Selected London Concerts This Week (Mon 5 – Sun 11 Feb 2018)

I’ve been meaning to put together a timetable of concerts like the one above for a few months now.

The original idea was borne out of the frustration I find trying to keep track of what’s going on when across the capital. After last week’s marathon set of announcements – Southbank’s 2018/19 season plus the four resident and associate orchestras, Barbican, and Wigmore Hall – I revisited the original planner idea.


It’s not meant to be exhaustive though could be if I scaled it up (something I wouldn’t mind trying eventually). Instead, it’s just a way for me to map out what’s going in a given period of time. It’s also deliberately meant to be analogue as opposed to digital. The very act of drawing out a timetable, searching through the listings and writing it into a chart increases focus, in turn helping make decisions about what to see and what not.

Note – the London Mozart Players gig is on Wednesday not Monday. We’re all allowed to make mistakes.

Scope, Range and Busy-ness

It became really obvious very very quickly (even restricting myself to just seven days) that there’s not only a lot of options to hear classical music live, but there’s also a lot of information to take in. Potential ticket buyers are having to process location, time, names of performers, and works. That’s a lot of variables being considered before deciding on what to go to.

As a freelancer I have a lot more flexibility now. Concerts on ‘school nights’ aren’t such a thorny issue like they used to be. Interestingly for me however, it’s the lunchtime opportunities which seem more appealing because I feel as though I can fit them into my day more easily where evening concerts present themselves as a commitment.


What surprises me is how an event like Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky at Barbican this week could have completely gone unnoticed. The fact that it’s sold out makes getting a ticket at this late stage a bit of a challenge, but I’m going to give it a damn good shot. But the Marin Alsop conducting masterclasses is a must-attend. It’s free. And on a Wednesday lunchtime. Peachy.

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Whoop! Whoop! Marin Alsop!

Marin Alsop adds the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra to her already impressive roster of conducting commitments, following an announcement today that in September 2019 she’ll take up the role of Chief Conductor of Austrian broadcaster ORF’s principal band.

It’s great news – perfectly timed for a Monday morning – which does much to raise a smile. Marin is a breath of fresh air on the podium – a spirited committed performer whose connection with the musicians she works with makes any appearance a must-attend.

She’s conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Southbank on Sunday in a concert of Beethoven, featuring violinist Nicola Benedetti.

The Guardian refers to the moment Marin appeared as the first female conductor at the Last Night of the Proms. I remember there being a bit of Marin overload before and during the Proms season in 2013, almost as though the BBC wanted to gain credit for the booking rather than Marin herself. The notoriety of a woman on the Last Night podium felt like it was doing Marin an unwitting disservice. That said, her call to arms during the Last Night speech “girls can do it” was a moving affair.

Remembering that moment makes this new appointment for Marin Alsop feel like a key moment – a new chapter. With Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla heading up the CBSO too, a new style of conductor provides those of us who write about classical music with a new opportunity to write about the role and contribution of a conductor, clarifying what newcomers and occasional listeners quite understandably regard as a murky role.

BBC Proms 2016 / 74: Marin Alsop conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi’s Requiem

There’s an unnerving exercise in Professor Steve Peter’s ‘Chimp Paradox’ which helps uncover what your core, unshakeable, belief is.

It goes something like this. Imagine yourself on your deathbed. In the last 60 seconds of your life your grandchildren ask you for one last piece of advice. In the 60 seconds you have left to live, what would you tell them?

Go on, try it.*

The Real Last Night of the Proms** featured the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Marin Alsop, a grand setting of life’s most ultimate ending.

The evening felt as though we were tying-up loose ends too. A season coming to an end prompts inevitable evaluation and reflection. After that, there’s a need to empty the desk, tidy the classroom, switch off the lights, and close the door. Departures shouldn’t be rushed.

I had began the process on the train on my way to the Prom. An exchange between Radio 3 presenter Suzy Klein and Proms Unplucked podcast presenter Vikki Stone on the station’s drive-time programme still rang in my ears.

Suzy Klein: Your twice-weekly podcast throughout the Proms has seen you hang around backstage talking to all sorts of people behind the scenes hasn’t it Vikki?

Vikki Stone: Yes it has. It’s been great.  We didn’t really have a plan. I think that served us very well.

SK: I like the idea of there being a crack team of two people roaming backstage at the Proms asking ‘Hi, can we talk to you?’ – people who are quite busy.

VS: Yes, busy and quite important.

SK: What’s been your highlight?

