Last night’s prom was, on balance, a disappointment. The Albert Hall was packed to capacity and not only in the auditorium – there was as large an orchestra on stage as I have seen there. Eight percussionists with five or six xylophones, nine kettle drums, at least five gongs, a full set of tubular bells, piano, full strings, brass and woodwind, and a choir of more than 120 (I counted them), a dozen or so with individual microphones.
The first half consisted of a performance of The Immortal by a young Mark Simpson. The piece was ‘inspired by Victorian séances … eerie visions of a world beyond.’ Simpson’s realization of ‘eerie visions’, consisted of getting the orchestra to bang, scrape and blow as hard as possible; the ‘world beyond’ created was that, for me at any rate, of a personal Hell. And that was a pity, because the choristers with microphones were speaking words from actual séances, a potentially interesting and truly eerie device. The problem was that everyone else was making such a racket, it was impossible to make out what was said and the effect was wasted. I should mention that there was also a baritone (in kilt) out front, but it was not possible to hear his words either.
One thing that always strikes me at prom concerts is the enormous dynamic range of a live performance; of particular note is how the musicians are able to sustain the quietest of notes under perfect control. There was none of this in The Immortal; the volume was fortissimo almost from beginning to end, and it did give me an actual headache. As The Guardian said of the first performance: ‘The piece only really operates in two modes: intense and unbearably intense…’ Quite.
The second half was taken up with Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, a great favourite of mine ever since it was introduced to me by Ken Russell’s film The Music Lovers. Initially all went well, and unusually these days, the audience did not clap after the first and second movements; ‘Ah!’, I thought, ‘an audience of real music buffs to whom this modern phenomenon of clapping between movements is anathema…’ But no, they clapped hard after the rousing third movement – a common mistake. But then the conductor, Juanjo Mena, in an apparent fit of impatience, started the BBC Philharmonic on the heart-rending fourth movement while the applause was still going. And I thought he rushed it, not allowing the pauses long enough.
All in all, it was not a great end to our prom visits – four in six days. And as if to add to the general feeling of dissatisfaction, we exited from the wrong door and had to make a large detour in the pouring rain back to South Kensington Underground station.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs