Friday, September 02, 2022

How I Lost My Sole to Classical Music

Not long ago, I scored a ticket to a “BBC Prom” (definitely not to be confused with the frequent autocorrect, “BBC porn”). For those who don't know what the proms are, it's a series of concerts run every year celebrating classical music. For those who don't know what classical music is, it’s everything before jazz. At least, that’s my understanding. (For those of you who don’t know what “BBC porn” is, you should feel glad that you are less sullied by the internet than the rest of us. And, obviously, don’t google it at work.)

The main difference between classical music and post-jazz music is that a classical band has way more musicians than you would have thought necessary. There are so many they couldn’t possibly keep time and so need a human metronome called a conductor. This is the second difference. With no pop/punk/rock equivalent except perhaps an overbearing manager, or so I thought, the conductor is so called because they look like electricity is coursing through them. Conductors dress like old-school stage magicians. The even carry a wand. (There might be a reason musician and magician sound kinds similar. But it might just be a coincidence and no amount of research will uncover a link, as with “pianist” and “penis.”)

Royal Albert Hall
Salle d'Albert Royale

No one knows why the concerts are called “Proms.” Some say it stands for “Programmable read-only music;” others that it comes from the opening of several famous concertos which begin “Prom, Prom, Prom!” But whyever they are called that, they’ve been an annual event since the time before jazz (BJ).

You may not be able to tell but I don't go to a lot of classical concerts and I nearly didn't make this one. It was a hot day. So hot, it somehow managed to melt the glue on my shoes.

I had just reached the tube station when the first sole departed. The other followed swiftly as I returned home for replacement footwear, in what was clearly a premeditated double shoeicide (I’m sorry).  I reverted to my everyday shoes and made a mental note that probably leaving something in a bag for 5 years will reduce its will to live. If you have shoes you wear infrequently, check in on them occasionally.

Broken shows
Broken shoes

Thanks to punctual but overcrowded public transport, I still arrived in time for the gig although, on one of the hottest days of the year, if not since the Earth first cooled, I was more sweat than man.

As with all of them, this Prom was at the Royal Albert Hall, Britain's most famous music venue after Wembley Stadium. But the Royal Albert Hall doesn't have to moonlight at a football pitch to make ends meet. It is also notable as the alleged storage facility of Germany’s most famous wartime leader’s second testicle.

It’s a tall space. I’d say too tall for someone like me with acrophobia (fear of heights or Greek ruins). I was right up near the top and shown to my seat by a Sherpa. It also has a massive organ at one end. (Do not google “massive organ” without “Royal Albert Hall.”)

So, are classical concerts anything like normal concerts? (Or whatever the opposite of classical is. Contemporary? Neo-Greek? Musique Nouveau?)  Yes. More so than you think. 

As I say, the big differences are the number of band members (although Slipknot come close) and the need for a conductor. Sheet music is another difference, but then a regular band only has to remember the songs they've written and a few fond covers, whereas an orchestra is always a cover band. who might be called on to play anything from within the last 2000 years, minus the last 100. (And sometimes, they even cover that period as well.)

But what of similarities? The first I noticed was the mosh pit - a standing area between the seats and the band. But absolutely nobody moshed for the whole Prom. Not once.

View of the mosh pit.

The pragmatically named “Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra” appeared to eager applause. This became thunderous when the conductor bounced on stage. I realised the conductor is the frontperson of the band. But instead of singing or playing an instrument, they point at the people who do.

Everyone in their places, the crowd quietened down, and the covers began.

Béla Bartók sounds like a Hungarian detective from a cheap novel, but he wrote the 1920s classic, The Miraculous Mandarin, a dramatic movie soundtrack from before movies had soundtracks.

