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Proms 2009: Prom 36 – Handel Selection \ The Sixteen \ Harry Christophers

August 13, 2009

I was in a foul mood when I left the Royal Albert Hall after Prom 34. I passed people queuing for the Philip Glass late night Prom outside and wished I could stay. I needed something to satisfy my soul. Prom 36 from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen had failed to deliver.

In fairness, my lack of satisfaction was in no way caused by the band, the electric performance given by soprano Carolyn Sampson nor the choir. My problem was with Handel.

There’s an unwritten but often quoted rule in the media industry which berates anyone who fails to edit out repetition. Audience research (which no-one seems to have an electronic copy of let alone a hard copy) appears to show that attention spans are short. Don’t let anything go on too long. The audience will only switch off. Keep it short or we’ll dismiss you.

Maybe I need to break out of that bubble, because it was exactly that unwritten rule I was thinking of when I listened to The Sixteen’s performance of various Handel works.

When I stood in the arena staring across the stage at the gorgeous Carolyn Sampson warbling her way through an excerpt from Semele I was reminded of why Handel’s music aggravates me.

I stared down at the text printed in the programme. I couldn’t make out the words but I knew the soprano line consisted of two lines of text. And yet, those two lines of text seemed to be repeated endlessly. On and on and on. Relentless melismatic writing intended to illustrate one single point. Was the character meant to be mad, annoying or both?

At the risk of appearing as though I’m damming with faint praise, I did totally appreciate Sampson’s technical mastery. Executing such intricate writing is no mean feat. It sounds complicated. It is complicated. And anything less than perfect execution would have resulted in a sub-standard performance. Her presence and characterisation was electrifying. The orchestra too delivered precision playing, one look at the expression on their faces made it obvious they were really into the music. I just didn’t feel what I perceived everyone on the platform was feeling about the music.

I’d gone with all the right intentions. I said as much to a season ticket holder as we climbed the stairs into the arena. “I’m reckoning on being somehow converted. I’m looking for a road to Damascus experience.” It had worked with Stockhausen’s music last year, there was every chance it could this year.

Perhaps the rot had set in when the orchestra swept onto stage. A glance of the glamorous violinists’ special bows and that massive guitar thing which sat at the front of the band set them apart from the usual modern style orchestras I feel more at home with.

There’s something impenetrable about the sight of a period instrument orchestra. The understandable desire to offer as close a representation of how Handel himself might have heard his works played has an odd effect on me.

Historical reconstruction is vital and laudable but it leaves me feeling a little cold. It’s like watching a surgical operation. It’s all terrifically executed (and as someone with OCD tendencies I admire the attention to detail), but the substance doesn’t endear itself.

I know that’s sacrilege. Such dismissiveness could be seen as mean spirited. It’s certainly narrow-minded. I know plenty of other people rave about it. I know too that no-one can like all music. What I’m struck by is how something as harmonically straightforward as Handel’s repertoire can provoke such a strong negative reaction.

I promised the Proms Cohorts in the arena I would return for the second half. I would make the concert I wasn’t looking forward to the one I stayed right until the end. As it turned out, my extended interval spent outside the Albert Hall combined with my cheeky hope I might slip into the gallery for the last piece failed spectacularly. “You’re not coming in, sir” advised the jacketed member of door staff, “the gallery is sold out. Sorry.”

I left the Royal Albert Hall with my tail between my legs, embarrassed and shamed I didn’t share the enthusiasm of the capacity audience inside the hall. I’d failed to stay until the end of a reasonably short concert too, seemingly punished by the concert hall staff who had steadfastly stuck to their responsibilities.

I had it coming.

  1. David England permalink

    You were in good company. Half of my party of four didn’t turn up at all.

    I managed to plead with the nice lady in the box office to resell the tickets a quarter of an hour before the concert started and refund what I’d paid, even though I did not have the tickets themselves (they were in a glove compartment somewhere on the M6). And then one of the people who bought the duplicate tickets only stayed as far as the interval.

    I of course very nobly stayed to the end, and then stayed on for the Glass. I won’t be doing that again in a hurry …

  2. Chris Poppe permalink

    Well, as you know I am a Handel fan – but I found that concert very insubstantial and rather dull. It all seemed to blend together in a Handel Stars on 45 sort of way and I started to have some sympathy for you Jon!!

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