An intimate evening ... with 6000 friends
July 23, 2010 8:04 PM   Subscribe

The BBC Proms season is underway, and this year also they are running some 'late night Proms', second concerts held after the first concert of the evening is over. A couple of days ago, the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires (Wikipedia) took over the cavernous Royal Albert Hall at ten in the evening for an all-Chopin, all-Nocturnes late night recital, attended by nearly 6,000 people. That may sound like a recipe for disaster, but she pulled it off wonderfully; it was an unforgettable experience, and you have until next Wednesday to hear it, on the BBC iPlayer.

This is absolutely 'best of the web' - making a performance like this available to the entire world. Her performance is gentle but never saccharin, and the programming - the way she selected and threaded the pieces together to carry us along entranced - was amazingly well thought out.

And the audience also 'performed' perfectly; they had been informed before the concert began that 'not to applaud [between pieces] was acceptable', to try and maintain the intimacy. As it turned out, instead of being confused about what to do at the end of each piece, they knew exactly when to show their approval, and when to hold back.

(And yes, I know, why post this when the link will be dead in a couple of days? Well, why not? Most FPPosts are 'cooked and eaten up' within that time frame anyway ... Don't complain - just go listen!)
posted by woodblock100 (23 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I've enjoyed classical music for years, but never really given it more than a casual listen when a classical radio station is conveniently available, choosing instead electronic music 9 out of 10 times. Upon hearing this, I am now questioning my musical tendencies, because this is really fantastic. Thank you.

Note to future readers: some nice buccaneer-type has put it upon themselves to save the streaming audio from the iPlayer and share it with other buccaneers in their cove, if you will.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:43 PM on July 23, 2010

in the first pause i noticed the audience, instead of clapping (as they were instructed that it might be good to refrain from), coughed; not all of them, but everyone in the audience that was attempting to restrain from coughing until it wouldn't disturb the music.

such polite smokers.

(derail question: are the brits or the canadians more polite?)
posted by el io at 8:58 PM on July 23, 2010

I get 'You are not authorized to open this file'. (
posted by unliteral at 9:11 PM on July 23, 2010

odd side observation: the volume control on the BBC iPlayer goes up to 11.

unilateral, I'm pleasantly surprised that BBC audio is not blocked in the USofA like its video is. How nice of them. Or is this just saying "radio is so much less important than TV, we needn't bother"?

another random observation (while I am listening; the mind wanders): With the way BP is damaging the brand of British Anything, maybe the BBC should rebrand as UKBC? Okay, that's a stupid question.

It is so nice to be listening to something BBC that doesn't feature the Doctor Who theme for a change. But wait... didn't the Fifth Doctor visit Paris in the 1840s?
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:34 PM on July 23, 2010

unilateral, I'm pleasantly surprised that BBC audio is not blocked in the USofA like its video is.

I know, radio is fantastic, isn't it? From here in Australia I can listen to the BBC in Britain, any US radio station I like, any Canadian station, and of course people from all over the world can listen to our radio.

But watching a TV show on the BBC website, or Hulu? Forget about it.

Hooray for radio.
posted by Jimbob at 9:55 PM on July 23, 2010

Not sure if I should do this ... we're not supposed to 'ride herd' on our own threads ... But I have just now finished listening to this (carefully) for the second time (after running upstairs from my workshop to make the FPP immediately after the first hearing), and there is more that should be added to what I posted.

Why is this performance so special? What did she do to us during the 70 or so minutes that she was playing?

It was all about the architecture.

Most of us gain some familiarity with Chopin when we are fairly young, and as a consequence of this, we tend to find it difficult later to enjoy performances by 'other' pianists - those whose playing doesn't fit the general style of the pianist who first introduced us to these works. "I don't like the way he phrases that," or "I wish she would play that a bit more quickly ..." etc. etc.

With this lady however, such considerations are removed from the picture. As she played the first of the pieces in this program, we learned that she is a very 'clean' interpreter of Chopin. Her attacks and releases are a masterpiece of precision, her rubato is never strained, and her dynamic range is (nearly) always held to the low end of what is possible. Now these things sound like a perfect recipe for a 'bland' performance. And indeed, as we come to the end of the first Nocturne, the strongest feeling is that this is going to be a very polite recital, one that will charm anybody (because it won't trigger any of those prior memories that I mentioned.)

