When I went: 14 October 2016
Location: Royal Festival Hall, London
Performers: Philharmonia Orchestra, Damian Iorio (conductor), Ronan O’Hora (piano), City of London Choir
Creative team: Richard Wagner (Overture, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg), Sergey Rachmaninov (Piano Concert No. 2), Gustav Holst (The Planets)
Approximate price: £52.50
Special points: Celeste in The Planets
Best bit: Rach 2
If I could change one thing: Better sound balance
This concert was simply billed as a performance of ‘The Planets’, the renowned orchestral suite by Holst (the theme from ‘Jupiter’ is particularly famous, partly due to its similarity to James Horner’s ‘Braveheart’ film theme). The Planets is an interesting work, and features a celeste (an old keyboard instrument which typically has a 5-octave range and sounds a little like a more resonant glockenspiel) and two harps, which add to the ethereal quality of the score. In ‘Neptune’, the use of a SSA choir offstage is another unusual touch which broadens the scope of the suite.
The first half of this concert featured Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture, a popular work which was written after Wagner had studied and absorbed the philosophical works of Schopenhauer and certainly has a lot of beauty and lush melodies, especially in the string section. After this came Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, another very famous work (it is known among pianists for its difficulty, not least because of Rachmaninov’s habit of writing for a very large handspan). Weirdly, the bell-like descending theme from the second movement is probably more well-known nowadays for forming the backbone of the pop song ‘All By Myself’, featured prominently in the Bridget Jones’ Diary films.
My partner Owl and I were sat near to several people who seemed to all be suffering from intermittent coughing fits that inevitably flared up in quiet moments, which was a little annoying, but is obviously a general hazard of going to the theatre and not quite as irritating as when people fall asleep and snore. Unless you pay for a programme you don’t always know what order the pieces will be performed in at concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, so I didn’t know in advance that the Planets would form the second half of this concert and the Wagner and Rachmaninov would make up the first part.
The ordering of the pieces meant a bit of orchestra reshuffling after the Wagner (to bring the grand piano centre stage) which did detract a bit from the atmosphere. The orchestra performed both pieces very well, but I did notice a couple of synchronicity issues in the piano concerto, where some of the loud piano chords were not exactly in time with those of the orchestra, and my partner Owl thought there was a general balance issue where the piano couldn’t always be heard.
In The Planets, the celeste in particular rang out beautifully and I thought the sound balance was better in the second half. My partner Owl wants to buy a celeste now and I must admit I would like to play one, although I don’t think there is much celeste music around so I might have to write some.
The ambience of The Planets reminded both my partner Owl and me of some of the music used in Star Trek – not surprising I suppose when you consider that certain musical ‘tropes’ are usually employed to portray things like heaven, angels, space, danger, etc – like use of high percussion notes and harp, sweeping strings, and blaring horns for moments of peril. The ethereal choir towards the end was a nice touch and finished the concert off well.