from cacti to fishermen

In the last week-and-a-bit we’ve been to three very different Proms concerts. On Friday 17th August, the Royal Albert Hall was packed out for a Prom celebrating the work of John Cage and marking the centenary of his birth. Many of the pieces were visually as well as aurally fascinating, with singers and instrumentalists dotted around the hall and in amongst the prommers in the arena. Cage heard – found – music everywhere, in all kinds of noises and sounds, and his innovation is still challenging and provocative. During the interval, I overheard someone complaining about the scratchy, disjointed sounds made by the strings. “Why can’t they play a nice warm sound?” Because the world is rarely a nice, warm place.
I love the theatricality of the prepared piano – the pianist carefully placing objects on or between the piano strings, tampering with the insides of a grand piano (what a sacrilege) – as much as the unexpected sounds it produces. In the first half we also experienced an inspired piece by Christian Marclay: Baggage, in which the orchestra, enthusiastically conducted by Ilan Volkov, played their instrument cases, creating a wonderful mishmash of buckling and unbuckling, zipping, tapping, rubbing and flapping. Orchestra and audience alike grinned from ear to ear. The evening finished with a performance of Cage’s Branches, a delicate layering of plant sounds. Musicians stroked and plucked the thorns of amplified cacti, shook what looked like giant vanilla pods, brushed bunches of leaves, poured water into bowls. Terrific.

On Tuesday, we paid a fiver each to stand in the arena for the fully authentic Proms experience. Andris Nelsons conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Glinka’s wild and romping Ruslan and Lyudmila overture. More ear to ear grinning, and Nelsons was practically jumping up and down at the end. The UK premiere of Calculus of the Nervous System by Emily Howard demanded – and got – concentrated listening from the audience; thoughtful, hesitant, not Cage, but strange enough never to be described as nice or warm. After the interval, the main event: Shostakovich‘s Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’. We stood, rapt, for 75 minutes, as this dark, compelling piece of music unfolded. The insistent drumming; the haunting fragment of a tune that pipes up, gets buried, returns like a tattered pennant; and somehow, after all the imagery of battle and siege and struggle, the piece ends in triumph. A held breath, and then the roar of the audience. Stamping of feet, cheers, applause. Exhausted and elated. And we were just listening!

Finally, on Friday evening just gone, we attended the  concert performance of Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, with the ENO Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. I first encountered Britten’s opera several years ago, on the radio, broadcast live, I’m fairly certain, from an earlier Proms concert. I was hooked then, and on Friday I was truly gripped, even without the trappings of a full operatic staging. A towering performance by Stuart Skelton as the fisherman Peter Grimes, and the chorus was both magnificent and menacing. The interludes, evoking the sea at different points in the drama, are sublime in their own right, and the storm passage in particular raised the hairs on the back of my neck. The emotional charge of the music, the whole performance, was quite something; a truly lived experience, which had me on the verge of tears by the end. Bravo, BB!

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