THE CRITICS : Why I hate the Royal Albert Hall

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This is the time of year when I know what it's like to be a minority: the only sentient being in the music-loving world, apparently, who didn't meet his partner in a Proms queue; who doesn't cherish balmy memories of standing in the Albert Hall through Mahler symphonies of daunting length; who didn't learn all he knows about orchestral repertory on sticky August nights, shoulder to sweat-soaked shoulder with X-thousand other seekers after wisdom; and who doesn't find it vastly funny to shout heave-ho when the piano trundles on.

In other words, I'm not the best spokesman for The Proms, and I loathe the Albert Hall. It's hot, uncomfortable, inadequately served by public transport, and the sound is poor. Most of the music played there would be better heard elsewhere; and Proms performances invariably work more effectively on radio than in the wilting flesh.

But, as I say, I know that no one in the world agrees; and I know, too, that the Proms is a great institution that delivers an extraordinary amount of music to an uncommonly wide audience. This year brings a new director, Nicholas Kenyon, and his programming distributes its eggs among many baskets. Almost every concert has one serious lure supported by a couple of popular pulls - frustrating for the cognoscenti but no doubt good marketing - and the broad themes are Creation and Recreation: the first definitively illustrated by Haydn's oratorio of the same name which opened the season last weekend, and the second served by a number of programmed pieces where one composer adopts and reworks the music of another.

As often as not, these reworkings evidence a struggle for supremacy between two rival personalities, and Tuesday's Prom offered varying examples: Elgar's sumptuous orchestration of Bach's C Minor Fantasia and Fugue (where Elgar wins hands down), Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (game, set and match to Rachmaninov), and three piano pieces by Karl Amadeus Hartmann orchestrated by Hans Werner Henze (UK premiere and, I'd say, a dead heat).

Hartmann and Henze shared a natural affinity as Germans of conscience living through the Third Reich. Henze was a young man at the time and hadn't begun to write; Hartmann, a generation older, retreated into silent protest and produced no music through the war years. The three pieces, originally dating from 1945 and given their new life only this year, are an elegiac testament to the dumb and powerless pain of a creative artist in that circumstance; and in purely musical terms they show Henze at his most attractive. A superb orchestrator, he doesn't always have ideas worth orchestrating. To buy in someone else's is an obvious solution, and the outcome is entrancing: beautifully played, too, by the BBC Philharmonic under Vassily Sinaisky who, alas, followed it up with an undistinguished Brahms 4. Sinaisky is the BBC Phil's new principal guest conductor, and when I heard him take the Phil through Rachmaninov's 1st Symphony in Cheltenham the other week, I thought he was loopy but impressive. He can certainly set Russian repertory ablaze. But Brahms just isn't Russian, and it didn't work.

Shostakovich, though, is Russian; so is Yakov Kreizberg, principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony; and the combination worked superbly in the fiercely bleak but from-the-heart account of Shostakovich's 11th Symphony that trumped the BSO Prom on Thursday. But Thursday was a double-Prom night, and the second instalment was a grand cabaret with Dawn Upshaw singing numbers from her Broadway classics discs - as eulogised so exhaustively before on these pages that I've nothing more to say about them except (as Benjamin Britten used to write in his diary about things that impressed him beyond words) "Cor ...". Of course, the Albert Hall was the wrong place for it, and the BBC's feeble attempts at atmospheric lighting made it look like a Victoria Wood special with budget cuts. But Upshaw rose above the circumstances: the voice pure, glistening and bright, with a milk- and-cookies innocence that projects peculiar pathos into this actually rather sophisticated after-hours Manhattan repertory. The audience went wild (its membership suggesting that Ms Upshaw has made the grade as a gay icon: well, it was inevitable); the London Sinfonietta supplied the sassiest accompaniment this side of the Brooklyn Bridge; and - a significant point - it marked the long overdue Proms debut of music by Stephen Sondheim. Maybe, with that bridge crossed, we can hope for some of the rarer Sondheim musicals in future seasons?

New music in the Proms began on Monday with the premiere of Dominic Muldowney's Trombone Concerto, a piece which tries to synthesise the sober (as in Mozart) and comic (as in so much else) aspects of the instrument by featuring a rhythmically complex quasi-fugue on the little wind motif that used to introduce Tony Hancock's radio shows. The result is earnestly flamboyant in a Hindemith-ian way, with an underlying tension derived from the fact that Tony Hancock's little theme oddly resembles the B-A-C-H motif so reverently treated throughout music history by other composers. It made a fine vehicle for the exuberant virtuosity of Christian Lindberg, who can do things with a trombone I wouldn't itemise in a family newspaper, and does them with a bright, unblowsy brilliance of articulation that no other player I can think of could approach.

Kurt Weill's 1930s opera Der Silbersee isn't new but is novel in that it's hardly ever done (I saw it once in the Camden Festival, years ago) and the Proms concert performance last Sunday was a welcome reminder of its astringent lyricism; a less welcome reminder of its political gaucheness (with an opening scene in which "Hunger" is symbolically "buried"). Markus Stenz conducted the London Sinfonietta and some fine voices, young (Juanita Lascarro) and not so young (Helga Dernesch). But in allocating a cut- down, camped-up English version of the spoken dialogue to a trio of actors, continuity went to the wall. When a singer and an actor share a role, you'd think they'd meet beforehand and agree the character. In this case they had not, and things went dreadfully awry.

Things were pretty awry, too, at the Buxton Festival, which is in reduced circumstances and dependent on bought-in productions for its operas. The two this year were touring jobs from Ireland and not hugely impressive. One, from Opera Northern Ireland, was a Beggar's Opera, which succumbed to the natural tedium of the piece and expected the cast to play their own instruments. They couldn't. Nor, for the most part, could they sing. The other piece was Handel's Amadigi, done by the Dublin Opera Theatre Company who for the past few years have toured superb compact-Handel productions to the Covent Garden Festival. I've always admired them; and as the Covent Garden shows are only semi-staged in churches, I was looking forward to seeing one complete, in the potentially perfect circumstances of Buxton's toybox opera house. But this Amadigi didn't quite bring off the magic atmosphere of the piece (like Alcina, it concerns a sorceress in unrequited love); and much as I liked the pliant lyric pathos of Jonathan Peter Kenny in the title role, and the occasional brilliance of Majella Cullagh as the witch, they didn't save a generally low-key performance.