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Published: January 4th 2020
Well worth seeing, albeit better to plan
My walk to the Royal Albert Hall
was both fun and almost disastrous. Even though I had worked out the easiest route (see map)
for the one hour walk, my morning confidence took me along other streets I thought were parallel to Tottenham Court Road
. Hardly anyone was on the street, and I enjoyed my allotted time for casual photos along the way. (see map)
. While I was taking photos of the Holborn Viaduct, I thought to check if the street running under the bridge was Oxford Street. It was not, and I was walking far away from my destination. Retracing my steps at a fast pace, but over a considerable distance, I finally found Oxford Street (no proper signs, course), although it looked quite down-market compared to my admittedly dated memory.
Hastening down the street, the store quality improved. Lots of buses roared by. The way was much longer than I had thought it would be, and I kept checking my watch to see if I would make it to the concert on time. When I had finally convinced myself that a taxi would be needed, they all disappeared! Walking quickly and glancing backwards to spy a taxi going my way, I saw two going
Royal Albert Hall
Magnificent locale for resounding music
against me. I hailed one, and of course he did a U-turn, let me in, and drove … and drove … and drove. The distance shocked me. Eleven pounds later, I dashed from the taxi and breezed through the bag search and ticket scan. Luckily close to my seating section and running up the stairs, I heard the three-minute warning for the concert. As I stumbled to my seat over people’s feet, the orchestra entered the stage.
What a venue! Completely circular, the Hall’s seats were all around, except where the pipe organ gleamed in eerie purple-blue light. My seat was in the “Rausing Circle”, known as the nosebleeds in hockey parlance. The acoustics were perfect. Even the sound of a solo horn filled the space. The bottom level, named “The Arena” was full of people standing, and in the “Gallery” above me, more people were standing. The Tiers, Loggia and Stalls were below me. The rows were steeply raked, so my view was perfect, and probably it was for everyone else, except those behind the stage near the organ. Viewing the orchestra from such a high angle, the bare arms of the women violinists gave the appearance of
a school of undersea fish, waving and fluttering in harmony.
When my astonishment faded enough to turn attention to the music, the piece was in a spiky style that I did like. (Fireworks by Agata Zubel
) The orchestra was enormous, including seven percussionists making the most extraordinary sounds in ways I couldn’t quite see. There were twelve double bases, and the horns were at the back of these. The next piece was the one that attracted me when I bought the tickets months ago – a young pianist playing Chopin (Concerto #2 in F minor). His fingering was light and effortless. That reminded me of reading Alan Rusbridger’s book, Play it Again
, which explained how hard it is to play quickly with great musical interpretation. The applause was as enthusiastic as the pianist’s playing, leading to an encore - a classical dance tune I recognized but couldn’t name.
Oddly, I thought that was the end of the concert, but so many people were sitting around, I decided to wait and see what was going to happen. The other half of the concert happened: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5 in E minor
. Although the orchestra had been reduced for the piano concerto, it was enlarged again, although with less
Ordinary when not dressed for royal guests
percussion. The playing by the BBC orchestra was a master work. The ease of change from high dynamics to low was like sliding on snow. As with all great playing, I now understand, precision makes music escape its notes.
The applause was deafening, resonating all over the great hall! The encore was again a recognizable classical dance tune. Then the stage lights were turned off, and the audience started to leave. Suddenly the trumpets started playing Guadalajara
. The violinists, no longer in their seats, gathered to support them, and gradually the lights came on for this last burst of music.
Lunch in the forty minutes before my 2:00 tour was a necessity; nevertheless, having been late once today, finding the tour starting point was even more essential. Fortunately, café, tour and toilets were all together. The line for lunch was tolerable, and my tasty smoked salmon sandwich with tea really improved my energy levels.
Our sprightly Hall tour guide, Elaine, gathered about a dozen of us together and started off at a brisk pace. What we saw was mostly what can be seen anyway with a concert ticket; however, her commentary filled in a lot
Royal Albert Hall
Majestic tribute to Prince Albert
of facts. Most fascinating was the domed ceiling and roof. Originally it had been a double-layered dome, which was attached to the building only by its own weight. During WWII the vision of the whole roof being at risk led to the removal of the inner glass layer and its being replace by the current pressed aluminum. Both versions created terrible acoustics with a terrible echo. In the late sixties, engineering had improved enough to implement the current solution, which consists of large glass bowls (called mushrooms) suspended from the dome, keeping the sound in and softening the acoustics. Many major concert halls now have this system, each designed according to need.
Elaine took us to the royal box, which is double the size of others and designated with a crown. When the Queen makes a rare appearance, the furnishings are temporarily upgraded. Otherwise, staff from the royal household can apply to have tickets for the show of their choice. The Queen, similar to others, owns her box because of the original funding mechanism for the Hall. Other owners have the right to attend about 60% of the shows without additional charge, and they must provide the Hall a
Preserve of the fictional Doc Martin
schedule of attendance well in advance. According to the original sale of seats, the owners are responsible for the maintenance of the Hall, and that is true to this day – costly because it is a Grade One Heritage Building. We also saw the Queen’s staircase (near the lift, more often used now), and her retiring room, rather plain but adorned when she comes.
Elaine explained that the BBC Proms have one of the highest attendance because of The Arena, where usually chairs are put. The Hall is a commercial enterprise and it is the performers who rent the Hall. It can be configured with astonishing flexibility, including changing The Arena into a tennis court in August and a water-garden for Madame Butterfly. In the hallway on the extensive circular wall space are photos of the many world-class performers who have been on stage.
Exiting by the main doors, I marvelled at the elegance of this circular building atop a small mound. Very nearby was Imperial College London, a world-renowned university, made even more well-known through its fictional surgeon, Doc Martin
. Pushing myself on, I asked passers-by enough questions to make my way to the South Kensington Underground station,
St Paul's Cathedral and City of London
where a regular Sunday street party was underway, made lively by buskers and much drinking of wine in the thin sunshine.
I loved having Sunday roast lamb with “roasted” (deep-fried without batter) potatoes, carrots and parsnips, plus cabbage.
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