hearing the work for the first is an amazing achievement.

So it was with Vaughan Williams 6th Symphony this evening in Prom 29. And what better way to listen to its violence, darkness and bleak epilogue than up in the  gallery, laid out on the floor staring up at the ceiling.

Olympics opening ceremony

Beijing Olympics opening ceremony

Somewhere behind me, as I sit at my desk at work, I can hear a massive crowd cheer and applaud. Oriental sounding music echoes around the building.

“What is going on?” I think to myself as I try to forget the past 24 hours and look forward to the weekend.

Of course, it’s the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And just a few short minutes stood watching a massive HD screen relaying events live from the Birds Nest stadium in Beijing and already I’m wondering what it is London will offer the world when it’s our turn.

I shudder to think about it. So I won’t .. for now.

Prom 28: Ulster’s finest

It’s late. I’m back from the Royal Albert Hall, my feet throbbing and a thin layer of sweat coating all of my skin. A tepid bath awaits.

It’s been a terribly special evening at the Proms. The Ulster Orchestra were in town this evening sporting a programme which could, if I didn’t know better, have been put together especially for me.

First up was Howard Ferguson’s Overture for an Occasion and despite not knowing it all, it didn’t take long to realise this had more than a sniff of light music about it. Fabulous.

Next, a piano concerto by Charles Villiers Stanford. Soloist for the evening was Finghin Collins and boy oh boy did he looked pleased to be there. A pleasure to listen to.

Ma Vlast by Smetana kicked off the second half but it was Dvorak’s 8th symphony which took my breath away. This may have something to do with my proximity to the stage. Tonight was the first time since the first night I’d succeeded in getting a place in the third row.

It was being this close I got to see just how intently the players were experiencing their time in the hall, seeing bows raised at the same time and a leader who did exactly what his role demanded. Seeing the smiles on their faces as they played through their favourite passages cannot do anything but raise a smile on your own face too. If you’re promming be sure to try and get yourself in the third row – you won’t be disappointed.

But nicest of all was getting the chance to see a mate play in the band. I’ve known him for years and followed his career in professional music with a keen interest. I am quite a soppy fool the majority of the time and tonight I make no bones about the fact that I felt terribly proud.