Performing as the LSO’s principal flautist to enthusiastic crowds in St Petersburg and London shows a 21st-century thirst for classical music
As we speed through the outer areas of St Petersburg on our way to the new Mariinsky II theatre, thoughts of my musical ancestors are in my mind. Tchaikovsky said that Arthur Nikisch, the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1912, didn’t so much conduct the orchestra but conducted a mysterious spell over them. Reviews of their American tour that year in the New York Times, described him as having mesmeric eyes and fluttering hands; it’s difficult not to make comparisons with our present day principal conductor, Valery Gergiev. Nikisch was simultaneously principal conductor of the LSO, Leipzig Gewandhaus and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. Had he had access to today’s transport systems and been able to jet across the Atlantic, I can’t help wondering whether he would have held onto his position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well. Nevertheless, he was a man in a position of extraordinary power who was able to demand a fee of $1000 a day and employ a PR agent.
Valery Gergiev is well known for his hectic schedule and he too holds multiple positions in different parts of the world, but if you were in any doubt as to where his main focus is, then it becomes clear as you approach the centre of St Petersburg. A few weeks ago, he opened his new theatre in a glittering gala evening which saw arts managers, politicians and artists from around the world gather to marvel at the brand new hall. It is an extraordinary building, more so because it opens at a time when the arts in Britain and in many parts of Europe are having to prove their economic value. In case you were in any doubt as to the driving force behind this project, as the bus crosses a flyover on the way in, on our left, a warehouse is covered in a 100-ft high poster with an image of Valery conducting; his eyes follow you as you go past, his fluttering hands big enough to flick passing cars into the Neva below with the slightest change of tempo. Culture is big in Russia; the music of the state is still full of life, as long as you know the right people.
A day later and the LSO is back in London to play a repeat of the programme, but this time we aren’t in our Barbican home, but in Trafalgar Square. I’ve never quite understood the British obsession with outdoor concerts (this summer is already shaping up to be a washout), however last year in the Olympic Ceremonies we managed to coax the sun out from hiding. The Trafalgar Square concert is free to watch thanks to sponsorship from BMW, and the repertoire is not the standard dumbed down outdoor classics selection with fireworks; it’s rather different. Last year we played The Rite of Spring as well as other Stravinsky pieces; this year it’s all Berlioz including Symphonie Fantastique, and on top of that, the non-paying public has to sit (no chairs allowed) on the hard stone floor of the square. Not perhaps the most obvious crowd puller...and yet that is exactly what it does.
The stage sits at the base of Nelson’s Column, at the end of the flute section is one of Landseer’s Lions, and giant screens relay close-ups of the players in tails and sunglasses. Trafalgar Square is full to capacity an hour before the concert is due to start and security has to stop people coming in. Over 10,000 people are waiting to hear classical music in central London. If you combine that with the astonishing rate at which tickets for the Proms have been selling this season, then from where I sit, those touting tickets for the funeral of classical music are going to have to start giving refunds for the time being.
The audience is made up of an astonishing mixture of people and whilst many will have seen an orchestra before, for many it is the first time they will have experienced one. If you were skeptical about the fashion for classical music concerts in unusual venues, then look at the smiling faces in Trafalgar Square and the roar of the crowd at the end; these unexpected music lovers are the people we need to convince to come inside the doors of our halls. When the audience in Mariinsky II or the Barbican centre come to see a concert, they are either familiar with the concept and know how they are expected to behave or, if not, are intimidated and probably don’t come. Presented in this iconic location, there are no rules, there are no expectations; just turn up and see if you like it. Some sit silently in their own private hall relishing every note, groups of students lounge around tweeting pictures (#lsoopenair) and children dance around their parents with joy during the waltz - anything goes.
Dotted around the square are posters showcasing the LSO, BMW and a picture of Valery’s face (although significantly smaller than in Russia). Across the back, just in front of the National Gallery, barriers keep a clear path for emergency access, but despite the best efforts of the security staff, crowds of people have stopped to listen to the concert and it is now at a standstill, full of curious passers by. Half an hour into the concert something wonderful happens. The posters on the barriers block the view of these extra audience members, they can hear but not see the concert, and so half way through the 'March to the Scaffold', the 21st century crowd tear the posters down so that they can see the orchestra on stage. No doubt you will have missed this small snapshot of the state of music in Britain in the newspapers a few weeks ago. There were ugly scenes in Trafalgar Square during the rehearsal as an EDL march passed by on its way to Downing Street accompanied by riot police; they of course stole the headlines that day. There were only around 1000 people on that march however; music brought together over 10,000 people. I hope the people in the corridors of power were paying attention.
Watch a short film about the LSO's Trafalgar Square concert below: