At the Proms – No 44

Two concerts in a week: it must be the Proms season.

There must be many people like me who don’t often attend classical concerts, but always try to make it to the Albert Hall in August.  Many of the concerts are sold out, and even the standing room is jammed with enthusiasts; well you’d have to be to enthusiastic to stand, wouldn’t you?

It’s always fascinating to observe the audience; from the moment you arrive in the vicinity of the Albert Hall, it’s clear who the regulars are: they’ve got their folding chairs and picnics in plastic boxes, and a bottle of wine to share with the people they met in the queue ten years ago and now catch up with regularly.  And then there’s the beard club; they meet on the steps in the square in front of the box office entrance and compare the waxing of their moustaches.   Or is that just me making up a story about strangers again?

Concert 44 was an all Russian programme of Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Peka Salonen.  The soloist in the Shostakovitch No 1 Violin Concerto was Georgian, Lisa Batiashvili.

It all started very well.  I love watching an orchestra; all that organised concentration; all those people all sitting close together with just enough room not to trip each other up.  I always check out the percussion section first.  How many of them are there?  How are the instruments allocated amongst them?

Shostakovitch’s The Age of Gold is full of percussion; there were seven in the section, sitting arms folded for most of the piece.  What do they think about, in a twilight of half attention waiting for their cue to hit the the drum, or clash the cymbals, maybe only once?  How awful it would be to miss their moment.   I loved the fun of the piece with its variety of dance and jazz rhythms; it could almost be a pastiche, and was, I think, written for a Soviet ballet designed to show the virtues of Communism compared to the the loose morals of capitalism, and something about that amuses me.

The Violin Concerto required fewer percussionists, so a couple of them left, their evening’s work complete.  One of them must have got dressed up in his tails and showed up to play the triangle for one piece, maybe hitting the thing no more than a dozen times.  What does the job description look like for ‘freelance triangle player’, I wonder?

The Concerto is not a piece I’d heard before, and I could see it was very tricky and difficult, and it was truly remarkable how silent and rapt the audience were when the solo violin was playing softly, but it didn’t really speak to me, and I did grow a little impatient with all the musical showing off.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka is another piece originally written as a ballet, first incarnated by Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes, and it’s the melodic rhythmic passages which involved me, but then I wandered off  during the bits in between and started watching the timpanist again, anticipating when he would burst into action.

But that’s all part of the show too, isn’t it?

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