Tuesday, June 12, 2007


It's The Firebird, it's the Royal Festival Hall, and I nearly fall out of my seat. It's loud. It's clear. You can hear the harp from the back row of the rear stalls. Some of the players used to describe the RFH acoustic as 'pigeon hitting wall'. Now the pigeon bites back.

The dear old place looks more or less the same inside, with some crucial differences - a bigger stage, more acoustical aids, less carpet; there's a tad more leg room in the rows and each seat is equipped with a little metal ring for holding your drink (assuming they decide to let the audience take some in). The foyers are magnificently open and glassy, the spaces giving maximum light and making the most of the river views; the bars and the new-look first-floor restaurant are sleeker and shinier; and mercifully, we're told, there are twice as many ladies' loos as before.

If there's a downside to the acoustic, it's that while every note of the celesta can be heard bright and clear, so can every cough, rustle of sweet paper, watch alarm, hearing aid and mobile phone. Two seconds into The Firebird, a mobile phone playing Mozart's 40th rang out across the double basses. Vladimir Jurowski called a halt...such is life...

Musically the evening was a mixed bag: I suspect that it was too worthy for its own financial aims. I'm mystified as to how anyone could programme world premieres by Julian Anderson and Harrison Birtwistle, load the programme up with Ligeti and Ives, and expect people to fork out £500 for a ticket. If you charge those prices, you have at least to pull some rabbits out of some hats, or at least a Gheorghiu or Terfel or Kissin or two (the biggest wigs last night were the three conductors, none of whom is a household name, though Vladimir will be soon). Maxim Vengerov was in the audience. He should have been on the platform and on the publicity. People with big money like big stars.

The Anderson will no doubt be praised to the skies (and already is in today's Independent), but it struck me as typical establishment-approved modernism with vaguely poncy establishment religious connotations ('Alleluja', all right, already) that wasn't celebratory, interesting, inspired or original and fulfilled no function greater than Parry's 'I was glad', which would have done the trick better last night. The Birtwistle was a reworking of a funeral lament that he wrote in memory of Michael Vyner (former chief of the London Sinfonietta) 18 years ago - which has its place, but surely not in a celebratory reopening concert? Birtwistle's place in our house is in the kitchen: we have a Glyndebourne fridge magnet of him. It's usually upside down, and is very useful for holding shopping lists.

Ligeti and Ives, while more interesting, still tend to scare people away from buying expensive tickets. And after imbibing as much champagne as you can swallow in 20 minutes, does anyone really want to listen to pootly Purcell? Oh dear. Still, Ravel's Bolero, played by representatives of all four resident orchestras - the LPO, the Philharmonia, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, around 120 players, with Marin Alsop having a great time on the podium - did indeed raise the roof as the grand finale, and Richard Morrison notes in today's Times that the sound in the last movement of Beethoven 9 (given with its original words this time) made the lights flicker.

Afterwards there was an extremely glittery party in and around the ballroom, and the champagne continued to flow...It's fantastic that the arrival of the nearest thing we now have to a world-class concert hall should be seen in with such a tremendous celebration. There's no doubt that it's certainly become a world-class venue. The weeks ahead will say more about the sound.

UPDATE, 13 June 8.36am: 'Mad props' to Vanessa Thorpe from (gasp) The Guardian for linking here. She was sitting next to the owner of the errant mobile...