Oh dear, oh dear. It’s all changed this year: the queueing system has changed, an attempt to disperse people which leads to a much less social atmosphere, and there’s additional security theatre (a modicum of which has a potential effect, but much of it striking me as somewhat pointless). At least some of this must have been thrust upon the Royal Albert Hall at short notice, because it has driven a coach and horses through the Proms Extra events: essentially, Promenaders who are in the front half (say) of the queue will lose their places by going to the pre-Prom talks, and I gather attendance has slumped correspondingly. I’m sure this scheduling debacle wouldn’t have been designed. The other deplorable innovation is that yet another phase of building work means that the Arena Day and Season Ticket holders are being admitted through the same door in parallel, which has apparently produced some “tired and emotional” moments. There’s a long-standing convention that Season Ticket holders stand in the left half of the front row, and Day prommers stand in the right half – when admitted carefully in two separate queues from opposite sides of the hall this works quite well, but with the vagaries of bag searches and ticket scanning, there is only one stream entering the arena, with correspondingly random results.
Anyhow, after the initial disorientation, I was in any case four or five rows back for Prom 5, which was the first in a pair of concerts by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. I’d picked this concert because it was full of favourite works of mine. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 does seem a slightly odd piece with which to begin a concert, but it’s a single movement work of about 20 minutes duration. It worked quite well, and I preferred Søndergård’s ending in particular to the rendition by Osmo Vänskä in the Proms’ Sibelius cycle a couple of years ago – holding the final chord a little longer, but not too much. As Jonathan Meades says, good is not always the same as authentic.
For the next piece, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the orchestra was joined by pianist Bezhod Abduraimov. I found it an assured but not arrogant performance. Being a few rows back I decided on this occasion to stand on the left side, which sometimes gives you a better view of the pianists’s hands; however it turned out I was in line with a couple of rather tall people and I didn’t see that much detail. Søndergård gave the work indulgent tempi at a few points; but it is a late Romantic work and to be honest, I think Stephen Hough just took the piece far too fast all those years ago. On this accasion I found there was a positive chemistry between soloist and conductor, right through to the final bars. Remarkably there was no applause between movements, and Abduraimov indulged us further with a Tchaikovsky Nocturne as an encore.
After the interval, another orchestral workhorse: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. I remember reading once that Shostakovich paces the final movement of this work just right – that there’s a long, but not too long, introduction. In fact I think this sentiment applies across the work; the themes shuffle around in the long first movement at just the right pace. In fact I found myself starting to fade during this long concert, but made it through to the end unscathed.
It was a late finish, and I finally arrived home at about ten to midnight. As I entered the estate, there were two Southern Electric vans parked ominously under an arc-light; even worse, two more, with a digger and a pneumatic drill closer to the house. There were no power problems in my home, but the other side of the street seemed to be off, including street lights. Although the work seemed to be going on for some time, I found my earplugs were fortunately tuned to block out the industrial noise.
Having understood the changes to the system, I planned for the following day more carefully, and this resulted in a place in the second row. The same orchestra and conductor, but a less familiar programme. In fact, I didn’t know either piece in the first half – Shostakovich’s symphonic poem October (a Proms first performance) and then his Violin Concerto No. 1, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. This, of course, made it a popular concert; the work is certainly virtuosic and she played it strenuously. I recognised fragments; Shostakovich frequently quoted or reused material, and there were certainly themes and passages that feature in other works such as the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and strings. Benedetti gave us an encore of a version of Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns, arranged by Petr Limonov. In the second half, we had Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, a more familiar and favourite work. The orchestra seemed to me to be a little patchy; in particular there was one chord from the brass in the scherzo that just seemed like noise. But, by the end, Søndergård had everything under control and the final “big tune” was a great success.
After an earlier finish, I was lucky with connections and made it back to Reading by about 22:20. As I walked from the station to the car park, I was rather surprised to discover the IDR had been submerged under the bridge by the station, with one or two cars helplessly marooned in the water. Clearly there had been a downpour at some point in the evening. The car park I was in was unaffected, but the road by Burghfield Bridge was awash (shallowly) from one side to the other. I’m looking forward to less eventful journeys home for the rest of the season.