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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On classical music in London's Royal Albert Hall,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Bonjour Alice,

Last Friday I visited your capital city to hear two of my favourite pianists -- Katia et Marielle Labeque -- play music by one of my favourite composers -- Francis Poulenc. Although all the music in this concert was well played and sung, the programme was a little confusing -- a kind of rag bag of pieces from different countries and styles with no overall shape. I realise that the concert formed the beginning of some kind of festival, but surely the organisers should take care to provide a balanced and meaningful programme for each individual concert?

My main complaint, though, is that the hall has an embarrassingly bad acoustic which made everything sound quiet, turned the (presumably fine) sound of the two concert grand pianos into public house uprights, and favoured some instruments ... notably some of the brass and percussion instruments placed higher up the stage ... above others. Thus the orchestral sound was unbalanced, distorted, and not loud enough to provide any of the immediacy one normally associates with live performance.

In my opinion, this large round hall is simply not suitable for presenting live classical music to an audience, and the concert organisers must be completely unmusical, out of their minds and/or just crooks exploiting the potential earnings of the large audience capacity. Or is this some kind of British scam?

Since my experiences, I have spoken to a friend in London who heard this concert on the radio. He described the same event as a wonderful, well-balanced broadcast, and told me that the pianos sounded fantastic. So can I trust my ears here, Alice? If I heard what I think I heard, then I would strongly advise against buying tickets for classical concerts at this venue, but to listen instead at home or try some of London's many other concert halls and churches.

If the fundamental reason for holding these concerts is to make broadcasts, then the organisers should state this, and maybe offer seats free. Alternatively, if they really want to create live concerts, perhaps it's time to look for a new venue?

Bruno Lefebvre

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Alice Bonjour Bruno!!!! -- and many thanks for your comments.

First of all, for those not in London, my froggie friend is referring to the first night of the Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall.

Secondly, he is clearly very musical, as it has been an open secret for decades that the Royal Albert Hall -- however imposing it is from the outside -- is a lousy place to play. As a musician, one feels (even in the Proms) as if one is the only cellist on earth, with all the resultant doubtfulness about not blending with the rest of the section. As a concert-goer, it's hard to wonder what the Promenaders (a self-appointed club of standees addicted to the sounds of their own voices, who basically need to get out less) get so excited about. This is because whichever orchestra is sweating away (and I do mean sweating: it is deadly hot playing there under the TV lights) the orchestral sound is always faintly submerged, as if coming from underground, however expensive one's seats might be. On the other hand, or, in compliment to Monsieur Lefebvre, au contraire, once one has bunged on the radio, the sound is comme il faut, absolutement.

This is because the microphones, as I understand it, are placed in the only position in the Royal Albert Hall where the acoustic is good, ie half-way to the ceiling, in the center of the hall. (Also, they can mess with the balance, to some degree.) In short, Bruno, you have hit the nail on the head and are entitled to cigar or coconut, according to choice. Until the powers that be awaken to the true situation, and offer seats swinging suspended (along with the chandeliers) above the current promenaders, je suis desolee to observe that your best chance of hearing a concert juste is dans le radio. (NB There would be the further advantage that perhaps the seats might fail, permitting one to brain a few promenaders on the beanies, and possibly thus forestalling their next mind-achingly stupid choreographed chant.)

I would applaud your idea of seeking an alternative venue, were it not that the British are sticklers for tradition, and that endless queues up the steps to the Royal Albert Hall, overpriced tickets, Henry Wood's bust, dingy lighting, yodelling promenaders, sweaty armpits, faded Victoriana and crap acoustics are part of the Great British Prom tradition. (And don't get me started on the Last Night, and Jerusalem and gooey-eyed pseudo-Imperialist sentimentality.) C'est impossible!!!!!

Good God, man, next you'll be suggesting we all get cool, comfy and 21st-century!!!!!!

Yours in consternation,
Alice (Aleeeeeeece)

Copyright © 24 July 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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