Christopher Morley reports on a triumphant Proms debut for the CBSO with its new music director.
It’s not quite true to say that Tuesday marked Andris Nelsons’ first appearance at the BBC Proms, as he was once in the audience at a concert there when he was much younger.
But the day before yesterday the Latvian maestro was making his London debut as a conductor, and one on the crest of a wave after a spectacularly successful first season as music director of the CBSO. The atmosphere in a virtually packed Royal Albert Hall was accordingly tense with excitement as he bounded onto the stage to take the podium in front of his players.
And all the talk on the CBSO Friends’ coach driving down to London on Tuesday morning had been of Nelsons, his effect on the orchestra, and pleasure at the news that he has happily extended his contract with the CBSO to 2014 – this continued freshness of response from hardened veterans of already many Nelsons-conducted concerts is something gratifyingly remarkable.
There were two coach-loads of supporters (the other one coming from Newport in Shropshire, arranged by arch-enthusiast Anita Davies), and we hundred-odd fans – if a critic may describe himself so – would be joined by a large party from KDS, Nelsons’ agents, making a CBSO groupie-flock of around 150. The contingent also included some members of the CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy, fresh from the success of their concert last Sunday in Birmingham Town Hall.
A tradition which began last year was continued to everyone’s satisfaction this time, when Eve Smith, CBSO development assistant but soon to take over as individual giving manager when the popular Gill Powell moves on to pastures new, handed round her “musical mueslis”, bite-sized flapjacks she had made herself, and which went down a treat.
As did the sweets which appeared from time to time. It was just like a school outing, in a family atmosphere which the CBSO organisation does so much to cultivate.
Arriving in London at lunchtime, amazingly the weather was smiling on the capital. After an excellent Italian lunch in Soho I made my way to Handel House, the elegant early 18th-century property in Mayfair’s Brook Street where Handel lived from 1723 until his death in 1759. Jimi Hendrix shared a top-floor apartment with his girlfriend between 1968 and 1969. Officially this was in the house next door, but the two properties have long been knocked into one, and a wall in one of the rooms is covered with photographs of the guitarist.
Everything in Handel House is on a cosily domestic scale, and we can walk into Handel’s bedroom, soak up the vibes in the room where he composed, and possibly hear live music taking place in the rehearsal and performance room.
The permanent museum takes up the first two floors of this tall building, and there is currently also Handel Reveal’d, an exhibition curated by the harpsichordist and conductor Christopher Hogwood to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, and bringing together many aspects of Handel’s life: health, finances, diet, and his enthusiasm for collecting paintings.
And just around the corner in Hanover Square is the magnificent St George’s Church, imposing yet airy, with a wonderfully natural acoustic, where Handel was a regular worshipper and where the annual London Handel Festival is held.
With time passing, I made a quick trip to Covent Garden, mooching around the Royal Opera House shop before taking a taxi back to the RAH. After a snack in one of the venue’s pleasant, efficient, and surprisingly inexpensive restaurants it was time to join the Prommers in the vast auditorium.
The acoustic is a strange one, particularly for those of us used to the best. For certain pieces it provides an appropriate spread of sound-sources, for others, such as the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2 we heard, it makes the solo instrument sound as though it is playing at the far end of a long alley. But the ears adjust.
Nelsons opened with Orion over Farne by John Casken, a Birmingham University music graduate who has just celebrated his 60th birthday. Casken has always been inspired by visual and textual imagery, and this piece shows his impressive powers of musical suggestion to create starry clusters of sound, swooping melodic lines as though coasting on thermal air-currents, and all drawing resourcefully upon a strong aural memory. Its performance, though compelling, couldn’t banish thoughts that the piece could well have been a little shorter.
Stephen Hough, one of our most thoughtful and accomplished of pianists, is giving all three of the Tchaikovsky concertos at these Proms, prior to subsequent recording in Minnesota. His magisterial account of the Second here made light of its awesome technical difficulties (and not only in the huge first-movement cadenza) and combined both power and scintillating fingerwork.
Nelsons’ CBSO accompanied with empathy and distinction, a partnership most clearly personified in the beautiful repose of the middle movement. Here violinist Laurence Jackson and cellist Ulrich Heinen joined the pianist as equal soloists in a collaboration which evoked chamber-music with the textures of a true sinfonia concertante.
Applause at the end was only stilled by Hough’s encore, haunting, rapt, and totally unidentifiable, to the consternation of all of us. Apparently even the Radio 3 announcer was flummoxed (I do wish soloists would announce their encores).
It turned out to be Young Girls in the Garden by Barcelona-born Federico Mompou, who died as recently as 1987, and whose piano music has been recorded on CD by Stephen Hough. Half a mark to me, for correctly correctly identifying the composer as Spanish.
Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet filled the second half with colour, drama and vivid orchestral playing, Nelsons shaping the balances required here shrewdly and with tremendous effect – bass drum almost soloistic, and rightly so.
Again, there was unstoppable applause before we returned to our coaches for the journey home, tired but happy, as they say.
We reached Cambridge Street at five to one yesterday morning, just in time for people to retrieve their cars from the Brindley Drive car park before the gates closed at 1am, turning the vehicles into pumpkins.
It had been quite a day.