Part 13: Stepping inside the orchestra

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Prommers got a chance to hear Xenakis's Nomos Gamma at close quarters this week, and Tristan Jakob-Hoff was there to be part of the performance

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Just picture the scene when we Prommers entered the hall for Xenakis’s Nomos Gamma on Wednesday night. The stage, where the orchestra would normally be found, was all but empty. Instead the Arena itself had been turned into an enormous performance area, with the 98-piece BBC Symphony Orchestra arranged in a circle around the conductor’s podium. Spaces were left between the various groups of instruments, in which we audience members were invited to position ourselves. I ended up nestling in between a clarinet, a violin and a contrabassoon on one side and another violin, a viola and a piccolo on the other.


Eventually conductor David Robertson squeezed through the audience to take his place at the centre of all this. The noise he unleashed was astonishing. Squalling woodwinds whirled around us, soon joined by thunderous drumming from the eight percussionists situated around the edge of the circle. Trombones growled menacingly at the very bottom of their range, while strings scurried frantically in every direction. This pointillist collage of shifting sounds eventually coalesced into some thrillingly sustained noisemaking.


It was a shattering piece of music, but hugely appreciated by the audience – especially those of us lucky enough to be positioned among the orchestra. (There were 90 of us, so we were in the unusual position of being outnumbered by orchestral musicians.) Unlike last year’s performance of the same composer’s Pleiades, I am pleased to report nobody ran from the hall with their hands over their ears.


After such an experience, I cannot explain the disorientation of seeing the orchestra leave the Arena again and take up their usual position on the stage, violins all neatly arranged on the left, cellos on the right, woodwinds sitting together and so on. A piece like Nomos Gamma makes you reconsider music entirely, and to follow it with music by Rachmaninov was perhaps the boldest move of the evening. But The Isle of the Dead, with its suggestions of a murky oarsman rowing the dead to their final resting place, made a surprisingly perfect foil for Xenakis. It was as if music itself were being laid to rest.


To further lament the dead, we had more Xenakis in the second half, this time the quasi-song cycle Aïs. A fairly literal depiction of Hades, it featured the fearless baritone Leigh Melrose shrieking and screaming and swapping constantly between his falsetto and normal voice. Accompanied by Colin Currie’s wild percussion-playing and a brutal orchestral part, it was another incredible performance of this composer’s thoroughly discombobulating music.


The evening ended with a return to something that seemed at once more familiar and at the same time equally mystifying. We may have heard a lot of Shostakovich in the last few years, but his Ninth Symphony remains a relative rarity in the concert hall, probably on account of its two-fingered salute to tradition. Like a dry run for the composer’s Fifteenth and final symphony, the Ninth has an outward gaiety and charm that is constantly undermined by darker undercurrents.

Its Mozartian outer movements sound as if their jollity is forced, while the woodwind-led central triptych betrays a profound inner turmoil. Robertson and his orchestra captured this dichotomy perfectly, revealing a masterpiece of mood swings.  I have rarely emerged from the Royal Albert Hall feeling so dazed.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...