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Michael Coveney: Who's That Man in the Front Row?

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One of these days -- tomorrow, actually -- I'm going to ask the man who always sits in the front row at the Queen's Hall concerts who the hell he is. He's there, every year, every concert, without fail, tall and distingue, resembling Humphrey Burton, the television producer who turned a whole generation on to Leonard Bernstein then wrote his biography.

I suspect he's an academic, or a teacher, or --let's hope -- an off-duty guardsman. I say this because Fraser Smith, press agent supreme at the Underbelly, has charged me with finding him a military gentleman of noble carriage. So far, no luck, and I don't think I have time to go to the Tattoo. And if I do strike lucky, my wife says could I bring one home for her, too, please.

Anyway, the opening concert was superb, American pianist Jonathan Biss playing Mozart, Beethoven, Leon Kirchner (John Adams' teacher) and Schumann. His version of the "Appassionata" was very different from mine, I'll say that for him. Like Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, I play the piano with great feeling. Anyone can play accurately. Jonathan Biss does both, so he's one up on me.

The opening festival concert in the Usher Hall on Friday night was a stirring performance of John Adams's El Nino, and international festival director Jonathan Mills welcomed the audience with a reference to his own injured leg of last year: no one knew what he was talking about, or indeed, who he was anyway. Mills is as mysterious, in fact, as the man sittting in the front row. I wonder if, by chance, they are related?

Mills then made a few trite remarks about cultural diversity and identified his festival as representing two big words: Ocean and Heart. It's a shame the directors of Porgy and Bess then took him at his word and deluged the great Gershwin love opera in a tsunami of crashing waves on film.

None of this is any help in our quest for a guardsman, which I shall now resume by taking a Sunday morning stroll -- jog, who knows? -- over the crags of Holyrood.

Mind you, guardsmen were nearly the last thing on Fraser's mind late last night as he plunged into the seething throng in the Loft Bar at the Gilded Balloon, which seems a bit groovier than the Assembly Rooms members' bar this year.

Fraser was schmoozing a camp young twerp from BBC's The Culture Show whose main objection to everything was that it was "old." Pity he was standing right next to Clarke Peters, who clearly demonstrates how utterly cool some "old" people can be. I hugger-muggered for a while then fled to my bedroom.

It's always important to shut the door on the madness at some point in the day or night. Now, what about those soldiers? 


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