But partway through the second piece, we begin to realize that she is playing a different game. She is not playing single pieces for us; we are not in her parlour. We are being invited to listen as she builds an edifice (a weak word in this particular case, sorry ...) on stage as we watch. We are on a journey. She has arranged this selection of Nocturnes - all pretty much 'off a piece' - into the most perfect arrangement possible, and 'plays through' from one to the next, giving each of them a role to play in the overall stream.

Just listen to what happens in the intervals between pieces - they are all different! The first break is full of coughing and rustling ... typical concert behaviour. Another break brings some applause, as she 'closes off' a musical section in her structure. Yet another break passes in breathless silence, as we hang suspended between two segments. (This is most noticeable between the 7th and 8th of the pieces, as she begins her culminating climb.)

And then, during the opus 27 #2, as we approach the climax of the recital, we realize that - all the way along, right from the beginning - she has practically been on a single continuous crescendo, has been holding back all this time (holding back, in the Albert Hall!), and is about to let go ...

And even there, as we reach that peak, at the single loudest moment of the entire performance, she is still not more than a firm 'forte'. Without banging, crashing, or histrionics of any kind, she has carried us all this way. She then brings us back down in a perfect - a picture perfect - decrescendo to the end of that Nocturne, and if you don't feel your eyes getting wet at that point ...

The audience had been warned in advance that applause would not be 'necessary' at that specific point. Fat chance.

The rest is anti-climax. Pleasant clean and clear performances, to being us back, and prepare us for heading outside into the night. But she has one final breath-taking moment in reserve, and this is the passage with the final runs up and down as the Lento comes to a close. The sweep of the notes under her right hand is perfect beyond words. The levels of decrescendo from one run to the next are perfect beyond words. She brings us back down to earth and we land so gently we can not even tell when our feet touch the ground.


I'm sorry to 'overthink' this ... if that's what I have indeed done. But hot damn, I think this was one of those events that will count as a 'performance of the century'. One woman, one piano, that vast dark cavern ... and around 6000 people waiting to be transported somewhere. Could you do such a thing?
posted by woodblock100 at 10:24 PM on July 23, 2010 [11 favorites]

That may sound like a recipe for disaster...

Why? (This isn't snark, I'm genuinely curious and don't know nearly enough about this topic.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:37 PM on July 23, 2010


The hall is absolutely vast - an arena, really - and, this being a Prom concert, large numbers of the attendees are actually standing, in the central area below the stage. Tickets for these concerts are pretty easily available, and the general mood is pretty casual and kind of low-brow. [Proms overview here]

The format is best suited to orchestral concerts featuring war-horses, and that is what makes up the bulk of Prom concerts. To program a solo piano recital in that space - of Chopin, not some thunderous Beethoven or Liszt - was quite a risk, and some of the professional reviewers were not so complimentary in their newspaper stories, feeling like the experiment did not, indeed succeed all that well.
posted by woodblock100 at 11:54 PM on July 23, 2010

Oneswellfoop the Dr. Who prom is tonight the 24th
posted by stuartmm at 2:05 AM on July 24, 2010

unilateral, I'm pleasantly surprised that BBC audio is not blocked in the USofA like its video is.
Ah! sussed it. I was viewing from an iPad, it's fine on the iMac - I didn't realize it was flash. Thanks, woodblock100, this is really nice.
Who is this 'unilateral' of whom you speak? ;)
posted by unliteral at 2:11 AM on July 24, 2010

Thanks for posting this. I've really been enjoying it, and some of the passages are indeed sublime.
posted by gallois at 2:35 AM on July 24, 2010

Maria João Pires is my default Chopin musician. So I'm looking forward to hearing this interpretation.
posted by joost de vries at 3:39 AM on July 24, 2010

Applause at classical music concerts is so problematic. I've discussed this with musicians, and they tell me, essentially, "we live for it." But at a piano recital, especially if they're playing Chopin, your ear is attuned to the subtlest nuance of sound and performance: you're concentrating very deeply. At then the piece ends, and just as you should be gathering your spiritual impressions, your hearing -- still on its most sensitive setting -- is slammed by a wave of harsh applause. It's jarring. I would go for making it a rule that there should be no applause until the very end of a concert. Then you can bring out the soloists or whomever played earlier, each for his or her ovation. But after a piece, please let the echoes fade and the spirit resonate, just a little.
posted by Faze at 4:37 AM on July 24, 2010

there should be no applause until the very end of a concert

That, I think, is a kind of (impossible) ideal. I agree with the sentiment, but - and I thought about this during the present concert - there is more to applause than just the message we send to the performer.

This recital consisted of 12 pieces by the same composer, all in a similar style. As beautiful as it was, I did find myself thinking at one of the transitions, "Do I really want to hear another Chopin Nocturne right now?" But fifteen seconds later, after the wave of gentle applause had kind of 'cleared the air', I was indeed ready for her next step. It's perhaps kind of like the nibble of ginger you take between bites of different sushi - a small (but important) palette cleanser.

I think the audience at this concert really did get it just right ...
posted by woodblock100 at 4:44 AM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the heads up, and also the commentary, woodblock100!
posted by carter at 5:25 AM on July 24, 2010

Thanks for this - it was spell-binding.

I'm excited this year because for the first time in my 16 years of living in London, I'm going to one of the Proms...Prom 35 The Sibelius piece is one of my very favourite pieces of music, the Ligeti should be interesting, and I don't think I know the Tchaikovsky at all, but if it's something really famous that's been used to advertise carpets then I'll be embarrassed for having written this.

I think I'd take issue with the description of the Proms as 'kind of low-brow'...I think the real aim of the Proms is to make classical and or orchestral music accessible while still honest. So this means that as well as Stockhausen and Birtwhistle you can expect a Sondheim prom or, as we've mentioned, a Dr Who prom.

It was interesting to see Tom Service in particular saying that it was all right not to clap, given his recent defence of applause between movements - a position he shares with Alex Ross of 'The Rest is Noise' fame

(which book, just to make this all rather circular, is how I learnt about Sibelius' 5th)
posted by calico at 6:27 AM on July 24, 2010

> This is absolutely 'best of the web'
That's not for you to decide. Could've done without the editorial.

Since it is clearly the work of some dead polish bloke, and does not feature an ukulele, an explosion or a kitten, it can't be best of the web.
posted by scruss at 6:43 AM on July 24, 2010

You can't see it, but there was a kitten way at the back, clapping her little paws.
posted by storybored at 8:00 AM on July 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am trying to get the protocol on MeFi down--I understand AskMeFi much better. Is it expected that narrative in the original post is to be judgment free( no editorial comment on content). I am reacting to this statement by scruss: " This is absolutely 'best of the web'
That's not for you to decide. Could've done without the editorial.
. Actually, I happen to think that this particular link (BBC Proms) is some of the best on the web--the best, who knows? But hardly worth singling it out for correction unless it violates an agreed upon protocol. Or does the comment simply represent one persons need to double down with their own editorial comment. The post on the Prom is a keeper (for me). Thanks
posted by rmhsinc at 8:59 AM on July 24, 2010

I think scruss was kidding.

(that said, you don't have to tell us that you think it's "best of the web"—you probably wouldn't have posted it if you didn't think it was, right?)
posted by chrominance at 11:24 AM on July 24, 2010

Is it expected that narrative in the original post is to be judgment free( no editorial comment on content)

Generally, yes. The idea seems to be to present the thing, and let it stands on its own merits. And the very fact that someone is posting something is a very strong indicator that they consider it "best of the web" or at least noteworthy.

The generally "added extra" commentary could also arguably have gone in a first comment, but that's more a stylistic point from my view, and at least it was part of the More Inside rather than on the front page.

Still, scruss probably could've been slightly gentler when making that point.

Or does the comment simply represent one persons need to double down with their own editorial comment.

Eh, people like to try and keep community norms going - it was a fairly valid point (although in the context of the post the editorial comment was quite a minor part), even if the manner in which it was made was a bit brusque. Still, very little is going to come of pointing out that their pointing out was snarky or whatnot, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.
posted by djgh at 11:25 AM on July 24, 2010

there was a kitten way at the back, clapping her little paws.
Poor little kitten. Trying so hard to clap along.
Put she makes no sound because her paws are too fluffy.
posted by joost de vries at 3:10 PM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I think the post is great. Thanks, woodblock100, for the additional commentary as well. I've never attended a recital before, and it's nice to understand how what I'm listening to now differs from just loading up my Chopin playlist and hitting shuffle.

D'aww, who's a widdle kitty? You are!
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 9:21 PM on July 24, 2010

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