Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thoughts on the London audience

A concert at Royal Albert Hall. For a ukulele symphony.

My brother often reminds me that London, not New York (and certainly not Paris), is the musical, and perhaps the cultural, capital of the world. Out and about in Paris and London during our recent trip, it was hard to disagree with him. There's not much "serious" culture going on in Paris in the summer - both the Bastille and the Palais Garnier were dark while we were there, and I was dismayed to discover that Les hommes viennent de Mars, les femmes de Vénu had been the big hit of the spring.

What one is supposed to do in Paris on a summer evening, of course, is not go to the theatre, but eat, drink, stroll, and people-watch, all of which we were happy to do, especially as we were blessed by gorgeous weather that made those long twilights even more magical than usual. We did catch one or two light classical concerts in churches and parks, but none of these was particularly edifying - as they were situated in locales like Sainte-Chapelle, however, that hardly mattered.

London was a different story. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was in full swing with a visit from the Bolshoi Ballet, which I hadn't seen for years. Meanwhile the Proms were packing them in at Royal Albert Hall, and the National and the West End were likewise going full tilt. I know this may shock you, but I didn't actually see that much theatre - I only caught the National's blockbuster production of War Horse, a show that in its evocation of living, breathing horses brought "puppetry" to a stunning new level. Don't wait for the movie on this one (Spielberg has it in development) - the only way to experience War Horse is on stage, for reasons I'll explain in a future post. When it finally reaches Broadway, it will blow the latest crop of New York pseudo-events (like Gatz) off the stage.

The "puppets" of War Horse.

I was torn away from the theatre for my remaining two nights in town because I've always wanted to attend the Proms, and because the Bolshoi was in town. They were doing Spartacus, one of their "warhorses," and probably the butchest ballet ever made - so butch it's almost camp in spots. But it also features the greatest, or at any rate the most challenging, male dancing in the story-ballet repertory, and it's a famous showcase for the Bolshoi's bigger-than-life, savagely grand style.

I caught the company's newest star, Ivan Vasiliev (below), in the title role, and it was hard to shake the feeling, as I watched his performance, that I was watching perhaps the single greatest ballet dancer in the world. The role itself is unbelievably punishing, with leap after leap, tour after tour, all set to Khachaturian's rapid-fire tom-tom beat, but not only did Vasiliev never tire, he seemed to jump higher and leap further with each passing scene. And the lifts - I can't even tell you how difficult the many lifts in the work's central pas de deux are; for most of the duet, Vasiliev was actually carrying around his partner in mid-air. It was simply a superhuman performance, one for the history books.

Ivan Vasiliev as Spartacus.

My evening at Proms wasn't quite so exciting. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was essaying a long program that included Shostakovich's massive Seventh Symphony (the "Leningrad"), as well as Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, and Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto. All the performances were solid, but only the Prokofiev caught fire, largely due to pianist Alexander Toradze's spectacular performance (when Toradze next plays Boston, beg, borrow or steal to see him). Conductor Thierry Fischer brought subtlety and balance to the Shostakovich, but seemed to miss the sense of savagery that's so characteristic of this composer, and necessarily animates the endlessly marching build of the first movement.

I have to confess what struck me most about Proms, however, was the audience, not the performance. Royal Albert Hall holds close to 6,000 people, and it was packed to the rafters - with some thousand or so attendees standing in the center of the hall through the two-and-a-half-hour performance. Without real air conditioning. Through all this, however, they were silent and attentive, and roared their approval at the finish - for a program that would have faced open walk-outs, as well as a barrage of coughing, at the BSO. At intermission, the people in my stall - strangers to one another - chatted in a lively fashion with each other about the various pieces, with which they were obviously familiar. It occurred to me that I'd seen the same behavior at the Bolshoi - again, the Royal Opera House was entirely sold out, including all the standing room "seats" around the balconies, with people even packed up beneath the arches of the ceiling. And neither crowd was entirely posh - indeed, the Proms audience was largely middle class, and there were plenty of staid British matrons in sensible shoes at the Bolshoi, too. Needless to say, War Horse was sold out as well - even though it's been playing, off and on, for over two years.

I had to wonder to myself - how did London build this audience, so educated, genteel, and committed to high culture? And why can't we do the same thing in America?