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A U G U S T 2 2 , 1 9 9 9 .
Sunday was a day of quiet adventure for us. Peter drove Paul and me into town, and first we went to the Vinopolis, an ancient wine storage and market place (literally, of course, 'city of wine') dating back to the Roman occupation, and took a tour in its spruced-up vaults that tells you more than everything you ever could possibly know about wine (which, in the case of Peter and Paul, is a lot), topped off by a wine tasting from a dazzling selection. The database, along with how-to info, was state-of-the-art, presented on dozens of iMacs. (Guess what color.) Paul bought an excellent 15-yr-old Fonseca port. Can't wait.
(We had eaten at the Vinopolis Thursday evening, right after an afternoon performance of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, at the newly restored Globe Theater: they painstakingly reconstructed it according to descriptions and pictures from the time, and only used the technology of the time in doing so — so, for instance, no nails; just pegs. It was a great show, with the actors really milking the material for all it's worth. And, of course, the material is 400 years old. Peter and Julie sat in the surrounding seats [where the moneyed people sat centuries ago], and Paul and I stood in the courtyard where the peasants had been. Not bad, actually: you stand that long at a party. But we were really looking forward to being able to yell and throw fruit. Evidently that's not really de rigeur these days.)
Then on to a delightful little Italian sandwich place, and the British Museum, where we searched for (and possibly found) the Babylonian tablet that contained the mention of Belshazzar's third-in-command, Daniel!!
Anyway, the proms. After a quick meal at a strange and spare noodle place called wagamama, we arrived around 15 minutes before the show and 'promenaded' in the arena (tickets: 5 bucks). Having just been to the Globe on Thursday, we recognized the genealogy of Royal Albert Hall, a circle of stacked-up (and expensive) galleries with an arena on the ground floor for the commoners. Everyone promming just stood through the whole thing, with a few sitting on the floor and some even lying down. It was where the true music-lovers were, and what a jumble of people: everything from rumpled professors to working-class folk to teenaged Japanese tourists.
Disappointingly, though, as at the Globe, there was no fruit-throwing.
Myung-Whun Chung and his mop of hair came out to a rousing ovation, and led the Swedish Radio Symphony in Weber's overture to Der Freischütz, the opening fanfare of German Romanticism. You could hear within its very notes how we got from Mozart to Wagner.
Then the great and small Maria-Joao Pires came out to play Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, but not before the traditional cry of 'heave.....HO!!' from the galleries as they lifted the piano lid. This is what we love about the proms: the enthusiasm of the common folk for the high culture presented to them.
I'd forgotten how very strange the Beethoven 4 is. From the pianist's view, it's often like the Final Four, watching your hands chase each other back and forth across the keys like basketball players. The first movement is punctuated by these delirious runs, and Pires communicated them perfectly, putting across just the right amount of vertigo before pulling back just enough for a neat landing every time.
And, of course, there's the cadenza: the big 6-4 chord in the orchestra, and a desultory trip through who-knows-where. It's like reading Dickens, when about 3 chapters from the end you turn the page and realize you're in for several pages of how the rain falls on every single object in Chesney Wold: you sit back with an incredulous smile and know you're in the hands of a master, and he'll eventually get you back on track, though you can't imagine how. (Except, of course, you don't sit back, because you're STANDING.) We hit every possible key and tempo, it seems, before trilling right back into that 6-4 and on to the end.
The second movement is a great few minutes in music: a dark, simple string number with the piano floating above it, a la James Newton Howard (sans fromage). There's one spot where the right hand trills precariously as the left commits a series of bleeps so bitonal that in a blind test you'd swear it was Stravinsky instead of Beethoven. Both Pires and the orchestra underplayed the whole thing deliciously, sneaking between pianissimo and super-duper pianissimo: it was like watching a Mamet play with really shy actors.
Oh well, you get the idea.... a neat piece of music played by a fine pianist. Pires has a great touch and is artistically fresh-minted with every note. She got a stomping ovation, even from the gentlefolk in the seats, and came back for several curtain-calls.
After the break, they came back with Nielsen's 5th, written in the early 1920s, and completed a week before its premiere (you don't know how comforting that is to me). Nielsen's so good to listen to, being unabashedly modern without ever overdoing it, and always grounded, however distantly, in the music we hum to ourselves. Some great low-brass work in this one, and right toward the end of the first movement a shimmering string part comes out of nowhere and puts a halo in the room.
This orchestra is so expressive: the players lean in with every swell, and at times the leaning is so extreme, with the whole semicircled string section bowing all the way forward, then sitting back and straightening up to inhale a generous crescendo, that you can just picture Busby Berkeley looking straight down at them through his heavenly camera and sighing with satisfaction. Certainly the crowd was satisfied, showing it with thunderous applause in which a slow ritualistic beat would emerge, gradually gathering speed until it scattered into a fresh ovation.
Is there anything like this in America? We usually do the opposite, bringing the high culture to you, with concerts in the park and so on. But the English people, who have the right to backpack through the estates of Lords and Barons, and smile and wave at the Queen when she's out driving her car (who, in turn, waves and smiles back... this happened to Julie a few weeks ago!), crowd right around — literally, 360 degrees around — the finest classical musicians of our generation and cheer them on with the same ruddy blokishness as the soccer team.
We drove back to Sunningdale (gas bill: 57 bucks for 12 gallons), had a pipe and a pint at the pub, and came home. Tomorrow: Haitink and a cast of thousands with Mahler's 3rd! Thou shalt covet.