Tuesday, 17 March 2009


12/3/09, King's Place.

Two Haydn symphonies, No 26 Lamentatione and No 45 Farewell, plus half a dozen solo arias for tenor and soprano, played by a period band we hadn't heard of called the Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company founded and conducted by a chap called Ian Page. Around 20 musicians, two-thirds women, dressed in black, augmented by a harpsichord for the songs. The tenor a chap called Joshua Ellicott whose voice G especially liked; the soprano a rather self-satisfied lady called Gillian Ramm with an ill-judged dress and fringe but a cracking voice.

Five days later I can of course remember almost nothing in detail about the music (mark you, I could remember almost nothing in detail five hours later).

So let's review the venue instead. It's a basement concert hall, rectangular, pale wood (as at Glyndebourne, and presumably for the acoustic), with a narrow balcony running round the back and sides and a surprisingly high ceiling. The chairs are uncomfortable (according to G) but have individual heating/air conditioning in the base, again as at Glyndebourne. There are clever but understated lighting tricks: when the performers enter or exit the stage they do so through wooden doors that open to reveal a blue-lit area behind them; there are drapes hanging from the back wall lit by subtly changing lighting.

The public areas are exceptionally spacious: a large entrance hall which seems to occupy half the building's footprint, with box office, sandwich bar, bar-and-restaurant-with-canalside-terrace at the far end, and a great well in the middle through which you travel on an escalator down to the concert hall (Hall One: there's also a Hall Two rehearsal space) past a gallery floor on a semi-basement balcony or mezzanine. Ceiling heights are everywhere generous. Off the ground floor is an entrance to the offices of musical organisations like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and another to the Guardian offices which occupy the lion's share of the building. The Guardian has another entrance on the corner as you approach from King's Cross: more escalators, this time going up. As you stand in the ground floor atrium you can look up through the glass walls of the newspaper's offices to see signs like "arts and culture" and "interview room two" and "society".

Like a lot of modern buildings it's a pleasant contrast to the penny-pinching, cramped and often surprisingly dark developments of past decades, especially the 60s and 70s. Compare the National Theatre, whose public areas get much more crowded more quickly and which has to deploy plush carpets to fight the oppressive quality of the bare concrete walls. Or the Barbican, which is also in a basement and more spacious than the National but much gloomier than King's Place. Perhaps it's the plain white walls and pale wood; perhaps we're just better at lighting these large spaces. (Whichever it is the environmental implications are probably horrendous.)

As for the music... I'm ashamed to say I hadn't realised Haydn wrote any operas. Perhaps they're rarely done; several are lost with only isolated arias surviving. L'infidelta deluso was his fifth, but the earliest to survive in completed form. The arias we heard were spectacular, tuneful and charming by turns.

Of the symphonies I remember little of the first except its generally plangent tone. The last was introduced by the conductor, who said he hoped there were at least some people in the audience who didn't know how this symphony ended, and explained it was a kind of coded message to Prince Esterhazy that his musicians, who had been away from home in Eisenstadt at the prince's new palace at Esterhaza throughout the summer of 1772, wanted to go home now please. Since I had no idea how it ended this merely reinforced the impression I often have at classical concerts that everyone else there is far more familiar with what we're about to hear than I am, can hum the music backwards and knows exactly when to applaud.

(Look away now if you don't want the ending spoilt.)

In fact the symphony bowls along merrily for three movements. Then, during the fourth, the musicians leave the stage one by one until only the leader and the principal second violin are left. It's very effective.

There seem to be lots of non-musical hooks like this in Haydn's music, or what I know of it: jokes, gimmicks, back stories. He seems to have been a rather engaging as well as remarkably hard-working fellow. His stuff is tuneful, long on musical variety etc etc. So why don't I know it better? Why do I dismiss him as a rather boring composer who wrote too much and whose music all sounds the same? You could say the same about Handel, and I adore Handel. Perhaps the problem is that, unlike the earlier Handel, he was oveshadowed by the romantic composers who came after him and who found a musical language (helped by the development of larger ensembles and more advanced instruments, perhaps?) to express heightened emotion that Haydn couldn't quite manage, trapped as he still was in the polite conventions of 18th century music.

Either way I should find out more. Memo to self: listen to more Haydn. Read a biography.


  1. Dear Mr Blogger....given that you have admitted to not knowing a lot about Haydn's music, perhaps you should do more research before a concert, so that you then have something more interesting to say instead of resorting to comments on dresses, fringes and such like......by all means comment on the performances.. but really??!!
    By the way, the dress was by Sarah Arnett...a rather fabulous British Designer.

  2. Dear Magyar

    You're not Gillian Ramm, by any chance, are you?

    Now here's the thing. I listen to a lot of music on the radio and on disc. I go to concerts once or twice a month. I enjoy my listening. But, as Beecham once said of the English in general, I know nothing about music: I just like the sound it makes.

    And, lest there be any doubt, I thought this concert sounded very well: I had a most agreeable evening.

    But why should I "do more research" before a concert? Should the music not speak for itself? I go to concerts partly in search of new experiences, to hear music I haven't heard before. Your suggestion of "more research" just confirms my suspicion that many concerts are mounted by a self-absorbed mafia of musical cognoscenti who are interested more in the reaction of their peers than of the wider, less expert, audience.

    I like to think I represent the Common Listener, who wants to be diverted, stimulated, moved, provoked but lacks specialist expertise.

    And (as someone who goes more often to the theatre than the concert hall) I think appearance is tremendously important in any kind of performance, including music.

    Thank you for telling me about Sarah Arnett. Not really to my taste, but I can see her designs have great panache.