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Overheard @ Concerts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

A violist friend of mine tended to have comments for every occasion. After a run of the mill, decidedly average show she’d say: “Of all the concerts I’ve ever played in – that was one of them.”

Overheard at the end of a London Sinfonietta Prom: “Well, that’s two hours less I’ll have to spend in purgatory.”

I overheard this at Covent Garden, leaving the auditorium at the end of La Traviata about 20 years ago – a little old lady to her companion: “It must be difficult if a singer forgets their lines; at least if you are a dancer, you can jump around a bit.”

After a concert of minimalist music at the Bridgewater Hall (again from my viola playing friend): “That music must have taken almost as long to compose as it took to play.”

Overheard during the first interval of Parsifal: “Don’t worry, it gets jazzier from here on in …”

Overheard during a performance of a piece by Philip Glass: “I’ll be glad when we get to the middle eight.”

A member of the band before Act 2 of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: “Here we go … another 45 minutes of bloody A minor!”

During a performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask Of Orpheus where a female character had to do little more than come to the front of the stage and scream, a man turned to his neighbour and said, “I know exactly how she feels!”

Normally the Promenaders annoy me with their stupid chanting, but I remember a chant from many years ago, after a performance of Melancholia II: “If that was melancholia, give us depression!”

I remember overhearing a lady in a cut-glass accent give her opinion on Wagner during an interval of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about Wagner. All he does is keep repeating the same tunes.”

In the early 80s in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, I think it was the BBC Philharmonic (then called the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra). Conductor (probably Edward Downes – can’t remember now) comes on stage to conduct a Shostakovich symphony. A woman sat in front of me turned to her companion and said loudly: “We always have this modern rubbish when he comes here”.

Ravel’s Bolero: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

This is a piece of core repertoire which divides listeners sharply.

Personally, I don’t find in the least bit tedious: study with a score shows that there’s far more to the piece than most people imagine: a daring concept flawlessly executed and orchestrated (even if the stuff of nightmares for trombonists; the solo for them is one of the most difficult in the whole orchestral repertoire). Whilst I wouldn’t want to hear it every day, I’m always delighted when it turns up, especially if the conductor actually complies with the composer’s request and starts off at a steady pace and stays there, rather than pushing ever forward, which destroys the effect and emasculates the work’s power (if emasculate is the right word for such a sultrily feminine piece).

Bolero does not work well on record, but if you see it performed, it is a quite different experience. Only when you have it in front of you do you see the extraordinary concentration required by the snare drummer to keep the ostinato going against the continually shifting background of the tune.

That said, I do think that Bolero can be the most tedious piece ever. When it’s not played right that is. All too often it’s played, rather nicely, as a stock orchestral showpiece. Complete with “Oh no, not this again” 1812-style boredom from the orchestra.

Occasionally, just occasionally, it gets played dead straight, in strict tempo (vital to any sense of menace being sustained) and builds inexorably from inaudible to a mechanistic yet brutal sonic assault – though this can only ever be experienced in the concert hall. Then it’s anything but tedious.

Conductors’ Pay

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I don’t know about today but years ago most conductors received surprisingly little for some concerts in this country but more as a visiting artist abroad.

A friend of mine, a professional conductor, tells me that he never gets to conduct “pro” bands in the UK, only amateurs. But when he conducts a professional orchestra in Germany, Holland, Spain or Scandinavia he is usually paid an inclusive fee of about £1,200 for a single concert, with any supplementary concerts paid at 50% extra. Of course, he has to pay his travel expenses, hotel and meals out of this.

Here in the UK, where he does the rounds of several amateur bands, the going rate for a 2½ hour rehearsal is £65 and a concert is £400. These fees are inclusive of travel, subsistence, etc.

It depends hugely on exactly what they are doing, of course. Many conductors who work for opera houses will be on a yearly contract, and will get a monthly salary, usually without regard to how many performances they conduct, or how many productions they are required to rehearse and supervise up to the opening night. But this is relatively rare.

More typically conductors are freelancers who are paid per project. There is usually one fee for the rehearsal period, and a separate concert fee for the public appearances.

Recordings are different once again – the conductor will usually be paid a royalty in addition to the sessions involved in putting it in the can.

When I was an employee the argument used to avoid giving us a pay rise was always “there are so many people wanting to do your job that we don’t need to offer any more than the minimum.”

I think if this principle were observed universally a good deal of money would be saved. I’d certainly apply it to opera singers, premier league footballers, racing drivers, and heads of public utilities such as water companies.

Daleks Invade Royal Albert Hall: BBC Dumbing Down Scandal

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on July 30, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

A Doctor Who Prom is not a new idea.

There has been a children/family type Prom for many years and they’ve always been very popular.

It’s an excellent way of getting children to hear a real orchestra and I don’t regard it as “dumbing down” at all.

Purists seem to think that every single Prom conducted by Henry Wood himself consisted of Wagner, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, etc., etc.

That’s simply not true.

