The joy of the Proms

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

Summer nights, hot and humid, mean just one thing — it’s Proms season again. Sore feet, sweaty armpits, queuing outside the ladies loos, home on the Underground with a head and heart buzzing with Bruckner or Bacharach, Handel or Honegger. Just as special is the nightly feast on Radio 3 — a live concert, guaranteed every evening, and on top of that specially commissioned talks and literary events to get us thinking. On Sunday afternoon, in between the Mozart and Schumann performed by Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) at the Royal Albert Hall, Sarah Walker took us inside the working life of an orchestra. What does it take to create the particular sound of an ensemble of individual players? How important is the conductor? Who pacifies the hotel manager after the brass section has had a post-concert party?

In How to Start a World-Class Orchestra, Enno Senft, double-bass player and founder member, talked about the early days of the COE in the 1980s when booking players meant using a phone box on the street to make international calls. Senft reminded us of what it used to be like (and could be again?) to travel across Europe, stopping at every national border to fill in yet another customs form for a violin or cello, oboe or clarinet. Everyone paid for their own travel. He was once asked to get off the night train from Vienna to Bologna because his double bass was taking up the top bunk and he couldn’t afford to pay for another ticket. Perhaps the most shocking fact is that back in 1981 the LSO only had one female player; in contrast, from the start the COE ensured that 50 per cent of its players, mostly in their early twenties, were women.

James Judd, founder conductor, recalled an early concert in Palermo. It was ten o’clock at night. The orchestra had only just made it there, taking the last plane from the mainland before a freak snowstorm stopped all flights. They started with Schoenberg in a very beautiful church. The lights went out. Total darkness. But everyone went on playing. Gradually candles were brought in to help the players. ‘The wonderful strange thing,’ said Judd, ‘was that in the darkness I went on conducting.’ It led him to think, ‘I’m absolutely not needed.’

Late Junction last week, presented by Verity Sharp (still available on iPlayer if you search under Radio 3), celebrated the forthcoming late-night Prom dedicated to Scott Walker by introducing Jarvis Cocker’s personal mixtape. Walker, famous for those Sixties’ hits, ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’ and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, soon moved on from smoochy balladeer to become so avant-garde he influenced David Bowie and Cocker himself. As Sharp suggested, ‘If you like your music to have meat on the bones, he’s your man.’

Cocker introduced his selection of seven tracks (listen out for ‘Blanket Roll Blues’ which so dangerously plays with timing and pace) by telling us the story behind ‘Clara’, which has a weird, creepy, disruptive backdrop to Walker’s most beautiful voice. It begins with a repetitive percussive sound, a bit like hailstones falling on corrugated iron. The song is about Mussolini’s mistress Clara, Cocker explained, who was put to death by hanging. That peculiar sound was created by someone tapping on a pig’s carcass, and it’s meant to conjure up an image of people hitting Clara’s dead body as she hung from the gibbet.

A reminder meanwhile from the World Service of the crucial geopolitical significance of the Bosphorus Straits, connecting as they do the otherwise landlocked Black Sea with the Mediterranean world. In his new series On the Black Sea (produced by Monica Whitlock), Tim Whewell begins in Istanbul, with a ship-spotter who tracks and photographs the shipping that passes through this extraordinary waterway. It’s so narrow at times it’s only 700 metres wide, but along it passes enormous oil tankers, carriers, and the Russian fleet travelling south from the naval ports along the Black Sea coast. Whewell and his friend go out at 4.20 a.m. to look for ships, driving along the shore in the semi-darkness. Halfway along the winding road, they hear the hooting of a ship’s siren. Sure enough, out of the dawn mist looms an enormous ship with lots of camouflaged green trucks on board, Russian military vehicles on their way to the war in Syria.

Whewell then boards the Odessa ferry at Haydarpasa, in the heart of Istanbul, right opposite the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. His journey will take him through the Straits and out into the open waters of the Black Sea. Twenty-four hours later they’re in Odessa, in southern Ukraine. It’s always been a place on the edge, ‘a small Big Apple’, says Whewell, a mix of different cultures because of its contact with Europe through the boats that navigate through the Bosphorus. But that’s all changing. Only three boats now operate the ferry service; back in Soviet times there were 300. Odessa is becoming more isolated, less cosmopolitan, more Ukrainian. Its new leaders want to deny its multi-ethnic past. But who dares ignore history, or geography?

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