Saturday 28th December, 2019
Knowing my son would be with his Dad for part of Christmas and not wanting endless days of being home alone, I had booked myself a day trip to London to see this concert. The chance to see a fine orchestra play one of the finest symphonies written by one of the finest composers wasn’t one I felt able to pass over. 2020 will be the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but I thought I would start celebrating a little early.
This was my last gig of 2019. The 103rd of the year. Seeing out such a busy musical year with Beethoven seemed sort of fitting.
I am not from a classical music background, it wasn’t the sort of music the working class community I grew up in listened to and my University was a former poly and we didn’t go back to ‘digs’ to listen to LP’s (we were too busy getting wasted in the SU bar and listening to Britpop). I knew Ravel’s Bolero only because of Torvill and Dean and Oh Sole Mio because of the ice cream advert! Four Seasons was a pizza, not a piece of music. Classical music was still high culture, the rarified air that posher people than me breathed until a few years ago when 40 gigs made me try all sorts of music for the first time.
Even with my limited knowledge, I knew that Beethoven was one of the greats. Your basic troika are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. You can’t go far wrong with any of them. Beethoven’s 9th, with its rousing Ode To Joy finale is one of his most famous works and even if you have no idea that you are listening to Beethoven, you will recognise its stirring ending. I have never heard it performed live before and as it such a famous and revered piece I thought I would take the chance to here the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play it.
The Barbican is a vast place and the main hall is huge, but it does have excellent sound right to its rooftops so a balcony seat was purchased (the only level in my price range) and round its maze of steps I went. Entering at that top level provided me with weird flashbacks of my graduation ceremony, where I had been left in charge of the VIP guests and had gotten lost with them. I could see clearly the steps to the stage that I had almost fallen from whilst wearing ridiculous platform shoes (the 90’s was a strange decade). The area where the photographer had taken my photo; no need to tell me to smile as I beamed with pride as the only member of my family to have ever completed an education of any kind beyond 16; it shone out of my face like a sunbeam. My Mum and Nan both speechless at meeting the VIP’s afterwards (Lord Rix and Honour Blackman) and then being left alone in that vast hall, watching the throng of students in caps and gowns peel away with their families, off out to lunches and celebrations. It was just me. On my own, walking into an unknown future. I am in much the same position now, except it is my choice to be alone. I am comfortable in my own skin and am self reliant in a way that would make both Mum and Nan proud I hope.
As usual I have wandered off, but that is me and this is my writing. Music is a key that opens up doors, memories, sensations, experiences and I write about them all. It has never been just about the music.
The Royal Phil was joined by Daniel Lebhardt on piano for the opening piece, Beethoven’s piano concerto number 5 and an excellent job he did too. I was finding it hard to concentrate on listening as all the memories of being in the Barbican more than 20 years before spilled into my head, but I did enjoy the music nonetheless.
After an interval where I ascertained that I would need to leave pretty sharpish at the end of the concert, due to the later finish time than first advertised, I prepared myself to be blown away by Beethoven. The first movement is gentle, setting up the sweeping musical motifs that will circle their way throughout the symphony. The second picks up (and is probably my favourite part), hinting at the crescendo that will come at the end. Paces slows again, like waves crashing slowly in, before building back up and up before reaching the thunderous conclusion of choir and orchestra in an ending so famous that even I knew it before hearing it tonight. Perhaps it was because I was worried about time, but the ending was less than I expected it to be. I was imaging crashing and chaotic noise, but it felt too restrained. Maybe it was because I was so high up. Maybe my expectation was set too high. Or perhaps it was too politely played, by an orchestra and choir in back tie playing to the same rarified air audience I am not a part of. I wanted to see an orchestra almost lose control of themselves, to play with wild abandon and passion. To play as if their souls depended on it. I don’t think that is possible in an evening gown, playing to a polite audience! I want orchestras full of musicians playing for their lives, giving me everything they have, sweeping me up in a wave of tumultuous emotion. It is possible, I have heard classical music played that way. I have heard all sorts of music played in that way and it is the music I love the most.
I was expecting greatness and got acceptable. This wasn’t how I wanted my gigging year to end, but perhaps I am too exhausted from it all, or to jaded or spoilt by wonders. Next year there will be fewer experiences, of that I am sure. Perhaps I will hear more Beethoven (I hope so, I’ve yet to hear Eroica live) and perhaps I will be blown away by that. For now, I am glad I went, even if it did not meet my expectations.
2019 has been a very busy year. 103 gigs. I’ll be wrapping them all up in an end of year report soon.