Tuesday, 4 August 2009

At the Proms

On Sunday night, we were at the Albert Hall to see a Promenade concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We got some Beethoven (4th Symphony - which I'd heard before but couldn't remember). First there was a very modern piece which used three sets of timpani and the biggest collection of percussion I've ever seen, plus two harps which you couldn't hear for the percussion. Fun to watch though. You could observe the action while listening to the sounds, and let your mind wander off to the music and see where it took you. It sounded like a film score, passing through a ghost story, science fiction, a bit of 1950s black and white cowboy film (the bit where they're parched with thirst in the desert) ending with some huge explosions as the goodies triumph in the end. During the interval, we compared notes, and we'd all pictured the same things: Nick, who doesn't normally listen to orchestral music, Alex, (18) who's got a place at the Guildhall and performs classical music, and me, who got grade 8 clarinet in 1978 and was brought up on the stuff.

After the interval we got Berlioz' Te Deum. The choir had at least 300 people in it. 100 boys, 100 men and 100 women that I could count and I couldn't see them all. We'd a huge orchestra, four each of the woodwinds, five horns and trombones, two tubas, four(+?) trumpets, a row of side drums and one of cymbals. Watching the cymbal players was fantastic. Once every 15 minutes or so there'd be a couple of huge crashes, then the four of them would sit down again, carefully placing their kit into their custom-made stands. The trick was to spot out of the corner of your eye when they stood up, when they lifted the cymbals out, lined them up, then wallop!

At the back was a bloke with a substantial stomach who sat perfectly still for at least 40 minutes, then started to twiddle with his cufflinks. Then he opened his book and finally stood to sing. A wonderful tenor voice wafted around this huge space.

The best bit was the loudest; call me crass, but I'm standing by my claim; if you go to hear Berlioz, you want noise. The Bertie Hall organ is not to be messed with. We were way, way up, so high that if we lobbed a peanut off the circle it would take a good few seconds to hit the promenaders on the floor below. When the organ crashed out a huge chord, from bass pipes so massive you couldn't wrap your arms round them, and all 300 voices, basses to trebles, hit their notes, I burst into tears. I always do.

I count things. I think that there were around 3000 people in the audience (400 or so were the choir's mums, dads, brothers and sisters), but there were still some spare seats. I've not been to a Prom for years and yet it's only a 20 tube ride from my house. It's the biggest orchestral music event in the world, it's on my doorstep, each concert is wonderful. Yet along with another several million Londoners I don't shift myself off my office chair to go there often enough. The Albert Hall is glorious in its Victorian opulence, with its red and gold garments and its curiously intimate feel for such a vast space. Human civilisation started in the mud and several billions of years later it comes together in a round hall in SW1. The choir was singing to the glory of God, but for me this was the glory of the Big Bang and aeons of evolution.

Why don't we go? Well, because we've seen the Last Night of the Proms on television, all union flags and prats jumping up and down to Rule Britannia so we think it's for the white middle classes. Or we think it'll be sold out, or we think it's expensive. It's none of those things. We paid £11 each to sit down and Alex stood in the second row from the front for a fiver last Tuesday. It's less than the cinema. You can listen, you can watch, you can panic a bit when the organ player starts to flip his score backwards and forwards and you think he's lost his place! In front of me there were a couple of young teenage boys I bet had never been to a classical concert before; they'd come to watch their brother in the choir. At the very, very end of the final applause, when the choirmasters had been on and off three times and the tenor had been on and off twice, and the conductor finally left the stage and indicated that her orchestra could pack up, one of them clapped and clapped until he was sure he was the absolute last one. I leaned forward.
"You won," I said to him.
"I know!" he said delighted, "I was trying hard."

Which is why everyone should grab the chance to get down there. It'll fill you to bursting with things you've never felt before. It made me want to spring the Symphony 1010 clarinet from its case, make red and gold clothing for winter and unpack the spare speakers so I can have music in my office. Even if it just inspires you to be the last man clapping, don't miss it.

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