Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A Great Concert: but a Concert from Hell

I was reading Ian Hislop’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in the 2009 Proms handbook about audience etiquette-when it is appropriate to clap, cough etc. Now, I do not agree with his conclusions, which seems to be 'basically forget etiquette and clap and cough when you want'. However it did remind me of a concert from hell that I attended at the Royal Festival Hall a number of years ago.

I have never been a big fan of ‘Kennedy’ and the trappings of his populist approach to the classics and pop influenced music. However, I have always admired his 1984 recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Vernon Handley (EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75139 2) So when he appeared at the Royal Festival Hall some dozen or so years later it was an opportunity I did not wish to miss. It was a fine programme – opening with Vaughan William’s great Sixth Symphony and followed by the Elgar after the interval.

I was sitting in the in the middle of a row dominated by a number of middle-aged ladies. They were, I later found out, some of the large number of Kennedy’s groupies that apparently attended his concerts. There was quite a bit of shuffling -one lady came in and out of her seat two or three times before settling down just after the opening work had begun. It did not take me long to tell that they were not RVW aficionados. After the first few bars, the sweeties were passed round... There were stage whispers – one about a late train and the other concerning a shop in Oxford Street. Even a ‘Shhh’ from me did not make them concentrate. More sweets, more scrunching paper and then one took out a magazine, another searched her handbag for a cough sweet. By the time the slow final movement of the Symphony had started they were thoroughly bored. But worse was to come – some five or six minutes from the end of the notoriously difficult pianissimo last movement the first person got up and worked his way to the end of the row. Now I guess it was not the loo that he required – it was the bar. Soon others followed suite. At least two dozen folk made for the gin and tonic early. At least I was spared the ladies pushing past me during the music – but as soon as the applause began, they were gone.

After the interval, Kennedy appeared rapturous applause. I guess he could have been about to play ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and still receive an ovation. Anyway the company eventually settled down and the band and soloist began on Elgar’s glorious music. After a few minutes the whispering began again – then I heard one lady say in a loud voice, “I thought he was going to play The Seasons…!” Disappointment ensued, out came the sweets and the magazine. At the end of the first movement there was massive applause and cheering. I was close enough to see that Kennedy was not pleased. In the Elgar Concerto it is a very difficult emotional transition between the first and the second movements. For anyone in the audience who loved the Elgar, it was a major interruption in their concentration and enjoyment of the music. There was a lesser round of applause at the end of the ‘andante’. but by then I think that even the most ardent of groupies had lost any iota of concentration they ever had. However, as the final notes died away –there was clapping, cheering and stamping. Although it had been this Edgar fellow and not 'Viv-Aldi', it had not been too bad. And of course there was an encore- the whisper in my row was that it was going to be a Jimi Hendrix piece. It wasn’t. It was a Rumanian Rhapsody for solo violin by Bela Bartok!

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