We’ve got a couple of temporary LWATers with us this week. They’re young and full of energy and they’ve been tasked with looking after the kids while Nathan and I go to work. But first, I thought we’d show them some London culture – a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall along with a picnic and a stroll through Hyde Park. What could be more London than that?
It was only a light drizzle so we still had a picnic in Hyde Park. But we found this little shelter near the Italian Gardens that Reuben described as “somewhere that looks like it might have a curse on it”. That’s a reassuring thought as you’re eating a chorizo wrap.
On the upside, there are toilets right next door. And they’re a bargain 20p per pee.
The kids needed a runaround before they had to sit still for the press conference and luckily we had a mile or so of park to walk through. We’d picked up the young people at Paddington and walked all the way through Bayswater and Hyde Park. It was a lovely walk, even with Eva complaining most of the way about her poor tired yegs. We spotted the Albert Memorial though, before she got too whiney, and the shiny goldness of it gave her the push she needed to stumble the last little bit.
As it happened, our first destination wasn’t the Albert Hall at all but rather the Beit Hall in Imperial College. There we dropped off the massive suitcases we’d lugged through the park and settled in for the “Ten Pieces” Children’s Press Conference. Audio was being recorded so I warned my kids not to say anything outrageous….though they couldn’t have lowered the tone much after a question related to toilets. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The press conference was hosted by BBC’s “School Report”, in collaboration with “Ten Pieces” and the panel consisted of Vikki Stone, Sasha Boult and Gabriel Prokofiev. Vikki is a classically trained musician and comedian, which is an unusual combination. Sasha is a 17-year-old professional cellist and Gabriel is the grandson of another Prokofiev…but more importantly is a composer and DJ. We were there to hear them talk about music and the Proms and field questions from the assembled children.
The first question was about how old the panel were when they decided to become musicians. Not surprisingly, they all knew from an early age that they wanted to be involved in music – Sasha thought she was around 5, Gabriel around 10. Then they answered questions about how much they practiced (a lot was the answer), their inspirations and dealing with criticism. They all admitted to having a touch of stage fright still but said that the adrenalin helped them to perform. Sasha talked about her top tips for playing in a youth orchestra – passion and hard work – and there was a good-natured argument over whether being a musician was “a real job”. Vikki was asked if she ever stole anyone’s jokes (only her Dad’s, apparently) and they all discussed the other genres of music they’d like to be involved in if they weren’t making classical – jazz and funk came up a fair bit.
Then it was open season on the kids’ questions and the crucial question was asked – what if you need to pee during a performance? Well, apparently that’s another way of channelling adrenalin. At this point, it probably would have been OK for Reuben to ask a question but given the one he had prepared – “do you ever play in the nude?” – I’m quite glad he didn’t. Then we went for a quick group photo on the steps outside the RAH and retired to California Roadside Burger for a bit of refuelling.
Then back to Kensington Gardens for a bit of a puppy runaround and we were ready for the Proms concert. Last time we were at the RAH, we were in the stalls. Today it was the Rausing Circle – a touch higher up.
This was Prom #12 – “Sir Henry’s Magnificent Musical Inspirations!” and it was aimed at first time promgoers, which we all were. It was a series of short pieces, none longer than 7 minutes, from a range of different composers and eras. The format worked well in keeping the kids’ attention and was curated by no less a person than Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms. He’d been summoned by to the RAH by a magic flute, brought along by two “audience members” (Ellis George and Louis Walwyn). Other character that joined Sir Henry on stage included the Queen of the Night (also connected with a magic flute), Henry V and a giant animatronic gnome.
The musical selection started with a buoyant “Fanfare for the Common Man”, a World War Two piece by Aaron Copland, before the Ten Pieces Children’s Choir joined the Royal Philharmonic to sing Elgar’s “We are the Music Makers”. Then the story of the magic flute was explored a little more, with the overture from the opera of the same name. The aforementioned gnome made his entrance during “Gnomus” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” – a giant puppet, glumly stomping his way through the auditorium both delighting and terrifying the children as he did so. Kudos to the children of Fox Primary School for designing it.
Then we heard the poignant tale of Lili Boulanger who died at the age of 24 but composed “D’un matin de printemps” shortly before she did. Ellis George brought the young Lili to life, playing the part of the sickly composer trapped in her Parisian flat. The first half was then wrapped up with two Indian-inspired pieces – “The Faces of Brahma” by musicians from the North Lincolnshire Music Hub, and Ravi Shankar’s “Banjara” from his 2010 symphony. See what I mean by a varied programme?
The first half was an hour long, which was verging on pushing it for my kids after a long day. But some interval ice cream perked them up again and they were ready for the second half, complete with their notepads from the press conference in case they got bored and needed to doodle. They didn’t seem to though – the music, acting and bright lights kept them interested to the end, even though it was way past their bedtimes. Eva was particularly taken with the rainbow lighting effect during one of the pieces (I forget which).
The second half started off in a lively fashion, with Vivaldi’s “Gloria” before mellowing right out with a contemporary piece about rural Australia – “Island Songs- Song of Home” by Peter Sculthorpe, featuring Jess Gillam on solo saxophone. The mood changed abruptly again, with a absolute classic piece of Proms-ing – the hornpipe, arranged by Sir Henry himself. The whole Hall was on its feet, bobbing up and down, clapping, climbing the rigging and saluting., If there was one definitive “I’m at the Proms” moment, it was probably that – and designed to be so.
In case the evening wasn’t cultured enough, it was time for a bit of Shakespeare. Ivanno Jeremiah walked out into the arena to deliver the famous pre-battle speech from Henry V. This led naturally into two rousing excerpts from William Walton’s Henry V suite – “Overture:The Globe” and “Charge and Battle”. I think Reuben enjoyed the battle-y one most.
The evening was almost drawing to a close but next up we had a brand new piece – “No Place Like” by Kerry Andrews, again featuring the Ten Pieces Children’s Choir. I didn’t find it quite as stirring as some of the more traditional pieces but it was very effective and made good use of the chorus of voices, blending wistful vocals with football chants. I guess it reminded me a lot of the “Express Symphony” we sing with WAM and some would say that singing through that eleventy billion times has filled my contemporary classical quota for the time being.
Throughout the show, soprano Kathryn Lewek had appeared on the screen as the Queen of the Night from “The Magic Flute”. She too had been summoned back from the past and was angry about people enjoying the music. Since that evening, Eva has repeatedly pointed out the irony of the Queen hating music so much and then turning up singing but that’s exactly what she did - her aria in fact. It was a thrilling moment – the savagery of those high notes (a top, top F I believe) and the leaps between them. Of course, there was some kind of MacGuffin to send the Queen away again but don’t let that spoil a good bit of villainry. Lewek certainly didn’t, milking the Wicked Witch of the West image for all it’s worth.
But the happy ending came with a more positive piece- “Pines of Romes” by Respighi. The music designed to accompany a Roman army marching home was a fitting end to a musical odyssey, topped only by a reprise of the hornpipe. It finished off an exhilarating evening, which served as a fine introduction to the Proms for my kids and to London for one of the temp LWATers. It’s all recorded on IPlayer for the the next 27 days or so if you want to listen too. Thank you, Sir Henry!