From outside the University Great Hall on a cold October evening, you would find it difficult to discern that anything out of the ordinary was taking place. There were no ostentatious banners advertising the presence of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, or their internationally acclaimed guest performers. Nor indeed were there any signs telling me where to enter for the concert that I knew was happening that evening. I checked my watch and my calendar to double check that it was in fact 7:30pm, 26th of October. I made my way inside and found a steward who gave me my tickets and showed me where to go. I spent the half hour I had pre-concert with a glass of red, trying to work out why this event had been so well hidden, why there hadn’t been a greater push for publicity and a sense of circumstance around the evening itself. Needless to say, the rouge didn’t help my reasoning, and I remained baffled.
The average age of the concert attendees was high, to the extent that the players seemed positively juvenile in comparison. A sea of silver hair greeted my eyes as I surveyed the room full of my fellow revellers, and concluded that the student discount had not been enough of a lure for the vast student body to consider taking a punt on some Chopin and D’Indy. As it was the first performance I had attended, I decided to avoid investing a hefty sum in a box seat, and as such found myself languishing in the demur sounding row ‘X’, which is every bit as far back as it sounds. Fortunately, the stage is set rather high and so my view just about reflected the £16 I had paid. The stage in question, with its grand white curtain hanging in place, undisturbed, made for a fairly sterile orchestral platform.
As the players, dressed in immaculate white tie, filtered in and began their rituals prior to performance, the auditorium gradually gathered momentum in their hushed excitement. A cheerily waving horn player at the rear of the ensemble cracked the veneer of professionalism somewhat, but I’m speaking from having witnessed the festival of emotional celibacy that is the Russian National Orchestra.
Debussy’s Printemps was the opening piece for the evening. The delicate harmonies of the opening passages, played with world-class feeling by the violins led by Amyn Merchant, provided a soft introduction to the concert. The composer’s hallmark pentatonic harmonies filled the hall, and provided one of the highlights of the evening. After this came Chopin, and if I had one complaint, if would be the order in which the pieces were played. Interrupting Debussy and Chopin with D’Indy was something of a mistake. The music of Debussy and particularly Chopin demands attention, and captures the audience for the duration of their symphonic performance. La Forêt Enchanteé by D’Indy, a lesser-known and arguably inferior composer, however achieves a far weaker effect regardless of the quality of the orchestra.
The denouement of the concert came in the ferocious arpeggios of Chopin, interpreted with unbelievable elegance and skill by guest pianist Louis Schwizgebel – there were three encores and the tantalising prospect of a standing ovation, with a few determined audience members championing the cause but sadly gathering little popular support from an audience that largely depended on canes to remain mobile. This moment came at the height of the concert, and would have been a fantastic end to the evening, with Schwizgebel’s spontaneous solo encore of a beautiful but sadly unnamed piece providing the soft end that would have come full circle to the gentle riffs of Debussy. This was before the interval, however. Were it my decision, I would have begun with D’Indy, followed with Debussy’s La Mer, given the interval, then played his Printemps, and finished with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Played in the order they were in, the pieces still made for a fantastic display of skill, and if I was in any doubt regarding the reputation of the BSO or their guests, I am certainly not any longer.
This season is bringing some of the most legendary music ever composed to the doorstep of students at Exeter, for remarkably reasonable prices. I urge anyone who is an admirer of classical music in any form, or anyone eager to initiate themselves into the occasionally strange but always rewarding world of live classical performances, to book some tickets for the concert of your choice. Upcoming events include music by the Russian composers, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, as well as everything from Hollywood soundtracks to Mozart and Elgar. I’ll be at all of them, and I hope to see some more students there for at least some of these fantastic concerts.
by Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke