GUEST BLOG: How I learnt to use my eyes at a classical music performance.

I had a spare ticket to Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall and who better to give it to then the Audio Wave Ninja himself. Check out what he thought below:

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Maybe I shouldn’t have been listening to a South American electro-house DJ mix for 45minutes on the Tube immediately before attending a classical music performance? I don’t know if I was just not ‘tuned in’ enough to the music, but Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall didn’t quite grab me enough to be anywhere near as affecting as it should have been, given that the performance took place on Remembrance Day.

Britten’s War Requiem was composed in 1961-62 for the consecration of the opening of Coventry Cathedral, a new structure rebuilt within the ruins of the old cathedral which had been destroyed in a WWII bombing raid. It is scored for two orchestras (a full one and a smaller chamber orchestra), a choir, and three soloists to perform (a soprano, a tenor and a baritone, in case you’re interested). The performance I attended at the Royal Albert Hall was true to this arrangement, which included the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and the Choristers of Westminster Abbey (a boys’ choir).

Yet despite all this ‘firepower’ available, I found the impact of the music to be relatively modest. There were only a few moments when Britten made use of the full arsenal, and for me these were the best parts: ALL the brass blasting, ALL the percussion clashing and booming, ALL the string sections sawing up and down furiously, and ALL the 250 massed choristers singing over the top of each other. The rest of the time, the music wandered around too much to compel me to pay attention, so I have to admit I started LOOKING rather than LISTENING.

But this was actually when my experience got really good, because there really aren’t many more spectacular venues to be in than the Royal Albert Hall. It is an incredible space, one in which the audience really becomes conscious of their place in the performance, because its circular arrangement means your view of the performance is always framed by parts of the seating opposite. My seat was perfect (thanks runawaykiwi!), almost bang-on central, front row of the circle, so I could see the expanse of the crowd down in the stalls as well as the symmetrical arrangement of the choirs behind the orchestra onstage. In particular I noticed the synchronised page turning of the choristers, as well as the careful placement of the boys’ choir from Westminster Abbey way up above the highest level of the audience, under the arches supporting the great dome roof. They were dressed in red, but they were so high up (and so physically small) that it really seemed like heavenly music in the few small moments when it was just them singing.

So although I am unlikely to be humming any catchy parts of the War Requiem (there weren’t any) on my way to work, perhaps what I gained from this performance was an appreciation of orchestral staging and the visual impact such a large group of people can make when they are putting all their energy into producing something special like this.