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Pleasures of the Proms

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Ticket prices, with the additional restoration fee included, remain the biggest deterrent for potential West End audiences, though I see the newly announced production of Death and the Maiden starring Thandie Newton at the Comedy Theatre in October will be selling standing places for £10 each. Even better value is a £5 standing ticket at the BBC Proms, the best annual music festival in the world, now coming to the end of its first week in the Royal Albert Hall.
A thousand Prommers filled the pit last night for a glorious concert of Sibelius, Bartok and Janacek played by Manchester's Halle Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder, with Andras Schiff on the piano.

What a treat this was. The Sibelius Seventh Symphony was utterly magical, the Bartok Third Piano Concerto electrifying, the Sinfonietta of Janacek simply astonishing. The hall was packed, the concert relayed "live" on both BBC4 and Radio 3, the entire occasion vibrating through the nation, it seemed. And this happens every single night of the summer right through to the Last Night on 10 September.

There's a new handy bar by the main entrance of the Albert Hall that serves draught beer and decent sandwiches, and it was no surprise at all to find a couple of old friends testing it out. I joined them after a nightmare car journey -- six miles in seventy minutes -- through endless road works and diversions.

Suitably becalmed, I then joined Proms director Roger Wright's party which included Donald McLeod, presenter of This Week's Composer on Radio 3, so I was able to thank him for soothing the latter part of my trip with his excellent programme on Cavalli. Timothy West and Prunella Scales were on hand, too, Tim telling me that, in his youth, music boiled down to a choice between Sibelius and Humphrey Lyttelton. He chose Sibelius.

The point arose because I'd said that, while I loved Sibelius's music, I never sat down at home and listened to any of it. My CD box set of his symphonies still retains its cellophane wrapping, though I think that situation may change this weekend.

It's the physical thrill of the concert performance that suits the music so well. Pru agreed, saying that she loved watching all the different sections, the ensemble power of the playing, the visible effort and strain involved. 

With Andras Schiff, though, the strain is minimal, or brilliantly disguised. He's a magic man, this little Hungarian pixie with a mad professor hairstyle and fingers with a life of their own. Only Alfred Brendel, in my experience, is more of a pure conduit of classical music at the keyboard: his playing of the Bartok fair pullulated with sounds of the countryside and birdsong. He played like a man possessed. And so were we.

We were sitting in a box dead centre in the Grand Tier, floating above the Prommers and straight onto the stage. What was that glinting silver tabernacle just below the bust of the Proms' founding director, Sir Henry Wood, we wondered? I suggest it's a secret cubby hole for a BBC television camera. Turns out it's a big bass drum on its side, waiting for a good going over in the Janacek.

We floated home on a cloud of pure pleasure, through much clearer roads and in good time for the news headlines. No more live concerts for me till the Edinburgh Festival, but summer's official now the Proms have started.

I suppose I take the theatre for granted by going to it so often. But I feel that, given half a chance, I shall slip back in among the Prommers, just as I feel like creeping back, illicitly almost, to Opera Holland Park after discovering the joys of Puccini's La rondine the other night.


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