VS: Well, we’ve been really lucky. I think one of the highlights was talking to Simon Rattle about Boulez. I didn’t know much about Boulez personally and he gave me this really fantastic idiot’s guide to Boulez. He’d just finished his rehearsal, we just stood on the stage – it wasn’t an official interview, we just had a conversation, it was really nice.

SK You just got a masterclass from one of the greatest living conductors on one of the greatest composers?

VS: Yeah, just hanging about.

SK: Who needs to bother going to University to learn about music? You could just hang around and ask really great people for stuff. Maybe that’s the way to just go through life. So, we’ve actually got a clip from the latest instalment of you with David Pickard, is that right?

VS: Yes, so we’ve interviewed David a few times and I suggested for the last episode that – he has on his Twitter profile that he will play piano duet – so we thought …

SK: We should explain that David does have a proper grown up job too – running the Proms.

VS: Yes. So we thought we’d catch up with him to find out how his first Proms has gone. You’re not going to hear all of the piano duet because I was sight-reading and I was just a bit sweary …

The exchange is, of course, benign. It’s just patter, filler, and self-promotion – it’s what I do, just not on the radio. It was the talk of the podcast, the piano duet with the Director of the Proms, and the being backstage ‘just catching people’ which sounded familiar.

No one has ownership of ideas, not really. But when you start remembering that you’d done strangely similar things like that in the past (with a different Proms Director), pitched ideas for podcasts (about six or seven years ago), and produced podcasts with the same spirit of serendipity in mind, an unwelcome feeling starts to crawl all over you. It’s a feeling which can be summed up in an exclamation: That could have been me doing that.

This is all very presumptuous on my part and breathtakingly self-absorbed. I share it because of the way it triggered my thinking right at the end of the season. A seemingly innocent exchange between two presenters on a radio station reminds me of the stuff I’d done years ago, the reasons I’d done them (to get into broadcasting), and a telling reminder that for the most part I’d failed to achieve my ambitions.

The journey to the Royal Albert Hall trundled on slowly; at Waterloo East, heavy congestion at Charing Cross meant the train didn’t move for 15 minutes. Thoughts whirled around. Disappointment, embarrassment, and perhaps a little bit of annoyance too.

“Keep your eye on the prize,” said a pal who had succumbed to a text conversation on the matter with me. If only I actually knew what the prize was then I would at least be able to recognise when I’d won it. If you’re not clear on what you’re hunting then those inevitable moments of evaluation and reflection will always trigger sadness and regret.

Ambition is what fuels all of this. When it’s not realised it stares you in the face accusingly.

But when is ambition realised and at what point in our lives do we get to say: I’m happy, that’s done with, let’s move on?  In the event of the ambition never being realised, what do we do then?  What happens if the ambition is never satisfied? Am I danger of being that person who harps on about the past because of his out of control ambition? Am I in fact that person already?  And if I am, what the hell do I do to stop it? Can it even be stopped?

When I arrived at the Albert Hall I sat down in my seat and immediately recognised the man sat beside from a website I’d written for earlier in the summer. It was the first time we’d met in person. I struck up a conversation. In a few minutes the conversation had taken me out of myself and, importantly, done what Verbier has achieved for two consecutive years: it had shown me a world which exists beyond the BBC, beyond perceived career paths and ambitions.

As the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment walked on to stage, I was reminded of a world I felt more at home in – a place where those who write about classical music reside. That’s somewhere I’d like to spend more time.

On the whole Verdi’s setting is grandiose and bombastic, but in those moments where we hear a stripped back score and simplicity reigns, the music gives us something we can better connect with. Conductor Marin Alsop had at her disposal the quite remarkable BBC Proms Youth Choir, clearly adept at great articulation and stunning pianissimos. The opening Requiem aeternam was a stunning demonstration.  Similarly, the quieter duets and quartets, especially those underpinned with a meandering bassoon line reached places I never thought were possible with Verdi.

A lot of that is down to Marin Alsop. Her detailed conducting style is underpinned with great stamina and warmth, and the results could clearly be heard in this performance. The self-imposed break half-way through before the Offertory saw the atmosphere drop (it’s even more marked in the radio broadcast). As a result, the ensemble had to work harder during the Domine Jesu Christe and the Sanctus to regain what we’d experienced before. But come the transcendent  Agnus Dei the magic had returned.

This was a fitting conclusion to the season, one which the audience repeatedly demanded soloists and conductor return to the stage to receive enthusiastic applause for.

