Disappointment in Kensington
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.
Saturday’s prom was a seminal musical experience. In the second half, the Aurora Orchestra, under the baton of Nicholas Collon, played Beethoven’s Eroica from memory. The first half started with a half-hour deconstruction of the symphony presented by the BBC’s Tom Service and the conductor. This included getting the audience to ‘dum dum’ part of the music, and introduced the different themes from different instruments. It was absolutely fascinating and beautifully presented and played. With no music or music stands, every musician (except cellists and double-basses) stood, and was able to move as the music took them.
As part of the Eroica analysis, it was pointed out that Richard Strauss had borrowed some of the phrases from the funeral march for his Metamorphosen – which piece was played (with music) during the first half. It was a total revelation for me. Metamorphosen was written at the end of WW II as Germany was disintegrating and Strauss was in despair at the destruction of German culture. Wonderful and very moving music, the audience completely silent for many seconds at the end.
The Beethoven was, of course, superb. The more so since we had had a masterclass in understanding how it was put together. There was as loud a roar of approval as I have ever heard at a prom when it finished. The conductor and orchestra taking bow after bow. And both conductor and orchestra were obviously enjoying the performance; when it was over, in a quite charming display of delight in their achievement, the musicians hugged each other.
I should also say that and we had excellent seats in the stalls, just yards from the stage. This provided an intimacy with the musicians while maintaining the acoustics of a large auditorium. It was a prom I shall not forget in a hurry.
I refer of course to the decision of the government to demand, in the new BBC charter, that the salaries of high-paid employees be made public. One has to hand it to the Tories, when it comes to vindictive Machiavellian politicking, they are past masters.
Here is the BBC, our treasured public service broadcaster, envy of the world – if you doubt that, ask anyone who has watched TV in France, Germany or Italy let alone the USA. The Tories hate the BBC because it has the effrontery to question their policies and mock their stupidities – and it’s publicly funded! Shocking! The scandal!
Actually, I have heard as many people accusing the BBC of being peopled by a bunch of pinko lefties, as I have heard insisting that it is run by posh, upper-class, public-school hooray Henries. Let no one forget that it was Blair’s government that inflicted the greatest damage on the BBC when it attempted to hold him to account over the Iraq scandal. No, I recon the BBC have the balance about right.
But, as I have said, the Tories hate our national broadcaster – Thatcher detested the BBC – the more so now since the EU debacle. I heard recently one old Tory time-server referring to the BBC as the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation … Yes, BBC interviewers have the temerity to probe the government on its exit strategy from the EU …
So who, I wonder, was the poisonous little reptile who came up with the notion of forcing the BBC to reveal its top salaries? Actually, it’s brilliant. It ticks so many boxes. It causes the BBC major embarrassment; it sows dissent among its own staff; it will result in significant extra expense as the corporation struggles to regularize its salary structure causing further difficulty as it tries to balance the books; it will make it even more difficult to compete with commercial rivals; it will inevitably result in the loss of valuable female talent and it will give the right-wing press a very substantial stick to beat the BBC with.
Let me be clear on one thing though, I am appalled at the disparity in remuneration between male and female presenters. There can be no justification for differences in pay for the same job due to sex (or race). But I’ll make this prediction: I’ll bet a pound to a pinch of snuff that the disparity is even greater in the commercial broadcasters. So, I’m expecting the government to make it a condition of the broadcasting license renewal for ITV, Channel 4 and Sky that they too reveal their top salaries. And while we’re at it, let the Daily Hate Mail, the Torygraph and the Murdoch ‘press’ reveal the salaries of their top journalists too.
Box the Fox
I’m guessing that Mrs May does not do irony, otherwise how is it possible to explain the appointment of Europhobe ‘Foxy’ Liam, not a man with an unblemished record, as Secretary of State for International Trade? Or are the government still living in the nineteenth century, when the tried and tested way to deal with Johnny Foreigner was to shout rudely in English adopting a general air of arrogance, in the certain knowledge that if they walked away, the other party would come running, with the gunboat always ready as a last resort?
When everyone else is writing to the BBC to moan about highly-paid presenters – and the disparity between the sexes thereof – I will be complaining about the decision to put certain Tory ministers on the Today programme when many people are having their breakfast. Don’t they know how expensive food is these days? The sound of Fox’s voice lecturing the presenter about how the ‘British people have instructed us to leave Europe’ is the most effective emetic I have come across for a long time.
Nemesis follows hubris as sure as night follows day; do we all have to submit to being taken down with this government of lame ducks, second-raters, xenophobes and Little-Englanders?
Interesting that it takes a German orchestra and an Israeli conductor to shock us into the realization of the madness this country is embarked upon.
Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra playing Elgar’s wonderful second symphony with a double encore of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance No 1 at the Proms this evening, shame us with our xenophobia.
Education is what we need, Barenboim said; amen to that! I’ll bet his speech makes the news tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what the right wing press make of it. But the Daily Hate Mail and the Torygraph beware … Music transcends many barriers. Barenboim may just have lit the fuse … I certainly hope so.
Added 17 Jan
Regrettably no comment that I can see in the mainstream media, however I take the opportunity to reproduce a transcript of Barenboim's speech (from Jon Jacobs' Thoroughly Good Blog)
Ladies and gentlemen I hope you will bear with me – there are some words I would like to say today that I would like to share with you. I don’t know if all of you will agree with me, but I would really like to share them. But first of all, I would to thank this wonderful orchestra …
… not for being wonderful – this is what they are. But, for having agreed to postpone their holiday for a week or maybe more in order to be able to come to the Proms this weekend, to play for you the Elgar Symphonies is something that is very important to them. They really fell in love with this music and they really wanted to bring this to London. And I am very grateful they are only going on holiday tomorrow.
And I would like to share with you some feelings or thoughts which I have. Not political.
Not political, but rather of a human concern. When I look at the world with so many isolation tendencies, I get very worried. And I know I am not alone.
You know – I was – I lived in this country for many years. I was married in this country. I lived in this here for many years. I was shown so much affection whilst I lived here. That this gave me the impetus if you want to say what I would like to say. I think that the main problem today is not the policies of this country or of that country. The main problem of today is that there is not enough education.
That there is not education for music we have known that for a long time, but now there is not enough education about whom we are, about what is a human being and how is he to relate to with other of the same kind.
That’s why I say it’s not political but that it is of human concern. And if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do. And I’m not talking about this country now …
.. I’ll come to that. I’m talking in general. You know our profession, the musical profession, is the only one, that is not national. No German musician will tell you – ‘I am a German music and I will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven’
[LAUGHTER & APPLAUSE]
We had very good proof of it tonight. If let me stay out of Great Britain – if a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies. This is important. This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation. We are probably too old for that. But the new generation need to understand that Greece and Germany and France and Denmark all have something in common, called European culture.
Not only Europe. Culture. This is the most important thing. And of course in this cultural community called Europe there is a place for diverse cultures. For different cultures. For different ways of looking at things. But this can only be done with education. And the fanaticism that exists in the world with religious backgrounds and can only be fought with education.
Religious fanaticism cannot be fought with arms alone. The real evil of the world can only be fought with a humanism that keeps us all together. Including you. And I’m going to show you I really mean it.
(And then the orchestra played Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance No 1)
Seen in the British Library bookshop a few days ago ... A post dedicated to my dear old mate Gangers, who always understood punctuation better than me ...
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