BBC Philharmonic at the Bridgewater

Post-concert drinkies, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

What better way to listen to Beethoven 9 than splayed out on a sun lounger on the edge of an infinity pool at a German run hotel overlooking the Aegean? Think blue skies, a gentle breeze and no queue at the poolside bar for post-concert drinkies.

I was listening to a recording of a live concert the BBC Philharmonic gave at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday 26 September, the Friday before I came away on holiday.

Whilst I have been able to meet two of the BBC’s criteria for it’s content (finding and playing) I am, sadly, unable to meet the third – sharing it. The performance has missed it’s seven day window on the iPlay-It-Again thingy. Consequently you have only my word to go on.

It was the first concert I’d listened to since the Proms, around about a month after I stood in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall listening to the Proms rendition. I was fighting to maintain my stamina in the last week of the season back then, conscious of some lower-back pain and irritated at the proximity of other concert goers. (It was late in the season.) I finished the performance that night hating Beethoven, the length of his final symphony and certain I’d never listen to any more Beethoven for as long as I could. I certainly wouldn’t be listening to any on holiday.

Not so today. I sat on the toilet this morning browsing BBC Music Magazine and was reminded about the gig. I had a satellite recording of it on my laptop (it had taken quite a lot of fart-arsing around to get it from the Sky+ box to my laptop I might add). I’d listen to it this morning and see if I still felt the same way.

Inevitably, the combination of seering heat and the stunning view added something to Beethoven’s monumental symphony. Not only that, the chance to listen to what sounded like an entirely different acoustic – Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall – was a bit of a treat too.

The performance restored my faith in the 9th symphony. The third movement was especially glorious. It always takes me by surprise. I always think it should start slower than it invariably does. “Bloody hell, that’s cracking on a pace. Should it really be that fast?” The answer is clearly yes. It isn’t long before the third movement is underway that you’re lulled into it’s beauty.

It set me thinking about something I’d quite like to see made available from the iPlayer thingyamy.

How good would it be, I thought to myself as I sipped on my cool beer, if I could download radio content via iPlayer in the same way I can TV shows. That way, I wouldn’t be tied to my laptop to listen to stuff. I could listen at leisure. I could listen in the bath, or on the tube or as I wandered aimlessly through Hyde Park or something…

In fact, if I could have a download manager installed on my portable media player then wouldn’t it be possible to impose some digital rights management on a WMA file thereby preventing me from distributing it and thus keeping all those legal types from going to an early grave? That way I’d be able to to it when I wanted, write yet another tiresome blog about what I’ve just listened to and (if it was available for say .. 14 days?) then share it?

Four hours away from London and with only 48 hours left before I get home, I can’t help wondering whether all these “brilliant” ideas I’m having about iPlayer (let’s be honest – they’ve probably already been explored) may well have provoked some people at the Beeb to look a little more closely at the contract I have. Will I be finding a slim looking envelope on my doorstep when I push the front door open on my return?

No! Of course not. That would never happen.

Best prepare myself for the worst, just in case.

Prom 35: Vaughan Williams & Elgar

The BBC Philharmonic was playing tonight, all of the players gracing the stage in their white tuxedos. (I’m sorry to say I can’t recall exactly what the ladies were wearing.) They looked the business too – there’s a lot to be said for good posture and excellent bow technique – none more so than the lead Yuri Torchinsky whose energy and enthusiasm was clear to see during the opening number, Elgar’s Alassio.

Given my seemingly never-ending amounts of enthusiasm for the Proms season, you’d think I’d be enthusiastic every time I set foot in the building. Not so tonight. This evening, a familiar and relentless series of negative thoughts consumed me. I was focussing on things beyond my control. I was, frankly, obsessing and I was feeling angry as a result.

Of course, part of the problem might have been the Elgar itself. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Elgar at all. It opens with a brilliant flourish and whisks the audience off to the Italian Rivera swiftly and deftly. Everyone in the hall loved it and yet, I could only muster the weakest of applause. Clearly, Elgar had failed on this particular occasion to shake my self-imposed fug.

I opted to sit on the floor of the arena from that moment on.