*My response is: if you’re faced with two options and you don’t know which one to take, choose the one which instinctively feels the hardest – the outcome will be more rewarding.

**The actual Last Night isn’t representative of the rest of the season. The event invariably attracts an entirely different crowd to the Albert Hall. Consequently, an unofficial tradition has established itself around the penultimate night, now regarded as the season’s ‘Proper’ Last Night.

BBC Proms 2013: Last Night of the Proms / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop conductor the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.
Marin Alsop conductor the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.

The Last Night this year conducted for the first time by a woman: Marin Alsop, had considerable coverage at the beginning, during andt towards the end of this year’s Proms. It was a big selling point for the season at launch, provided the hook at when the festival began and the impetus for a handful of interviews in the run-up to the final night. I can’t remember another Last Night event which has had quite so much attention.

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Prom 16: Inside the Royal Albert Hall

Inside the Royal Albert Hall at Prom 16

By the time the first violins began scurrying around the fingerboards of their instruments at the beginning of Prom 16, I had already concluded that the smell of body odour was indeed coming from me and not from the older looking man with the unnaturally large earlobes who sat in the seat directly in front of me.

I had also worked out where exactly the 5 Euro note I found in my wallet earlier which had made me all hot and sweaty in the first place had originated from. I made a note in my internal diary to pay a visit to the canteen at work and confront the lady who had issued me with it.

By the time the applause had finished ringing around the auditorium at the end of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, the sweat had stopped pouring down my face and arms. I now felt as near human as I could do given the near hysterical panic which had ensued shortly before I had taken my seat inside the Royal Albert Hall.

It was only now I felt able to relax. Only now was I able to fully take in the sight before me. In my panic to buy any ticket just to get inside the Royal Albert Hall, the man behind at the box office had sold me a ticket at the back of the circle. Right at the back of the circle. A plush, padded seat high, high up in the Royal Albert Hall, quite literally within spitting distance of the gallery ticket holders the level above me who’d paid half the price I had for my last minute purchase.

It was up here I was able to stop for the first time in this Proms season and take in what I’ve seen in front of me for nearly seventeen years but never thought to share with anyone.

An orchestra sits on stage bathed in white light. If you didn’t have a programme you’d be unaware it was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Crammed into nearly every available space in front of them from the bottom to the top of the Albert Hall are 5000 other people. Some standing, some sitting. All of them, like me, waiting expectantly to indulge themselves with the experience of hearing 150 musicians give a concert broadcast live on the internet and on radio.

When the music starts the effect on my senses takes me by surprise. Suddenly I’m aware of the distance the orchestra is away from me. From where I’m sitting I can hear a beautifully sonorous sound. A rounded and balanced sound. A perfect sound. The kind of sound I had forgotten existed.  It’s almost like I’d forgotten that the orchestral sound is one arrived at by the combined forces of real people. Real people who’ve spent years training and even more years working. And here they are in exactly the right setting. A barn in the middle of London, where everyone has come for the same reason: because of their love of music.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with or even averse to classical music, come to the Albert Hall to savour those rare moments when 5000 people listen to an orchestra erupt in fortissimos. Hold your breath when, perhaps out of nowhere, the entire band suddenly plays incredibly quiet. Watch as the heads of the people in the same row as you suddenly move forward as if craning their necks will help them hear better. Then, just as you’re getting used to the levels, a smartly dressed percussionist surrepticiously steps forward and strikes his tenor drum, catching everyone in the hall by surprise. 

All of this going on way, way down on the stage below. All of it an electrifying experience.

I can’t guarantee every Prom concert will deliver this kind of experience although I suspect it might to a greater or lesser degree.

What I’m describing here is my experience of listening to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra introduce me to the dramatic scoring of Aaron Copland’s Symphony No.3. Under the direction of it’s small but perfectly formed conductor Marin Alsop, it’s difficult not to see and listen to this band living and breathing as one being.

And, as I write, out of nothing, comes a melody I never expected to hear. It’s a melody known the world over. It is inextricably linked with Aaron Copland. It epitomises America and yet, as the gorgeous lady who sat next to me shouted to when the cheers went up at the end, Copland’s music is totally democractic. It’s a melody for everyone in the world. It’s instantly recognisable. It brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye when the woodwind slip it under the radar as they did this evening.

If you’re to stand a chance of experiencing half of what I did listening to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No.3 then to tell you what that melody was would ruin everything. So, find a way of listening to the work yourself from beginning to end. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. 

And if you’re ever in London over the next few months, for God’s sake corroborate my posting by going to the Proms yourself.