Music for a Nuclear Winter

Tuned into the BBC Proms on Saturday night with some trepidation.  The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain embarked on a kind of space extravaganza.  Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and Holst’s The Planets (complete with Pluto, downgraded or not, courtesy of composer Colin Matthews) were preceded by Iris ter Schiphorst’s Gravitational Waves.   The last time I went to a London Prom was on September 10th 2008 to experience a similarly spaced-out programme; the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martin Brabbins played Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica and Holst’s The Planets.  I believe Herbert von Karajan hated The Planets, but was occasionally obliged to programme it with the Berliner Philharmoniker, which just goes to show, even the great and the good sometimes just have to do as they’re told.  I quite like The Planets, but I really wanted to hear the Vaughan Williams, because it is so seldom programmed. Some people say it’s hardly a symphony; it’s only film music, albeit of a classy kind.  But I thought it was beautiful, and the effect of the ethereal soprano, Elizabeth Watts, an apparition high up above the Royal Albert Hall, was extraordinary.

Sandwiched between the Vaughan Williams and the Holst was Iannis Xenakis’ Pleiades, a substantial four movement piece for a battery of percussion.  I like to think I’m open-minded and receptive to contemporary music.  If I took offence at the Xenakis, it was not because it was avant garde, but simply because it was painfully, literally painfully, loud.  I thought it was only rock music that damaged your tympanic membranes.  Not so.  I believe a rank-and-file string player has recently sued the symphony orchestra in which she plays, for hearing loss.  I like to think the complainant is a viola player.  Somebody in the brass will have cracked a joke about it.  Well, they all laughed when Christopher Columbus… etc.  The woodwind players in the RSNO protect their ears from the brass by erecting sound barriers (they look like transparent music stands) behind them.  Sometimes, during a tutti (if she is not playing herself) the cor anglais player puts her instrument down and covers her ears.  For myself, I gave myself until the end of the first movement of the Xenakis, and whispered to my neighbour, “Life’s too short.  I’m going to the bar.”  I wasn’t alone.  I heard boos and catcalls.  Those of us who walked out were later berated by a critic, but I’d like to assure him it was not a matter of music appreciation, but one of health and safety.  Who was it that said, “Never sing louder than lovely”?

I met a very affable steward on my way out and said, “I need a drink!”

“Was it all too much for you?”

“Just too mm-mm loud.”

“Come back for the Holst.”

But I’d had it.  I’d taken a mood.  I could see he thought I was a dour and grumpy Scotsman (which, on this occasion at least, I was).  I later regretted it, not least because I found out that 10/9/08 was the day that the conductor Vernon Handley died.  Tod (as he was universally known) was a huge champion of British music and in particular of a great hero of mine, Arnold Bax.  If I’d known that at the time, I think I would have stayed.

So in a sense, Saturday night’s NYO concert was my chance to slip back into the Royal Albert Hall and hear The Planets.  But would I survive Iris ter Schiphorst?  Yes.  It didn’t threaten to knock off more of my high-tone frequencies, the musical language was quite accessible and I had no trouble envisaging the collision of two black holes.  It became evident that the performance was as much a visual as an aural experience, one that I wasn’t capturing on Radio 3, so on Sunday I caught it again on the iPlayer.

There was a bit of theatricality, involving the players wearing masks, swaying (I guess like waves), carrying out some choreographed manoeuvres, and chanting.  I notice this was a BBC commission and a London premiere.  A friend of mine refers to such a performance as a “derriere”.  Will it get another outing?   Hardened professional musicians are notoriously obdurate when it comes to doing anything other than playing their instruments.  The Musicians’ Union even has rules about what you can and can’t ask an orchestra to do.  If the sense of humour of the orchestral musician is sardonic, it is surely because they seek a means of self-preservation.  I recall the great horn player Barry Tuckwell came up to Glasgow to play a Thea Musgrave concerto with the RSNO (then SNO).  The soloist had a kind of itinerant role, and was instructed to move about the orchestra to play in ensemble with relevant sections sharing a common theme.  During the performance, Tuckwell arrived beside the horn section and the principal muttered to him, “Bugger off!”

I wonder if, when Vaughan Williams composed the last movement of his sixth symphony, he had in mind his friend Holst’s last planet, Neptune the Mystic.  The Vaughan Williams never rises above pianissimo.  Music for a nuclear winter.  RVW would have scoffed at that.

I was greatly struck by the NYO chant that closed Gravitational Waves.  It was a quote from Sir Isaac Newton.  “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”  I suppose it was ever thus, but that is surely the crucial conundrum of our time.  It certainly seemed the most apposite thing you could possibly say on, of all the days of the year, August 6th.

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