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Music in London in the summertime

Music in London in the summertime


August is the cruelest month in London. Tourists overwhelm the museums, monuments and royal manses, and the weather, warm and humid, isn’t all that nice, especially when you realize that much of indoor London isn’t air-conditioned. I was there as the proud parent, not a music critic, of a member of Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra, which was on tour. I hadn’t planned on any musical activities other than attending the OCYSO’s concerts, but London had other things in mind.

The city is one of the great capitals of classical music. Summertime is not the high season for concerts, and therefore does not offer a comprehensive view of musical life there. But the art form permeates London life so thoroughly that an interested tourist was able to bask in it without too much effort.

On a bright Sunday afternoon, I was invited to tag along with Daniel Alfred Wachs, conductor of the OCYSO, and two of his colleagues to the unveiling of a plaque. We walked together from Covent Garden to a location on Regent Street in Westminster, where officials, an ensemble of young brass players and a small crowd gathered for the ceremony.

They know how to do this sort of thing in London. The British, if we may generalize, like their memorials. On a busy street corner, with double-decker buses and cabs rumbling behind us, the deputy lieutenant of Greater London and the chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society made speeches, the plaque still under a cloth on the side of a NatWest bank building above them. A new fanfare, commissioned for the occasion, by Bertie Baigent, a young composer working with the National Youth Orchestra, was performed by members of the group and quite interesting it was too.

It was much ado about something. Unveiled, the plaque – circular, with silver lettering on a green background – read: “The British premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London was given on 21 March 1825 in the Argyll Rooms Concert Hall on this site.” It was just a plaque but, wow, quite a plaque.

As it happened, Orange County was well represented at the unveiling. In addition to our OCYSO quartet, Dean Corey, president of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, and his wife, Kaly, were also there. They would be attending the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Frieze,” co-commissioned by the RPS, and a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that very evening in Royal Albert Hall. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County will be presenting the West Coast premiere of “Frieze” and Beethoven’s Ninth in a concert in May, both performed by Wachs and the OCYSO. The Coreys asked me, my wife and Wachs to join them in a box at Albert Hall.

One might call Albert Hall a jewel if it weren’t a barn inside. I had seen it from the outside, but only knew its inner sanctum from videos and Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” (You remember. Doris Day screams just before the cymbal crash and the assassin pulls the trigger.) It’s cavernous, a giant dome with more than 5,000 seats. It has a reputation for poor acoustics. On this day, the lower floor was reserved for standees, or “Prommers,” since the concert was part of the famous BBC Proms series, which dates to 1895. This being London in August, the hall felt like a sauna.

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and various youth choirs performed, led by the acclaimed young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko. Vaughan Williams’ “Toward the Unknown Region” made a sumptuous opener (they do not neglect their national music here), then “Frieze” intrigued with its gritty complexities and intricate connections, and surprised by throwing us a memorable tune and jazzy rhythms here and there. The performance of Beethoven’s Ninth suffered a little from Petrenko’s too-quick tempos and the massive size of the orchestra, but it was undeniably impressive. The acoustics, contrary to rumors, were clear and spacious. The musicians of the OCYSO sat in the audience, previewing their own program in May. It’s going to be a lot of work.

A few days later, a visit to Handel’s house, now a modest museum, seemed in order, especially since it was walking distance from our hotel. Handel lived on several floors of the small townhouse at 25 Brook Street for 36 years, from 1723 until his death in 1759. To stand in his bedroom – recreated as accurately as possible from the listings of his estate, right down to the canopy bed, paintings on the walls and color of paint on the walls – was an uncanny feeling; this was where Handel breathed.

The composer most likely died in this room. There is also a dressing room, a small concert room (where performances are still held) and a composing room in the museum. Another small room is devoted to Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. He lived in a flat at 23 Brook Street in the late ’60s, which currently houses the Handel Museum’s administrative offices. Hendrix, a docent told me, went to a record store and bought some Handel albums when he lived there.

A trip to the Globe, a replica of Shakespeare’s theater on the Thames, provided a surprising musical experience. Stephen Warbeck, the Oscar-winning composer for “Shakespeare in Love,” supplied wonderful, ear-catching incidental music to a terrific production of “The Tempest.” The small band of musicians played in upper galleries behind the stage; they included an unlikely trio of didgeridoo, bass trombone and bass clarinet. A variety of percussion was used, including gong-type instruments lowered into buckets of water to bend their pitches. Warbeck composed neo-Elizabethan dances and songs as well as eerie atmosphere music, as Prospero wrought his spells and caused the other characters to hear things.

And of course there were the OCYSO concerts. As a proud parent, I rode on the bus with the kids, visited the sites (including Stonehenge), ate dinner with them, served as chaperone and attended the rehearsals and concerts. Still jet-lagged, the orchestra performed in Bristol Cathedral (with a reverb of 5 seconds by my count), the All Saints Church in Dulwich (with perfect acoustics) and in Southwark Cathedral, all for large and admiring crowds.

Let me just say this: I didn’t get sick of hearing “Scheherazade” or the Suite to “Candide” by Bernstein, not one lick. The orchestra can not only play these pieces well and improved on the tour, but Wachs was also able to work with them on the detailed level of interpretation. In fact, my appreciation for “Scheherazade,” an old plum if there ever was one, increased. I can’t wait to hear them lay into “Frieze” and the Ninth come May.

– OC Register, September 5, 2013

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