Saturday, 3 September 2011

I've just attended the most enjoyable classical concert I’ve ever been to

Went to a late-night Prom yesterday – one of those that starts at 10pm and finishes around 11.15. Most enjoyable classical music concert I’ve ever attended. Not the best playing I’ve ever heard, and not the most serious or emotional, but an unalloyed delight from beginning to end. (You can hear the whole thing on BBC iPlayer here.) 

When I was reminded that I’d booked tickets for a concert which would mean leaving home at 8.30 on a Friday evening, and which would consist of music chosen by the audience at the event, my heart sank a bit. What had I been thinking? A check of the BBC Proms website revealed the reason for my seemingly eccentric decision – it was Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the superb outfit he formed in 1983. I’ve got several recordings of mainly Hungarian composers by them, and I’ve never heard the likes of Bartok and Kodaly better interpreted.

But, still, would you trust your fellow concertgoers to choose music you then had to listen to? It worked like this: as you arrive at the Albert Hall, you’re given a free programme listing 285 works of classical music from the orchestra’s repertoire (four-movement symphonies count as four separate works), plus a numbered raffle ticket. 

The orchestra members stroll onto the stage, dressed in civvies, then Ivan appears, wearing a jacket, but no tie. The tuba player walks into audience and gets three people to pick raffle ticket stubs out of his instrument. Ivan Fischer shouts out the winning numbers and whoever has that raffle ticket gets to nominate one of the works on offer. When three works have been chosen, the conductor asks the audience to choose between them by raising their hands and shouting out. While copies of the score for the whole orchestra are fetched and distributed, a few orchestra members do a party piece to fill in the time – over the course of the evening we had improvised Transylvanian folk music, some Telemann, a didgeridoo, two violinists doing a Bartok “Violin Duet”, a bunch of percussionists doing a number which consisted entirely of them slapping their own bodies (clothed, mercifully) and the brass section doing some film music (Fellini’s 8½ ).  This probably sounds like the kind of horribly twee musical “jokes” designed to elicit annoying, “what a wonderfully liberated, unbuttoned lot we are” titterings from the audience - but, like everything else last night, it just worked.

Then the orchestra gets stuck in to whatever’s been chosen, which included Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta (which I was going to pick if my number came up), Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Stravinsky’s “Tango”, the overture from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, a Josef Strauss waltz, “Music of the Spheres”,  and the Hungarian March from Bizet’s The Damnation of Faust. (The choosing process is repeated several times.)

The impressive thing, of course, was that all these pieces were played without rehearsal. There were one or two little clunky bits – but, hell, how many different pieces of music does an orchestra have to have under its fingers? And successfully negotiating the rhythmic elephant traps in the Stravinsky “Tango” without rehearsal surely counts as miraculous.

The hall was awash in pleasure and delight and excitement for an hour and a quarter. Why? Well, it was exciting because we’d all gambled by attending when we didn’t know what we’d end up listening to – and we ended up with a musical Royal Flush. Everything we heard was chosen by at least two-thirds of the audience, so we were “invested” in the music. And because we’d all arrived with a blank programme, every piece seemed like an unexpected treat - something we hadn’t expected to hear. Finally, we didn’t have to sit through one of those excruciating newly commissioned pieces – often the sort of old-fashioned Plink! Plonk!modernism that makes everyone want to (a) slit their wrists or (b) shoot someone or (c) both - in order to get to the good stuff.

Another bonus was the absence of the sort of disruption the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra suffered at the hands of a gang of barbaric fascist thugs the previous evening: Thursday represented a triumph for hatred, intolerance, stupidity and philistinism, while last night saw a celebration of good humour, creativity and beauty.

Being a grumpy old conservative sort, I tend to be wary of democratic experiments in the Arts – and I’m sure in the hands of less accomplished players, it could have been very irritating, and an excuse for ineptness or laziness – but Ivan Fischer goes in for this sort of thing a lot, and his manipulation of the audience to get the results he approved of was positively Derren Brownish . His “cocoa concerts” for kids and his “surprise concerts” – where the audience doesn’t have a clue what’s on the programme (a bit like last night, only concertgoers don’t have any choice in the matter) – suggest a restless spirit looking for ways of spreading the joy of great music to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. And I bet it’s a great way of keeping the orchestra fresh and on its toes.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra had finished performing a full concert in the same hall just 35 minutes before our started. Heroes, one and all! 

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