30 July, 2014

The Royal Festival Hall Revisited

by Geoff De’Ath

“We would like a full report please”. These words were contained in an e-mail sent to me by a Very Distinguished Member to whom I had written, telling him that Anne and I had spent most of the voucher for £100 which had so generously been given to me by members of the Association at the Presentation Dinner during the Torquay Weekend in January. To all of you, I would like to repeat my sincere thanks for this handsome gift. It was totally unexpected and most kind.

We bought two tickets for a concert in the Royal Festival Hall on the 8th April. Anne and I go to so many recitals, usually piano or instrumental, at lunchtime at a variety of venues in London – the Royal Academy of Music, the LSE (both during term time), St. Lawrence Jewry plus other churches in the City, where we are fortunate enough to listen to highly talented students or mature musicians, often of international renown, that, by way of a change, we decided to forsake the warmth and intimacy of these familiar places for a full blooded orchestral concert in the Festival Hall. We had not been there for a concert for about 30 years (though when we do a South Bank walk from Westminster to the City most Mondays, we usually call in there for a brief pit stop).

My heyday goes back to the mid - late 1950s when, with a group of my pals, I used to go there regularly. I was an articled clerk in an office in Norfolk Street which ran from the Strand to the Embankment (Norfolk Street no longer exists), so it was easy for me to nip over Waterloo Bridge in my lunch hour and buy tickets.

This was at the time Klemperer and the Philharmonia reigned supreme, Josef Krips conducted the LSO in a Beethoven cycle, an annual Hoffnung concert always sold out, Geraint Jones and others gave early evening organ recitals, I once saw Dr. Albert Schweitzer in the audience and Von Karajan conducted with his eyes closed throughout – I know this because in the evening of the last day of my finals in November1958 we sat in the orchestra stalls and listened to/watched him conducting a thrilling performance of Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, never once looking at the members of the orchestra or, apparently, the score! Quite extraordinary. I believe tickets were about 5/- at the time; a bit different from today’s prices; ours were £38 each!

So back to the 8th April which happened to be a beautifully fine and warm evening. We arrived in plenty of time for a drink before taking our seats in the centre of the stalls; perfect. The dress code has certainly changed in the last 30 years. In the 1980s most of the audience dressed up and the men wore suits and ties. Now, more or less anything goes – but where is this not the case today?

However, the enthusiasm was as keen as ever and as the auditorium filled to capacity, the buzz of expectation palpably increased. Hardly surprising with the appearance of the prestigious Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (the majority of whom were women including the leader of the second violins who is head of the Historical Performance department at the Royal Academy and has the wonderful name, Margaret Faultless) playing period instruments and conducted by the highly esteemed Semyon Bychkov which raised this above the level of a routine concert; it was an occasion. They performed Beethoven’s 7th and Schubert’s 9th symphonies (the Schubert being particularly close to my heart), and, as you might expect, were rapturously applauded. We could not have chosen a more uplifting programme which was broadcast live on Radio 3. Did anybody hear it? It was definitely one of the highlights of our musical year so far.

Thanks to all of you, it was a memorably enjoyable evening…. And we still have £24 of the voucher left! As there is no expiry date, we shall take our time…….but who knows? I might do another write up before the year is out!

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