Tonight I celebrated my birthday – at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Except that it wasn’t my birthday. On my real birthday, six weeks ago in New Mexico, my son Jonathan presented me with a most unusual and much-appreciated gift, two tickets to the BBC Proms concert of Tuesday, July 16.
The Albert Hall is a magnificent domed structure that epitomizes Queen Victoria’s determination to fulfill the wish of her husband, Albert, to promote understanding and appreciation of the arts and sciences. Nearby in South Kensington are other parts of “Albertopolis” — Imperial College, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Museum of Natural History.
So tonight was my night, with my daughter Jocelyn, at the Proms. Like a classical gentleman, Jonathan had provided us with two fine center seats on the fifth row of a building that seats more than five thousand and has been a centerpiece of British culture since its opening in 1871. At least five banks of seating rose above us, a circus of red velvet and gilt, and it seemed every seat was taken. In front of us the giant organ, “the voice of Jupiter,” once the largest in the world, towered above seating that faced us from behind the orchestra.
It was a very different kind of venue. I could, and did, take a pint of beer with me as company for the performance. Robotic TV cameras, remotely controlled, rolled and swung unobtrusively around the stage. And in front of me, at the interval, some of the standing-room-only concertgoers spread tablecloths to enjoy picnic meals on a groundlings’ floor that must measure a hundred yards in diameter. Something similar happens at the Santa Fe Opera, but these are “tailgate parties” that happen strictly before the show, generally with folding tables and chairs set behind one’s car. Wine may flow freely, but never inside the theatre.
Tonight’s concert, for the third year under the baton of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, featured one very familiar composition, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, with the brilliant blind pianist Noboyuki Sujii, The two others were “A Vision of the Sea,” by the contemporary composer David Matthews, and the early 20th century composer Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4.
We failed to scan the program before the concert began, but it took only a few measures of Matthews’ tone poem before I said to myself, “this has to be English music.” Later the program told me the truth of it. From shimmering images evoked by the violin section to stormy music canvases that were spiked with the bombastic vigor of Matthews’ large percussion section, this was a symphonic tribute to what is generally called the “volatile” nature of British weather and her seas.
Rachmaninov’s concerto has always been a favorite , but I have never heard it performed live with such a fine orchestra (the BBC Philharmonic) and with the perfection provided by our marvellous Japanese pianist. Undertones of gentle pathos and struggle bring a special beauty to this composition, especially in the second movement, when the pianist gallops into a crescendo which softens as though in remembering that earlier, gentler statement, then does it again until, at the close, the strings join in with Rachmaninov’s lovely main theme, bringing it to a soft, surrendering close. As the concerto ended, with the bombast now softened into masterful strains from the entire orchestra, Sujii’s piano came confidently up into the musical foreground, driving it into an unforgettable, fast, delightful ending, and the audience roared its applause.
I was a little impatient with Nielsen’s repeated back-and-forth pattern of strong, loud, even mechanistic passages interposed with sweet, quiet pastoral themes. I was reminded of the Stalin-era Soviet composers, then I thought yes, this must be a sound-picture of what Nielsen experienced as the conflicting tides of life in the early 20th century. But how would it resolve, after this repetition of contradictory moods? Why doesn’t he get on with it? But then he did, with an unexpected no-nonsense coup de grace of an ending, except that it was more perfunctory than graceful. Another look at the program told me unsurprisingly that the symphony was called “The Inextinguishable.” And I realized that though there is strength and heroism in the music, there is also sorrow and wistfulness, and the “story” is never actually finished. That’s the way it is, as Nielsen might say; that’s life.
Overseas visitors to London may wish to avoid the last night of the Proms and make a TV night of this flag-waving sing-along exhibition of patriotic songs with their joyously outdated, chavinistic, royalist, and sometimes downight fantastic lyrics. But for summertime visits I will always recommend buying advance tickets for the Proms. You’ll find everything you need to know at this website.