Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Voice of Jupiter

RAH and its impressive pipe organ.

At last we heard it ring out in all its deep throaty glory: as 300 choristers sang the final 'Amen!!' the 9,999 pipes of the great organ of the Royal Albert Hall were finally let loose. The auditorium vibrated in sympathy, the red velvet balustrade quivering slightly under my arm. The great organ is known as 'The Voice of Jupiter', a nickname said to be a testament to the power and volume of which it is capable. Up until those last notes, however, we had heard it only as a muted rumbling now and then throughout a beautiful and curiously intimate performance of Handel's 'Messiah'.

I say 'curiously', because we were, after all, in the Royal Albert Hall, a space which holds over 5,000 people, and the choir was 300 strong. All the same, from our seat in the Grand Tier (diagonally opposite the Royal Box - see yesterday's blog post) Kyle and I looked down on the orchestra ( a small, Handel-sized ensemble) and the four soloists, and the experience was that of a much smaller space. This was refreshing and beautiful. The choir was a massed gathering of Goldsmiths Choral Union, Highgate Choral Society and the English Concert Chorus. The tiers of black suits and white shirts rose in rippling unison when indicated by the conductor, Brian Wright, a frequent performer in the symphonic choral repertoire.

Our Soprano (who did a beautiful 'I know that my redeemer liveth') was Emma Bell, with an impressive opera repertoire under her belt, and a festive Christmas red dress. The Alto was Christine Rice, who has a beautifully deep and rich alto voice ('He was despised' was sad and lovely). The tenor, we thought, was rather a weak link; and the bass-baritone decamped at half time. Something about being indisposed. This left the gentlemen of the choir to sing the three remaining bass sections - and what an heroic job they did of 'why do the nations so furiously rage together?', which has masses of short trill-like sections which can't be at all easy to sing. Especially on short notice, and in unison.

George II
And of course we had a marvellous 'Hallelujah Chorus', for which two young trumpeters joined the orchestra. Everyone stood, as has been the tradition ever since King George II stood up in the middle of it. As the program puts it, "whether this regal gesture arose from the King's appreciation of the music, or whether he had fallen asleep and suddenly woke up thinking the National Anthem was being played,is open to speculation."

As yesterday's blog readers will remember, about one quarter of the seats in the Royal Albert Hall are privately owned, and when the owners choose not to resell or to use the seats, they remain empty. This phenomenon was in evidence last night - when I booked our seats on-line, ours were the only two available in the Grand Tier. On the night there were several empty seats around us. In our small box of ten seats, only six were occupied. The boxes are nice, by the way - they each have their own little coat rack and entrance foyer, where you can leave your stuff. Noice.

The Queen didn't come. Perhaps she heard that the baritone was unreliable. But it was lovely singing, and impressive to hear 'The Voice of Jupiter', even if in only one last garumph.

To round off the story of the organ, I must share with you this article from the Guardian in 2004, if only because of the plethora of very tasteless puns which it contains:

Forget Simon Rattle and Magdalena Kozená. The real star of this year's Proms season is its mighty organ, the "Voice of Jupiter". It was commissioned in 1871 by Queen Victoria, who wanted the world's biggest, loudest, most lavish organ for the hall named after her late husband (no jokes please).
It has 9,999 pipes, 147 stops, weighs 150 tons, and at its loudest sounds like a jet taking off. It is a quite magnificent beast that the Royal Albert Hall has just spent £1.7m restoring to all its Victorian majesty.
Which is why there was a palpable air of embarrassment hanging over the hall yesterday, because on Saturday the damn thing wouldn't work: not a squeak from one of its much-vaunted 9,999 pipes. Time, literally, to pull out all the stops.
Organ failure was diagnosed just ahead of the Saturday-evening Prom, in which the "Voice of Jupiter" had a walk-on part in Charles Ives' epic Fourth Symphony (written for huge orchestra, separate celestial band, chorus, organ, two grand pianos, and requiring conductor plus assistant).
The organ specialists Manders, who had undertaken the two-year refurbishment, were consulted, but nothing could be done in time for the Prom at 7.30pm. No1 conductor Sakari Oramo came clean and told the prommers that the organ part would be played on an electronic synthesiser (boo, hiss, no heave-ho). "If Sakari hadn't mentioned it, I don't suppose anyone would have noticed," said a BBC spokesperson yesterday. Silence is golden. The synthesiser was a Yamaha P-250 (rrp £1,279.99). It worked.
After the concert, the problem was located - electrical failure. "There was nothing we could do about it," says John Mander, head of the organ builders. "It was an electrical fault, not a fault with the organ. The organ blowers couldn't get switched on because of an electrical failure." An electrician with a screwdriver eventually came to the rescue - in time for the "Voice of Jupiter" to soar during a performance of Dvorak's mass the following evening.
"The hall are very keen to play this down," says one insider. "They want to make it clear that there was nothing wrong with the organ itself. After all, they have just spent £1.7m restoring it and they don't want it bracketed with the Princess Diana memorial fountain."
Queen Victoria would not have been amused.

In other news, the snow fell again this morning, dusting St Pancras Chambers with a very pretty layer of white fluff. This turned to sludgy ice by the end of the day, as rain replaced the snow. Meanwhile, both Heathrow and Gatwick Airports are closed, prompting some concern about my planned flight home to Australia on Monday evening. Snow has upsides and downsides.

Image of George II via Wikimedia Commons'

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