And Sergei Prokofiev is not a Cold War scientist in a mid-priced thriller, but the creator of the incredibly post-modernly titled “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major,” which is a concerto for piano, the 3rd he wrote, in the key of C major. For this piece, a grand piano was wheeled out in front of the band in a very Bono fashion. The pianist, when he emerged, was cheered as though he was Bono so I presume he was some kind of classical superstar. (For those too young to know who Bono is, please substitute “Harry Styles” which is a far less comedic name.)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major meanders between different styles, hits them hard, and then meanders away. It might have been a medley of Prokofiev’s biggest ballroom thumpers, but then the title would have been “Piano Medley of Ballroom Thumpers in C Major.”

In classical music, musicians are required to blend into the background unless they have a solo. The focus is not on any of them, but on the one who doesn’t play an instrument and poses out at the front. Usually most regular bands will be more inclusive of all their members (even if they do have an obvious front person), and not treat them like tiny cogs in a great machine run by one exceptional person. It makes me realise The Fall were a classical orchestra.

As a reward for playing with the band, the classical superstar was allowed to do a solo piece. I think he said it was by Vivaldi, but it wasn't the one Vivaldi wrote for the hotel chain, so I didn’t know it. It was pleasant, but a piano on its own after a full orchestra felt like letting the guitarist do that song they wrote solo so they feel less in the singer’s shadow, not realising this is also an opportunity for the rest of the band to nip backstage and steal their cocaine.

After some bowing and clapping, there was a break when 20,000 people went to the bar. The interval was the equivalent of that bit between the support act and the main band, except the same band does both halves. It's like they want all the cash for themselves. I guess they don't make a as much on the record sales as a real band does.

Having made the rent on the building by selling 20,000 cold drinks, they herded us back to our seats.

The roof has parking spaces for up to 30 UFOs

First up in the second set there was a new piece by a new composer, Hannah Eisendle. She was so new, she was still alive. The song, being new, was not 30 minutes long, but 8. At least this version was. It might be the equivalent of a radio edit and if it does well, another classical band will at some time perform the extended remix.

It seemed like the soundtrack to a very exciting 90s thriller. (You’ll realise movie soundtracks are practically the only way I ever hear classical music.) I enjoyed the sometimes unconventional ways the instruments were played and wondered whether there was already established sheet music notation for banging a violin.

After that, we were back to dead (or de-) composers. “Symphony No. 7 in (plot twist) D minor” was up next by Antonín Dvořák whose moniker looks like a username and very secure password. He writes symphonies exactly the way people want symphonies to be. All the ups, all the downs and a big finish delivered with aplomb, which is an instrument somewhere between a bassinet and French hornet.

And that was the end of the regular set!

You might think the fact that there were only two tracks per set was another classical music difference, but that would be ignoring prog rock. And you can’t ignore prog rock – we know because we have tried.

Encores are almost exactly the same as those performed by regular less-than-16-people bands. They finish the regular set, and go off stage to rest for 1 minute whilst the crowd cry for more. The difference with classical stuff is only the conductor exits with the musicians remaining on stage to find the sheet music for the encore. Which totally ruins what little pretence there is that there isn’t going to be one.

It was at this point I realised that the acoustics worked really well for the music but when anyone spoke, I couldn't hear half of it. It sounded to me that the conductor said the first encore was a Pussy Riot song. But it didn't sound like any of theirs although I haven’t heard their entire oeuvre. On doing some research, I found it was “Pussy Polka,” not composed by "Weird Al" Yankovic as you might suppose, but by Austrian Gerhard Winkler, also known as Der Fonzie. It was the title music for an Italian heist movie from the 70s.

And just like any good modern concert there was a second encore - usually where the band has held back their most famous track (if they don’t already hate it and haven’t already ended their main set with it). Because this was a Viennese band, they played something very waltzy. The conductor then brought everyone to an audible climax with their big stick (do not google this) and the crowd went wild. I had been well entertained, although I did miss someone - the harpist perhaps? - smashing up her instrument in the final crescendo.

Outside, the air had cooled to only mildly unpleasant. With the harmonies still in my head, I saw the line for buses waiting to take them home (to paraphrase the great composer Sir Steven Diggle) and set off walking home to tell my shoes what they had missed.

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