BBC Symphony Orchestra – Maida Vale, London

Friday 6th July, 2018

This will be the longest gap between attending the concert and writing it up since I started this blog. Partly because I don’t have a small, light, laptop for travel, and partly because life has gotten in the way. Parenthood, work and the England football team have all prevented me putting words down. And now I realise that I’ve lost the programme for the event. I’ll be working on memory here; this may not be a classic entry!

The BBC give away free tickets to all sorts of things, comedy shows, discussion/panel shows, gigs and classical concerts. All you have to do is apply and keep your fingers crossed. I’ve never been lucky in securing Strictly tickets, but I have occasionally seen some BBC Radio 4 recordings in Bristol (Cerys Matthews In Our Time and Front Row). I applied for tickets to this when I realised that Tom and I would be in London for the weekend and that it was at Maida Vale. The iconic recording studio that the BBC are planning to leave very soon. I thought I had better take the chance to visit while I could, having never been there before. Besides when else do you get to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra in all its glory, being recorded for BBC Radio 3, for free?

It had already been one heck of a musical day, starting with my final stint as the 5 before 6 DJ on Chris Hawkins early show on BBC 6Music (you send in 5 songs to be played at 5 to 6 in the morning). We visited Abbey Road and I posed on the crossing with 800 other tourists in homage to the Beatles. Then we popped in to see James Maynell at Soho Radio (he usually broadcasts on a Friday 2-4, have a listen) and I ended up live on air chatting to Alan McGee (as you do!) about Screamadelica. It was about as far from my ordinary Friday as it could get.

Having been lucky in the ticket draw we rocked up to Maida Vale nice and early and were grateful to be queuing in the shade. The relentless heat we have had of late made London (and the tube in particular) very sticky indeed. Once allowed in it felt fantastical and anti climatic all at once. I may well have been walking where the Beatles, Sir George Martin and Cilla had, but it was still a working BBC building with all its health & safety notices and business as usual air. We were in Studio 1, a vast hall with peach and cream walls and some baffling curtains covering nothing and doors that seemed to lead nowhere high up on the walls. It felt time capsule like, original features were abound giving it an air of faded, tired glamour. My initial reaction was “well I can see why they want to close down and move from here, its old, a pain in the arse to get to, how on earth you’d park large trucks outside I do not know and frankly I feel like I’m in a school gym circa 1954.”

The enormous orchestra trundled in (there seemed to be so many of them and yet they didn’t fill the space, it just seemed to go on forever) and our BBC Radio 3 host (whose name I’ve forgotten, but who’s voice I recognised from my occasional listening to the station) welcomed us in and we did some practice applause.

The wonderful thing about attending recordings for radio is that they introduce everything fully and so you have a bit more chance of understanding things you aren’t familiar with. Such as classical French composers. They opened with Berlioz’s overture to ‘Le carnaval romain’ which was pretty stirring stuff. Romantic and swirling, building climatically to an enormous crescendo it certainly kept us all awake!

After a short interval we came back to Liszt’s symphonic poem, apparently the worlds first, and there was a chat with the conductor afterwards (without the programme I’ve no idea of his name) about how French cello compositions have their own sound and how the use of piano to compose on isn’t the done thing in France, as it is in Germany etc. The composer “must think in his head” the sound he wants to convey. I’ve genuinely no idea what difference this makes, I’m no expert on any kind of classical music at all, but it was interesting to hear about from someone who did. This was a calmer piece, gentler and more ‘traditional’ romance.

The final piece was from Dutilleux, Timbres, espace, mouvement, which was inspired by the Van Gogh painting Starry Night.  I had Don McLean’s Vincent running through my head which made for an interesting mash up I can tell you! The motifs representing the stars (harp, wind) run through the piece, almost competing with the cellos of the earth to see who can shine brightest and feel more authentic. Ultimately it is both, creating a beautiful dance of natural wonder.

I may have started as a doubter, but as soon as the sounds of the orchestra hit my ears, I knew what every musician who has ever played at Maida Vale meant when they say the place is special. There is a warmth and depth to the sound, something very rich and wonderful that would be lost if the BBC were to move. I can still see the practical reasons they may want to leave, but my heart is now sold on them staying. I am very glad I had the opportunity to hear music played there, it is a venue off the bucket list that’s for sure.

It had been a magical, musical adventure of a day.




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