This is the story of one of my favourite buildings, of sitting in one of its iconic seats, and of a musical incident that managed to undermine two hours’ pleasure.
I am no music expert but I love going to concerts and over the years have been to celebrated venues in Berlin, Chicago, Moscow, Sydney and, of course, London. Of all the concert halls I know, the Royal Festival Hall is my favourite; it is where I would prefer to be. It is not because of its acoustics, that accolade would almost certainly go the Symphony Hall in Berlin; or because of its iconic exterior, that must be the Opera House in Sydney, For me, the Festival Hall is just very special.
My relationship with the Hall started early in both our histories – on Wednesday 2nd May, 1951 to be precise. On that day, and despite the Hall being shut and tightly guarded, we (my family and I) got a peek inside, in fact, a private, guided tour. I was nine years old and we had come up from the country by bus to look around the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank and, in particular, to see the Royal Festival Hall. My mother believed that the Hall was already open to the public. However, that Wednesday was actually the eve of the Hall’s official opening, so final preparations were being made for the visit next day of HM George VI and his daughter Princess Elizabeth. Despite the impending occasion, the rows of security guards on duty proved no match for my persuasive, manipulative, domineering and determined mother and eventually we were let in by an administrator.
Despite my age, and the embarrassment caused by my mother’s very public insistence, when I was inside I found the vista awe-inspiring. I was blown away by its vastness, its walkways with their brass railings, its floors covered by honey-coloured carpet with a quaint white wavy-line motif, it’s acres of wood-clad walls, and the hundreds of organ pipes mounted across the wall behind the stage. But most striking of all were its boxes which, with their curvy protruding fronts, looked like the heads of a flock of swans breaking through the auditorium’s two side-walls.
Despite refurbishments, everything there feels essentially unchanged, and last week, when I went to there to hear the Mozart Festival Orchestra playing a programme of Mozart Masterpieces, my usual feelings of warmth and wonderment returned.
We booked late and found ourselves near the very back of the auditorium. The space between the rows was cramped and my knees, which are having a difficult time at the moment, soon began to ache. I spotted an empty box and in the interval and, after explaining to an attendant my predicament, asked if we could move seats. He was hesitant; it was against the rules, but ‘Yes’. As we went to the box down a narrow, winding staircase, the enormity of what we were doing struck me. After a wait of sixty five years we would be sitting in one of the boxes I had so coveted as a child. Once there, I was nervous, excited, and, by dint of greater leg space, pain free.
The concert restarted and a young soprano, whose voice in the first half was true, began singing The Queen of the Night aria. My wife and I adore Mozart and were familiar with almost every piece played so knew that in this aria there are some notoriously difficult high notes. The first arrived and the noise our soprano made was more a screech-cum-croak than the voice of a songbird. Like other Mozart lovers, we knew, as no doubt did the singer, that there were more such challenging notes to come and sadly she screeched loudly at another later.
It was an excruciating experience. For Rohan and I, those false notes somehow soiled the whole of the concert. We couldn’t applaud when she finished although many in the audience did, presumably out of sympathy and to offer encouragement. For her it must have been a bruising, possibly even career-changing, experience.
How just two false notes could wreck in this way is a mystery. Twelve or so other pieces were played beautifully, but the pleasure from them was undone by errors that lasted no more than a few seconds. This is all very odd but not uncommon. I have talked with other concert goers and most have had at least one similar experience. Interestingly, for some, like us, it ruins the evening, for others, it can be overlooked.
Setting aside the musical travesty, being once again in the Festival Hall was a delight, and listening for the first time while sitting on the back of one of my swans was a dream.