As the symphony began there were only a few musicians on stage. The lights were down, so I knew the thing had begun but I had never seen anything like this in the Royal Festival Hall. Gradually more musicians came – some warming up, others obviously playing from the score. Until, when the whole orchestra was assembled, the sound exploded softly and I was happy, in my seat at the back, £12 if booked early enough. Welcome, to the music and the noise in London.
My favourite walk in London by very long mile is this: Exit Leicester Square station (or somehow magically be there), turn left and continue along Charing Cross Road – stay on the left side. Turn left at the Chandos (better avoid Trafalgar Square) and then take a right on Adelaide Street. If it’s late enough you’ll notice that some of the homeless are already waiting for a hot meal that gets delivered somewhere behind St. Martin in the Fields. Cross the Strand, enter Charing Cross station and find the door on the left hand side, just before the platforms, that leads you to the path suspended above Villiers Street. Look left, you can see inside some of the flats – who the hell lives there and how do they deal with the rats? Enter the little pedestrian tunnel, yellow tiles and sickly yellow coloured lamps – they always bring to mind Jack the Ripper for some reason. Exit breathing and magically you are on the Golden Jubilee bridge (east side) – look to the left and you can see Saint Paul’s. The Royal Festival Hall beckons on the other side of the Thames – as long as you can slalom between the people taking a photo and the couples dancing in front of the bridge musicians.
I’m not good with concerts. Let’s start there. This is a fact that baffles my husband who could live his whole life in concerts, preferably in Camden. To be honest I only started going to those with him – he became somewhat of a guide to my hard rock education. But before that I had the Royal Festival Hall and an intense dislike of standing up in dark rooms for hours at a time to listen to a music I couldn’t quite catch, acoustics in Camden gig spaces being notoriously shit.
I do loads of things alone. Let’s make a note of that too. Theatre, exhibitions, music, it’s time with myself I thoroughly enjoy. This seems to be a weird or rare trait – people I share this with are visibly panicked at the thought of going to some sort of spectacle or even going to eat alone. For me, these are some of my favourite memories in London.
Being poor and interested in the arts in London is no joke, even though to be honest there’s plenty to see for free, most museums not charging an entrance fee. At some point, I have no memory of how, I discovered a couple of neat tricks for booking cheap tickets. My most cost effective one is the Royal Opera House one – I’ve written a blog post here about it.
But my favourite is the Royal Festival Hall one. Here’s how it goes: The Royal Festival Hall is a venue that is *designed* to be a concert hall. To the untrained ear there is no actual discernible difference when you sit here or over there – the whole space being designed for the purpose of sitting on your lovely behind and enjoying the music. Ergo, the cheap seats in the back are not inferior even though they cost only around £13 today – £12 back in 2013 when our story takes place. By the way, my recommendation is always for row WW bang in the middle. Thank me later.
2013 was a peculiar year. I was 33, had met the love of my life (and had no idea it had happened), was exhausted by a terrible work environment, had given up on a PhD and was recovering from a monumentally regrettable and sufficiently abusive relationship. Yet, it was also introspective and interesting and actually I was quite at peace. I look at my photos and realise it was a year during which I thought a lot, walked a lot, listened to a lot of music and walked around London. A lot. It was a year I developed my relationship with myself and this city and it was actually a year I felt beautiful – which any woman will tell you is usually a revelation of her thirties.
2013 was also the year that the London Philharmonic Orchestra put together The Rest is Noise, a programme inspired by the Alex Ross homonymous book. I went to a few of the concerts – I recall the Rite of Spring which is always a difficult piece – but the one that sticks in the mind was the 30th of October concert of Alfred Schnittke‘s Symphony No 1. Don’t worry, I also had to look him up.
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The maestro was Michail Jurowski and he kindly gave a talk about the piece beforehand. He sat on stage and I remember his male power stance – relaxed, legs apart and his hands controlled, an impressive belly, restrained and yet expressive. When he was conducting later he was a different man, stricter, playful, agile. Jurowski attempted to explain something of the Soviet reality and the Russian psyche but what stuck in my mind was the theatricality of the symphony, this idea that musicians enter and leave the stage. He mentioned the trauma of all the lives lost in Russia during World War II – all the talent vanished and that idea of art that never got made has stuck with me ever since.
Now, let me be honest, Symphony No. 1 is tough. It’s chaotic, it’s difficult and I lacked – and still lack – the musical education to really understand it. But, and this has sustained me always, art is not necessarily meant to always be understood by everyone. Sometimes, art is meant to be felt and to invite thoughts and questions and, why not, aversion. I might not have understood it but it was one of the most impactful concerts I have ever been too.
When I left (go up the stairs, cross the Golden Jubilee bridge etc.) I could not listen to the symphony again in my earphones – which is what I usually did with music from other concerts. I just let the sound of London float around me and realised that sometimes, in the comings and goings, in the misunderstood creativity, in the chaotic noise and in the brash people you bump into there is also life and balance and a conductor – somewhere – who can be a bit more magical when he is on stage.
I don’t think I lifted my hands to conduct the noise, walking over the bridge, looking out towards St. Paul’s, but if this was a movie script, I probably would have.
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