Prom 65: Berlin Phil / Shostakovich 7 / Rattle

Some of the regulars in the arena looked me confused when I said I was moving to the gallery to listen to the second half of the Prom 65. Why on earth would an arena season ticket holder choose to hear the finest orchestra in the world play a Shostakovich symphony up where the sound is muddy?

It’s not muddy at all. Most of us just assume it’s muddy when we stare up at the rows of people leaning over the railings at the top of the Royal Albert Hall. From the arena, the gallery looks so distant and removed from the action that the idea of going up there to hear a piece of music seems like a risk not worth taking. Nothing, surely, could be better than be being as close to what’s going on on stage as it is in the arena?

There’s more space up in the gallery, considerably more space in fact. In comparison to the Arena last night with prommers (some of whom were still queuing half way down Prince Consort Road at seven o’clock), the gallery has a far more relaxed feel. There’s space to stretch out. People lounge around, slumped against the back wall, blankets spread out on the floor while others lay flat out on the floor. Some read books, others do crosswords. Only a handful actually stand at the railings looking down on the auditorium below.

I gingerly emptied the entire contents of my bag during the first movement of the Shostakovich, only to repack the items in a slightly more organised way (I wanted to avoid the panic I’d had the night before at South Ken tube when I couldn’t find my Oyster card).

The sight of one man wandering around the gallery barefoot towards the end of the first movement prompted me to kick off my shoes and do the same during the second. It felt like the most fitting thing to do for the orchestrated venom Shostakovich had so skilfully orchestrated in the second movement.

Earlier on in the day I’d found the Simon Bolivier Youth Orchestra’s performance from 2007 of the same work on YouTube and got ridiculously excited about hearing the dramatics again. This time I was wandering around the gallery listening to the drama unfold somewhere below me. Not seeing the orchestra playing only added to inevitable imagery.

There is something refreshing and reassuring about Shostakovich’s orchestral works. I can’t work out whether it’s the chuntering rhythms, the signature woodwind flourishes or the symptomatic warmth resulting from the definitely Russian-sounding string writing. It seems odd that the sound of the string harmonies can be both warm and cold at the same time but it just is. That was Shostakovich is. I wonder whether it’s a mixture of pity and admiration for what the man had to suffer in his life.

These are the thoughts which I can have up in the gallery. Up here I get the ambient mix minus the visual indulgence of being within only a few metres of seeing a professional band play. Up in the gallery I don’t have the nagging pain of my back. Neither do I find myself keeping a beady eye on my personal space to make sure no-one invades it or, worse, barges in front of it.

A change is as good as a rest, after all. And the marvellous thing about this particular change is that I get to see it all on TV on BBC Four on Sunday night.


Prom 40: Boulez / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Friday night was a special night at the Royal Albert Hall. In addition to the very real sense of excitement present on any Friday night gig, Prom 40 had the added benefit of sporting a very long promming queue and a packed auditorium – it’s always special when the Albert Hall is full for a Prom.

The capacity audience may have had something to do with the presence of Pierre Boulez. I knew of Boulez from seemingly interminable music history lectures at college and hours spent in the library trying to get my head around why it was that the music he had composed which I found so impenetrable was so important to 20th century compositional technique. I understand it now, obviously, but back then I wanted Boulez’ music to be more like Beethoven’s. It goes without saying I was spectacularly missing the point about Boulez when I was studying for my degree.

One of the prommers agreed with me in the bar pre-concert that it was undoubtedly the opportunity to see the 82 year old Boulez conduct the BBC Symph again which had attracted so many people to come on this particular evening. She also went some way to reassure me that contrary to the conclusion I had already jumped to, I would enjoy Janacek’s Sinfonietta.

She was absolutely right. The opening brass sequence was instantly recognisable and provided the perfect hook for me to discover some of the more unfamiliar parts of the work. Being on the second row also helped introduce me to some marvellous musical textures throughout the work, something I’ll be paying attention to in the radio mix when I listen back over the next few days.

But perhaps the most important thing about this particular concert was how I left the hall feeling like I was part of the promming clan. Don’t get me wrong – there isn’t some kind of weird initiation ceremony – this was purely and simply to do with engaging in conversation with one or two familiar faces I’d seen repeatedly over the past few weeks. There’s a very special feeling to be had there and one which makes the Royal Albert Hall more than just a venue which hosts a series of concerts all summer long.

The nicest moment came shortly before the beginning of the first half, however, when one prommer stood behind observing my attempts to pictures of myself with my SLR offered to take a picture of me with the orchestra in the background. A very nice gesture on his part and one I hope I look back on at the end of this year’s season with the same warm, fuzzy feeling I do now.

Prom 40 on BBC iPlayer
Prom 40 (Part 1 – Audio) – Janacek Sinfonietta
Prom 40 (Part 2 – Audio)
Prom 40 (TV Broadcast)