Each Proms season I’ve traditionally set myself a challenge – attend one concert where I don’t know the conductor, soloist, composer, orchestra – a challenge to myself to broaden my mind. In a normal year, last night’s Prom would have been that one. A new conductor for the Philharmonia. I hadn’t been able to get a ticket in the initial sale, but had decided to try on the morning for a Promming ticket in the choir stalls. When it was announced there would be a replacement conductor as Santtu-Matias Rouvali was unable to be there due to travel restrictions, I was delighted to see that the man standing in for him was Paavo Järvi – he’s in my ‘favourites’ group.
I got a seat – row 3 – in the choir stalls and set out from home at 2pm, thinking I’d get there in time for a stroll up to the park, eat my picnic tea, and take my seat. The road traffic management powers that be had a different idea. It would appear that the M4’s average speed is now about 50mph, and with a whole junction closed off and a diversion through the middle of Slough on a Saturday afternoon, I parked up at 7pm. However, I was soon in my seat – the queuing system, Covid Pass, ticket and bag checking procedures in place were fine – and to my relief most people were wearing masks, at least in the corridors. The guys either side of me were not, but one put his on whenever talking to me!
The stage is huge and at first I was worried about the sound from my seat. I needn’t have done so. Although I could hear the French Horns and woodwind a little more clearly than usual because of their proximity compared to the rest of the orchestra, that didn’t matter as they were superb.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, ‘Classical’ is my favourite piece by this composer and it danced away, opening up the concert in a beautiful way. It was light and bright, Paavo Järvi looked happy to be on the podium, and the orchestra very happy to be there.
I’d heard good things about the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson but his programme choices gave me cause for concern. It is well known by those who know me, that I really don’t ‘get’ Bach. This man’s playing of the Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 changed my mind. It was exquisite – and I knew that from the first couple of bars. I think the term ‘tinkling the ivories’ was invented for this man – and not in a bad way. His touch was so delicate that it reminded you of the tinkling of raindrops – the quiet moments made you hold your breath so as not to disturb him – his strength at the lower end of the keyboard – quite magnificent. And when he wasn’t playing, he was constantly surveying the players ranged behind him to listen to their contribution as if he was part of them, rather than the soloist.
The interval was followed by Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491 – I thought I knew the piece, but recognised very little of it. But again, the playing was superb. the audience were not going to let him go so easily and we were treated to two encores – Andante [Adagio] from J. S. Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528 (transcr. Stradal) & Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.
Víkingur spoke to the audience before the encore – I couldn’t make out every word, but he did take the time to thank Parvo Järvi for standing in, and I think he referred to him as a superstar (I wouldn’t disagree), and he came across as someone who was genuinely pleased to be on stage and to engage with the audience.
The final piece was Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 in E flat major and it was here that the conductor and orchestra came into their own. A much bigger ensemble appeared (while the piano was skilfully rolled off stage) and you knew you were in for a big piece of music. It was incredible. The first movement loosened things up a lot and I was conscious I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was trying hard not to tap feet, shrug shoulders, head bang (oh yes!) but then the second movement – oh my goodness. I think I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this orchestra’s playing. I’ve seen them perform several times and have never been won over – this evening changed my mind. Tonight they were happy, engaged, and engaging. The bassoon solo was wonderful, as were all the solo contributions and it was great to hear three trombones ring out from the back of the stage. Paavo Järvi was in his element – a grin appearing now and again, a thumbs up for a perfect entry from percussion (perhaps there had been issues during rehearsal in the timing because of the distance?) – and overall a fantastic end to an evening.
The audience looked large – a normal one with few gaps (although there were more after the pianist had finished for the evening) – the choir seats were full to capacity, the arena Prommers looked transfixed throughout – and there was good humour throughout the auditorium.
The drive home took another four hours (I’ve previously done it in 3 – it is only 180 miles after all) and I was back in my bed almost exactly 12 hours from when I’d left home. A 12 hours that have changed my mind about a composer and an orchestra. Not a bad result really. There is not only light at the end of the tunnel right now, but that tunnel seems to be getting shorter as well.