Two Russian Evenings at the Proms

2013-07-29 18.55.23It’s at the point where ignorance meets interest that I have most enjoyment, I think.

I don’t know a great deal about classical music, or any music really, but (and I wonder is it OK to say this about any art form) I know what I like.  Or I know what I like when I hear it, and I do try to put myself in the way of new things every now and again.

For the last few years I have usually made it to a couple of the Proms concerts each season.  The selection of which particular ones is a function of comparing my diary with that of my concert going buddy S, her preferences (she’s the one with an education in music) and the availability of tickets.

This year we went to two concerts, both on Mondays, a week apart, and both with a distinctly Russian flavour.

The first was Prom 21 , and then Prom 30;  different orchestras, different soloists and conductors, just an overlap of composers.  I can’t really tell you about the virtuosity of any of the performers, or the tone of the orchestra, nor indeed where any of the pieces stand in the context of the oeuvres of any of the composers.  What I can tell you about is the percussion.

It’s probably the low brow’s response to an orchestral concert, to watch the drama of the orchestra, to comment on the extrovert flamboyance of the leader, or the sparkliness of the evening dresses worn by the women players.  But if part of the experience wasn’t watching them, they wouldn’t be sitting on an illuminated stage, and there wouldn’t be television cameras recording for subsequent broadcast on BBC4.

My first reaction to seeing the stage is to count the percussion instruments arranged across the back, and then to count the players.  Lots of instruments and only a couple of percussionists means a variety of sounds but lots of running about for them.  If the players are numerous, then it’s going to be loud and there will be much anticipation watching them prepare and play.  It’s one of the yardsticks for my enjoyment.

Shostokovich’s Symphony Number 11 at Prom 21 was the most exciting thing I’ve seen at the Proms for a long time.  Not only is there a tremendous range of loud and soft, light and dark, folk tune and jagged sound, there were no fewer than 8 percussionists.  My attention was immediately focussed on the back row of the orchestra, and they all had a lot of work to do, especially on the timpani and the snare drum; but it was the man at the end, sitting beside the tubular bells whom I had to watch.  I thought of his as Number 8.

It’s a long symphony, almost an hour, and he spent most of it sitting back on his high stool, arms folded, knees akimbo.  He might have been asleep.  Every time my attention went to another part of the stage for any length of time, I had to keep checking back on Number 8.  If he was going to do something, I didn’t want to miss it.  The timpanist and the two people on the big gongs were dramatic and energetic, but they couldn’t keep me from worrying that if Number 8 moved and hit something, I might miss it.  Then, about 55 minutes into the piece, Number 8 put on his glasses.  At last his moment!  A peel of bells, on the tubular bells with one hand and an upturned bell with the other.  It was the perfect release for the climactic moment of the concert.

The crowd went wild (although they may not all have been as focussed on Number 8 as I was).

I’ve subsequently watched part of the concert again, as it was broadcast a week or so later, and there I am, in the shot of the close up of the conductor, in the audience, applauding, just to prove I was there.

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