Apologies for my absence. It hasn’t been a case of nothing worth writing about – quite the opposite: more a case of being so busy, there’s been no time to sit and turn thoughts into words.
When I last wrote, I tantalisingly left you waiting for my thoughts on another Prom concert. Well, it’s a bit late now! In all I managed to get to 17 Proms this year – with one or two exceptions, all thoroughly entertaining. Even the concerts I felt underwhelmed by didn’t seem as bad when listening later on Radio 3, so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. Unfair though it might be, I will pick out some highlights (in chronological order):
· Moeran’s Symphony in G and Elgar’s 2nd with the BBC Philharmonic (the Finzi in the middle, which was the main reason for my going to this concert, was strangely eclipsed).
· The MGM Musicals Evening – total joy! Now I know there was quite a lot of criticism of this concert beforehand (the old ‘dumbing down’ argument), but in the hall the atmosphere was incredible. Admittedly it didn’t look quite like your normal Proms audience, but that isn’t the point. If even half of the crowd came to no other concert this season, that’s still an extra 3,000 or so who have come to the Proms this year, and I’m glad of that. What’s more, it was televised live, and the response from the viewing public was equally enthusiastic. Michael Parkinson was quoted in the newspapers saying the concert precisely justified the BBC’s existence, and was worth the annual licence fee on its own. There were even letters in the Radio Times (for and against, to be fair).
· The next evening, I got a last-minute ticket to the BBC Symphony Orchestra and massed choirs doing Berlioz Te Deum – am I glad I did! I sang this piece once while I was at university, but I’ve not seen it in concert since. It’s a work which is unfairly overshadowed by its bigger cousin the Requiem, but still packs quite a punch. Definitely a piece best experienced live. It restored my faith in Berlioz (oh fickle fool!) after the disappointment of the Hallé Prom (although as I said, that did seem better on second hearing).
· The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain late-night Prom. This was one of the most heart-warming evenings I’ve ever spent in the RAH. I put my hand up and admit that I don’t get all the references in their songs to pop classics and the like, but their style and pleasure in performance is totally infectious, and the intros were highly amusing (example: “Now we’re going to do a song about plagiarism… mind you, it wasn’t our idea”). Over a thousand of us brought ukuleles into the hall to join in with Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, but more touching was the spontaneous waving of the instruments in the air during a Robbie Williams number: there may have been 6,000 or more of us there, but for a short while, we were as one. Here’s a wonderful ‘Deep Zoom’ picture taken during the concert – click on it to take you to the full-size image. You need Microsoft Silverlight installed to zoom in.
· Handel’s Samson with Harry Bicket and the English Concert – four hours of music, but not a note too long. Mark Padmore’s Samson was a class act, but the aria that sticks in my memory was Susan Gritton’s ‘With plaintive notes’ – Dalila’s Act 2 aria with wonderful violin obbligati.
· The Concertgebouw playing Haydn and Shostakovich symphonies – Mariss Jansons shows why even with a brilliant orchestra, a conductor is indispensible. And the marching band in the Haydn was a hoot!
In the middle of all that, I had my holiday in Somerset. As usual, a jolly good time was had by all, but also as usual, my singing voice didn’t last the week. Musically, the highlight was undoubtedly the Hippopotamus Song, as performed by Katherine Collins (aged 91) and Leah Grevatt (aged 3¾)
This is definitely not the sort of holiday to appeal to those who like to hide their lights under bushels. During the week, apart from singing in the choir, my orchestral duties included playing timps and percussion, keyboard (filling in missing horn and viola parts), melodica (playing oboe in Haydn and Schubert symphonies) and ukulele (playing orchestral 2nd violin in the Bach Double Concerto). For next year, I fancy I should learn another instrument, but I can’t make my mind up which one. Let me know your choice of oboe, clarinet, bassoon or trombone… (no, don’t). Equally versatile were our trumpeters Derek and Andy, who, although sticking to just the one instrument, were often playing from 2 or 3 different orchestral parts at once! Which is hard enough, until you realise that the parts are usually in different transpositions! Methinks this way lies madness…
Spent a nice few days in Prague at the beginning of September with my great friends Clive and Pat from Harrogate. We did a modest amount of sightseeing, but the main reason for the trip (celebrating Clive’s 50th) was to see Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the theatre in which it was premièred back in 1787. The Estates Theatre is small, but beautifully proportioned and preserved. The performance, by an entirely Czech cast, was almost wholly admirable (I had my reservations about the Donna Anna, who had a touch of wobbly-jaw). The production was broadly traditional, with a not excessive amount of ‘business’ provided by a group of actors playing Giovanni’s servants. The set cleverly continued the auditorium design onto the stage, which helped to give the impression that you were part of the action. Sadly, the weakest point was the supper scene, as it so often is, although it was a good idea to place candelabras at the front of the stage as dinner illumination, only then to become the hell-fire that Giovanni sees in his final torment. Clive pointed out that the final sextet was only added by Mozart when the opera moved to Vienna, so it would have been more authentic in Prague to leave it out… but they didn’t. At least the performance was in Italian, so we were spared the awful English translation ‘and as far as we can tell / Don Giovanni’s gone to hell!’
Finally, I turn to Cricket. I shall be brief. It wasn’t a vintage series, but who cares? Winning the Ashes is… is… well, I’m afraid I can’t put it better than Stephen Fry in this audioboo recorded on the day of final victory: