We were lucky enough to see the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (NOW) tonight. Instruments talking to each other, listening, synchronising your eyes with the musicians, taking in the conductor’s body-bending movements; it makes you feel lucky to be alive.
We’d been to see this orchestra play before. Four years ago, the NOW were set to come to play during the darkest part of winter. There’d been a huge storm just a few days before. We’d lost all power.. for two, three days, up to the point that Jack fished out the portable generator out of the garage and hooked us up. We celebrated the lightbulbs like hungry moths.
I’d looked outside. The pampas grass in the garden was still leaning over into a seven. Touching the fence. ‘The orchestra’ll probably cancel,’ I muttered, ‘after all, there are still trees lying on the roads.’
What was I thinking? The BBC comes rain or shine, and hurricane conditions. They embark on a road trip twice a year to the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. They turn up in their enormous BBC lorry and their satellite van for a live BBC radio broadcast. And besides the cultural gypsy excitement factor, the other amazing thing is.. well, the price of the ticket! I’m a notorious tight-ass. At least in the literal sense. But the BBC has an initiative to promote classical music and so offers a cut-price ticket rate that makes it a wonderful no-brainer. This is particularly nice, as I’m struggling with my brain at the moment.. and just at the time of my life when I’m supposed to be ‘coasting’. Anyhow, I’m pleased to say it’s a story for another time.
That windy night, we’d threaded our way through the downed trees, spider web power lines and arrived at the Arts Centre. The concert was held in the Great Hall. We’d stood waiting to enter it, sniffing ourselves self-consciously after three days of no hot water. The musicians themselves stood waiting with us to enter the hall. One man in a penguin suit had an amiable if long-suffering air about him. And a flute in his hand. I asked him what it was like to come up here to the wilds of Mid-Wales.
He smiled, his lips collecting into the drawstring of a purse. Was this the smile of a flautist I wondered? ‘It’s great’ he said, ‘even if it sounds like you’re playing in a tin can.’
Ok. We were entering a 1960s hall. That was true. With a bare concrete ceiling, dated wood panelling and retro, no smoking signs in both English and Welsh, it may not be an ideal orchestral venue. I guess the symphony hall back in Cardiff might have a slight edge over Aberystwyth. I’d once stood on this stage to receive my undergrad degree certificate. It was nothing to write home about from the audience’s perspective either. I knew because I’d been in this same hall to see the girls’ school Christmas concert a couple of months before and, boy was that as long as a trip to Hades.
This time was the same as those years ago. Except that the weather conditions weren’t so extreme. We ate pizza by the sea-front in the frosty November air before the concert started. The Ormerods joked about they could ditch out of the concert and go home. That was a joke I think.. wait.. doh! We all went up to the Arts Centre and walked into the hall. The musicians were waiting in the room next to the stage. We could see them milling around. This was the same place where the girls waited for us to pick them up after their concert. We found our seats and watched them stroll in and sit on the faded metal chairs. Polite smiling as they squeezed past each other, with cello, violin and the occasional trombone. The same guy with the flute made his way, straight-backed to the centre of the stage. I wondered if was thinking about the tin can comparison. ‘Good thing I took that extra dose of paracetomol,’ I imagined him saying to himself.
We were enjoying the view; having bought seats right at the front.
‘Did you buy the tickets when they first came out?’ Jack questioned me.
I shook my head. ‘No.’ I totally did.
It was all pretty casual.. the orchestra was last minute tuning and bantering between themselves. until the conductor came out. Then, in a flash, the air changed. You could smell it. Everything stilled. The conductor was young and slightly strange-looking. He had pale eyes and lips that didn’t quite join together. There was no wand in his hand either, and he didn’t have a proper suit on. Instead, he was wearing a shiny blazer and dark chinos. I took all it in with a high-brow mix of distaste and respect. Especially since I was wearing only a slightly smarter version of pyjamas. Who am I trying to kid? I was wearing clothes that I sleep in.
Was it good? Well, you can hear Jack cough at 45:30 on the radio. We were that close to the microphones. Luckily, you can’t hear the girls laughing at the conductor. Hands, fingers, body, head.. he moved with such intense purpose, it was a show all on its own.
I want to go watch it again. And again. In fact, it’s never going to be enough. That’s the only downside; this addictive element to the live classical music experience. Those oldey-worldeys really knew how to live.