Ten Commandments for Concert-Goers

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Thou shalt hearken unto the music with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and all thy mind, to aid thee in thine endeavour. Study thou thy programme notes and hereby be sore fully prepared to garner the blessings of the inspired melodies which are about to be sounded.

Thou shalt not arrive late, for the stir of thy coming disturbeth those who did come in due season; neither shalt thou rush forth as a great wind at the interval or before the end of the programme; or shalt thou trample to thy left nor thy right the ushers or the doormen or the multitudes that are about thee.

Thou shalt keep in check thy coughings and thy sneezings for they are an abomination, and they shall bring forth evil execrations upon thee and upon thy household, even unto the third and fourth generations.

Thou shalt not rustle thy programme, for the noise thereof is not as the murmur of the leaves of the forest but brash and raucous and soothest not.

Thou shalt not “yahoo” unto thy relatives, nor unto thy friends, nor unto any member of thy club or of thy household, nor unto any of thy neighbours.

Thou shalt not whisper, for thy mouthings, howsoever hushed they may be, bring discord to the ear of those who sit about thee.

Thou shalt not chew with great show of sound or motion. Remember that thou art not as the kine of the meadow who do chew the cud in the pastoral serenity which is vouchsafed them.

Thou shalt not direct thy index finger at persons of public note and say unto thy neighbour, “Yonder goeth so and so,” but reflect that some day thou shalt perchance be a celebrity, and thou shalt be in great discomfort when thou art pointed at and thou shalt not be pleased one jot or tittle thereby.

Thou shalt not slumber, for in thy stupor thou hast ears and heareth not; peradventure thou possesseth a rumbling obbligato when thou sleepeth and, verily, the rabble may be aroused thereby to do thee grievous harm.

Thou shalt not become a self-ordained music critic and with booming voice comment garrulously about the players or the playing; neither shalt thou hum, or tap thy foot; for thou hast come as a listener and a lover of music, not as a critic nor as a performer, and remember that none among the multitudes has paid to hear thy hummings or thy tappings or to listen unto thine opinions.

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Audience Development

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I belong to an amateur symphony orchestra. Just as full professional orchestras need financing, we obviously depend on good audiences to pay the expenses incurred in putting on a concert. Recently a debate took place at our AGM and some members and officials asserted that programme choice had little to do with audience size in their experience. I reminded them of a popular concert we gave in 2008 where West Side Story (Bernstein) and An American in Paris (Gershwin) were played as well as Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This was a sell-out, a thing that has not happened for more than 20 years where we had played more classical works.

When I decide to attend a concert I am attracted first by the repertoire and to a degree by the performer. And of course one can only manage to take in and afford a limited number of performances in a given period.

This week I decided not to go to the Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, despite Mark Elder conducting and despite the programme including Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 which I have never heard and would like to discover. The reason being I don’t care for Holst’s The Planets very much and was more attracted by the Michelangelo Quartet on Monday playing Beethoven, Shostakovich and Schumann.

One cannot help noticing though that attendances for series like the Manchester Chamber Music Society, whatever the programme, are much better than for mainstream works by excellent performers which are organised by the Royal Northern College of Music on an ad hoc basis.

A very few composers (Gershwin in particular) will put me off virtually whatever else is on the programme. I did sit through a Gershwin medley once in order to hear Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, but I think I would rather sit in the bar than listen to any more Gershwin again.

In my experience with local orchestras and choirs, the main factors for building up and retaining an audience are the willingness and energy of players and singers to sell tickets to friends, the literal and metaphorical warmth and comfort of the venue, the welcome from front of house staff and conductor and a programme of music which appeals to your regular audience and which introduces them to something new.

Royal Festival Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , on March 5, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Festival Hall desperate for organ donation, writes Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian.

I first visited the Royal Festival Hall regularly in 1979, in the last days of its first phase.

At that time only the ground floor was open to the general public. The first floor, under the auditorium, was ticket holders only, and still had the original crimson rectangular armchairs. I used to enjoy the tranquillity of this area before a concert. The only retail outlets were a little kiosk selling scores and booklets, and a wine bar round the back.

One amusing annual event was the interval in the Bach Choir’s annual mid-day St Matthew Passion. Large tables were set up and hordes of cheery, rosy-cheeked country families in check shirts and polished brown shoes would sit down with enormous wicker hampers and enjoy a sort of Pheasant Sandwiches and Sanatogen lunch, exchanging remarks such as “What does ‘ripieno’ mean?” “Oh, I think it’s something to do with angels.” I never saw them at other times and assumed they all lived in Hampshire with their ponies and EMI horn gramophones.

Then the area was opened up and shops installed and the place was never the same again.

My grandfather was responsible for some of the acoustic damping in the hall. I think it was the wool wadding in the bottom of the seats so that when the seats were empty it still felt like a full house. I rang him from the auditorium when I gave my first concert, but didn’t have the heart to mention that the hall was terrible.

I understand it’s much improved.


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