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Michael Coveney: Booming with Barenboim at the Proms

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Taking off for a few days to Dorset meant losing touch with the Proms, which have been glorious so far this year, my absolute favourite concert the lunchtime chamber music programme of French chansons sung by mezzo soprano Alice Coote, whom I remember making a breakthrough performance at the ENO in the late lamented Steven Pimlott's revival of The Coronation of Poppea.

But I bounced back with a vengeance last night, doing something I haven't done for many years: listening to a Beethoven symphony in the concert hall; or, rather, the Royal Albert Hall, where Daniel Barenboim and his peerless West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, comprising young Arab and Israeli players, put a rocket under the fifth and radiated tempestuously in the sixth.

This music is nothing if not dramatic and, as David Cairns says in the programme note, "over-familiarity is powerless to blunt its primordial force." There's a moment in the fifth when the musical narrative breaks into a syncopated fugue between all four string sections that is simply breathtaking, and the orchestra seemed possessed of a common demon. 

The series of symphonies ends on Friday when the opening of the Olympic Games is marked with a performance of the mighty ninth, or "Choral," symphony, and that should be quite something. Last night was intensely moving and the packed audience - all 5,500 of them in the hall, including 900 Prommers in the pit and another 500 standing round the upper gallery - cheered and stomped their feet for a good ten minutes at the end.

Barenboim is mixing in some smaller-scale pieces of Pierre Boulez with the Beethoven, an inspired idea that doesn't quite work; because of stage-management requirements, it was impossible last night to take the interval between the two Boulez pieces (each just eight minutes long) which were sandwiched by the symphonies, one after the sixth, one before the fifth.  

So the interval was taken after both Boulez minuatures, leaving the fifth to stand alone in defiant majesty. Unfortunately, no announcement was made, and the signs in the foyer areas had largely gone unnoticed. So there was a mass migration after the first Boulez, followed by a confusing return of some of the early departed during the first bars of the second, which caused unwanted kerfuffle all over the place; it was exactly like the second act of Michael Frayn's Noises Off, with confused pensioners coming and going during the matinee at Goole because of a mix-up in the interval calls. 

I could observe all this with wry amusement from the comfort of BBC Proms director Roger Wright's box, where my companions for the evening included Terry Wogan and his wife; National Theatre boss Nicholas Hytner with his great friend Sarah Sands, editor of the Evening Standard; and two of Roger's oldest friends from his days working in Hamburg for Deutsche Grammophon.

We all know how hard it is to convey the excitement of listening to great music; one of the best descriptions in fiction of "how" you might listen to Beethoven, and the fifth symphony in particular, comes in E M Forster's Howard's End, but it doesn't really go beyond a sort of girlish debate about instrumentation and aesthetics.
And even the best of critics are reduced to commenting on the architectural structure of the fifth, the "four note" knock of doom and the overall rush and propulsion of the music. With the sixth, the painting of countryside images is unprecedented in music and unequalled since, and the sheer thrill of watching the sounds, and moods, and colouration, pass among the string, woodwind and brass sections is utter joy, impossible to describe. 

All sorts of people crowded into the interval drinks behind the box, including design guru Stephen Bayley, Royal Academy curator Norman Rosenthal and BBC Radio 3's wonderful "In Tune" presenter Sean Rafferty, who accused those of us enjoying the fruit juice as being too chaste. Nick Hytner briefly outlined his admiration for the director of tonight's Shaw play at the National, The Doctor's Dilemma, saying that Nadia Fall had assisted him and had done some of the best student productions he'd ever seen.

So it's possible that Nadia Fall might be another name to conjure with soon in the lists of prominent women theatre directors, just as Erica Whyman, formerly of the Gate and more recently of Northern Stage, is appointed deputy artistic director to Greg Doran at the RSC.

I have nothing to report of showbiz note from Dorset beyond the melancholy fact that the summer farce tradition on Bournemouth Pier seems to have died out completely. Not even a whiff of Bobby Davro in Run For Your Wife. The best on offer is something called the Zambezi Experience, or the inevitable Queen "tribute" night for those unable to afford tickets to We Will Rock You.

Same story at Swanage, where the grim functional arts centre that disfigures the sea front only runs to amateurs in Ayckbourn, and even them for three nights only at the end of August. I haven't seen a good summer show for years now, mainly because there aren't any, so I might have to check out the brave variety bill once more on Cromer Pier when the sun next decides to shine.


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