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Prom 35: Vaughan Williams

August 12, 2008

The BBC Philharmonic was playing tonight, all of the players gracing the stage in their white tuxedos. (I’m sorry to say I can’t recall exactly what the ladies were wearing.) They looked the business too – there’s a lot to be said for good posture and excellent bow technique – none more so than the lead Yuri Torchinsky whose energy and enthusiasm was clear to see during the opening number, Elgar’s Alassio.

Given my seemingly never-ending amounts of enthusiasm for the Proms season, you’d think I’d be enthusiastic every time I set foot in the building. Not so tonight. This evening, a familiar and relentless series of negative thoughts consumed me. I was focussing on things beyond my control. I was, frankly, obsessing and I was feeling angry as a result.

Of course, part of the problem might have been the Elgar itself. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Elgar at all. It opens with a brilliant flourish and whisks the audience off to the Italian Rivera swiftly and deftly. Everyone in the hall loved it and yet, I could only muster the weakest of applause. Clearly, Elgar had failed on this particular occasion to shake my self-imposed fug.

I opted to sit on the floor of the arena from that moment on.

The view from the floor is very odd. Here amongst the bags and programmes, the view is of trousers and ankle socks, the occasional skirt or legs partially covered by lycra shorts. Still, it felt cosy. I occupied my own little cocoon whilst the rest of the prommers stood and craned their necks to get a view of the piano soloist who had arrived on stage.

I picked up my pen and notepad intent on writing out my thoughts in a bid to get rid of them. The first series of repeated chords rung out from piano and orchestra. Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto commanded my attention from the outset. My heart-rate dropped dramatically. I could feel all the tension begin to seep from my body. All that negativity ebbed away.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why, nor give a precise series of explanations as to why this unknown work hit me like a freight train. Despite my unfamiliarity with it, there was something immediately engaging about the unexpected sound world Vaughan Williams had created.

This wasn’t the usual clichéd pastoral world I assume all VW’s music conjurs up. There was something unexpectedly jarring about it. That was refreshing. It was as though the composer himself was prodding me to pay full attention to his creation. Every sound, every texture, every chord and melody was fresh to my ears and yet it all made perfect sense all at the same time.
I sat still, calm and collected, temporarily relieved from all my usual stresses and strains.

That’s possibly why the distant dusting sound on the Royal Albert Hall roof above me took me by surprise. What was the noise? Could anyone else hear it? Was it rain I could hear? Then, when I realised it really was, the heavens opened and the rain got louder. A crack of thunder followed shortly after that.

Tonight’s gig moved me. An unexpected event made for a truly moving experience which in turn introduced me to a new work and one I will no doubt listen to time and time again.

Oh, and the pianist was really good too. He even provided us prommers with an encore.

Listen to Elgar’s Allasio and Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto on BBC iPlayer.

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