The view from the floor is very odd. Here amongst the bags and programmes, the view is of trousers and ankle socks, the occasional skirt or legs partially covered by lycra shorts. Still, it felt cosy. I occupied my own little cocoon whilst the rest of the prommers stood and craned their necks to get a view of the piano soloist who had arrived on stage.

I picked up my pen and notepad intent on writing out my thoughts in a bid to get rid of them. The first series of repeated chords rung out from piano and orchestra. Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto commanded my attention from the outset. My heart-rate dropped dramatically. I could feel all the tension begin to seep from my body. All that negativity ebbed away.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why, nor give a precise series of explanations as to why this unknown work hit me like a freight train. Despite my unfamiliarity with it, there was something immediately engaging about the unexpected sound world Vaughan Williams had created.

This wasn’t the usual clichéd pastoral world I assume all VW’s music conjurs up. There was something unexpectedly jarring about it. That was refreshing. It was as though the composer himself was prodding me to pay full attention to his creation. Every sound, every texture, every chord and melody was fresh to my ears and yet it all made perfect sense all at the same time.
I sat still, calm and collected, temporarily relieved from all my usual stresses and strains.

That’s possibly why the distant dusting sound on the Royal Albert Hall roof above me took me by surprise. What was the noise? Could anyone else hear it? Was it rain I could hear? Then, when I realised it really was, the heavens opened and the rain got louder. A crack of thunder followed shortly after that.

Tonight’s gig moved me. An unexpected event made for a truly moving experience which in turn introduced me to a new work and one I will no doubt listen to time and time again.

Oh, and the pianist was really good too. He even provided us prommers with an encore.

Listen to Elgar’s Allasio and Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto on BBC iPlayer.

Prom 33: Surprising and interesting

A busy night doing some work, fielding a couple of phone calls and launching Bob Martin’s Flea Bomb in an effort to rid the office (finally) of those pesky fleas who insist on biting into my ankles whenever I’m near the PC.

We ended up watching tonight’s Prom on BBC Four. Really quite enjoyed it.

I’m a big fan of Britten as I think I might have mentioned before although I’ll admit I probably haven’t listened to as much of his stuff as perhaps I should have done.

The Sinfonia da Requiem was poignant in it’s message, the BBC Philharmonic were impressive and the conductor Gianandrea Noseda  clearly very hot.

Prom 12: Blue Peter Prom

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Simon and I were celebrating two friends’ wedding this weekend. Consequently, I missed most of Friday night’s Prom (I got to the bit where Sean Rafferty on In Tune goes “And now we go over to the Royal Albert Hall for tonight’s Prom”) by the time I’d pulled into the hotel car park.

I missed Saturday night’s Prom too owing to the post-ceremony antics we all got up to on the beach. It felt quite unusual dressed as we were. Lovely time had by all. A real pleasure to be there.

Having been woken up erroneously by the hotel “fire-alarm” at 5.30am (I went down to reception in bare feet and no contact lenses so I could, quite possibly, have been speaking to another resident rather than the hotel staff I had intended to grill with the question “Is this a mistake or is there a real fire?”) I reckoned there was a still a good chance I’d hear Prom 12 (Blue Peter Prom) even if I did need a lie-in to catch-up on the missed shut-eye.

Everything was going well right up to the moment I went to put the key to the car in the driver’s door intent on driving home. The key was nowhere to be found. Simon and I emptied all of the bags and checked the hotel bedroom we had vacated forty minutes before hand three times each. The key still couldn’t be found until I rifled through my suit trousers.

I was in the car with Radio 3 blaring out by 11.19am however (pictured).

What I heard of the Blue Peter Prom was rather nice. The Royal Albert Hall sounded like it was packed with children. The assembled choirs sounded good – especially the two part harmony they sang in My Favourite Things with Connie Fisher.

Peter Duncan (much-loved hero / Blue Peter presenter-fame) sounded a little horse but suitably ebouilliant. I wasn’t entirely clear who Gemma Hunt was though, but she seemed to do a good job too. I particularly enjoyed the West Side Story excerpt, especially the audience’s contribution with their repeated shout “mambo”. The interval with children’s book illustrator Shirley Hughes was fresh and interesting too.

What I’m most frightened to confess is that maybe this kind of concert is where I feel most comfortable. I hope not, obviously …

As engrossed as I was in this Prom, I did manage to turn off the M25 at the wrong exit.

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.