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: 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 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.

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.

Prom 27: Messiaen

Did I actually say I couldn’t wait for the next one? Yes. Yes I did.

The gig started off well. It was interesting to hear Messiaen’s L’Ascension again. The version I’d heard before was an organ arrangement played by Olivier Latry close to the beginning of the season.

This evening’s arrangement was specifically for orchestra. It took me by surprise initially, not because of Messiaen’s “sound”, but more how much of it I recognised. At that concert I was coming to it fresh. Tonight it felt as though it was comfortably familiar.

More than that, I reckon I actually quite enjoy Messiaen’s music. It’s far more romantic than I remember it being when I was at college. Back then it felt sharp and squeaky and unpleasant. Now it feels like I’m discovering a composer for the first time and wishing I’d done it before. It may be a little early to say I’m a Messiaen convert, but I did find myself looking through the programme notes making a note of all the other concerts his music features in.

Sadly, I didn’t stick around for the second half tonight. There are sheets to be washed and a bathroom to sluice down ahead of a very special visit from a pal who’s on stage tomorrow night. I’ll catch what I missed of Prom 27 on iPlayer and report back later.