And sometimes ridiculous can be even more fun than sublime
I was too gentlemanly to accept the bet pressed on me by my earnest reviews editor colleague Andrew Mellor, who was convinced that last night’s late Prom, the curious selling point of which was silence, would be a sell-out. He is a young man and I have more experience of such matters. My companion’s most frequent reaction was a hesitant ‘interesting’, interspersed with the likes of, ‘I don’t know what to make of that.’
For the record, I think there were around 800 people in the hall (which takes more than 5000) for the event: the balcony was all but deserted, there were a smattering of prommers in the gallery, some of the boxes were occupied. Most of us congregated in space in the lower reaches of this cavernous arena.
And, believe it or not, I think that what I can best describe as the Proms’ exploration of the absurd deserved a better turnout. I genuinely had fun – and I witnessed pieces about which I had often heard but never thought actually to see (and in some cases hear). My companion had fun too. But I think her evening would have felt a little thin had the late Prom not been preceded by a very conventional one, in which Benjamin Grosvenor, 20 last month, currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music and sporting a vivid bright red shirt and long bent fingers that seem to strike or caress the keys from some distance, showed again what a remarkable, exciting talent he is. In contradistinction to the late Prom, the Royal Philharmonic’s concert was packed to the rafters and I put that down to the draw of Grosvenor. He was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto – fearless and thrilling. A rare talent – and he lifted the concert to heights not achieved in the rather pedestrian reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth that followed. Not that there wasn’t much to enjoy in Charles Dutoit’s sometimes serene reading, but for much of the time it came across as a bit of a warhorse, and occasionally a bit slipshod. A word of praise, though, for the Delius Paris, which opened the proceedings. I love his impressionistic music, defying formal convention. It often feels derivative, owing much to Richard Strauss, but with a span that is all Delius. Too often undervalued and this has whetted my appetite for his next work after Paris, the widely-neglected opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, which is being staged at the Wexford Festival in October.
But back to the ridiculous. The late night concert began dead on time, while the audience were waiting for the London Sinfonietta to take the stage, with a performance of Ligeti’s Poème symphonique – for 100 metronomes, set off at the same time, playing at different speeds and gradually running down till there’s just one metronome ticking away – and then silence. We listened (once we realised the concert had begun) in silence. The applause was genuine, followed by some metronomic applause from the Arena.
This set the mood. And then there was human activity. A bedraggled harlequin shuffled on to the stage with his trombone. This was Byron Fulcher, letting us experience Berio’s Sequenza V. I wondered what the casual listener who’d tuned in to Radio 3 by mistake was making of it all.
Finally the orchestra appeared for Xenakis’s Phlegra and disappeared for Jonathan Harvey’s bells – or, rather, his Mortuos plango, vivos voco – for eight-channel tape. Eight or nine minutes of bells. Beautiful. Took my mind straight back to the three minutes of bells across the country the morning the Olympics began and, quite irrelevantly, wondering why on that day all the bells had tolled at 08.12 rather than at 20.12. Could never quite work that out.
Louis Andriessen was in the hall to introduce a performance of his De snelheid. ‘It’s called Velocity, but the real subject is slowness,’ he explained. This was the antithesis of the Ligeti, which took us on a journey from chaos to stillness and silence. There was such earnest concentration on the orchestra’s young faces and you could see them desperately counting. This was quite a challenge. And one well met. I was reminded of Philip Glass.
What is there left to say about 4’33” that hasn’t been said? I am guessing John Cage’s most famous ‘composition’, now 60 years old, was the reason most of the audience was there. After tuning up, they sat in silence for the allotted time, a beautifully composed frozen tableaux with conductor André de Ridder at the helm. Ambient silence? There was a slight background hum in the hall that I hadn’t noticed before – and the stalls squeak. There was a lady a few rows from me whose phone had gone off loudly – but that was during the Tchaikovsky much earlier in the evening!
But we were all asked to turn on our phones after the Cage, sending each other text messages, on a cue from the conductor, for what was described as ‘Live remix’ by Matthew Herbert.
I’m so glad I was there.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.