Monday, 21 March 2011

Wonder what Samuel Johnson would have made of this

I spent Sunday afternoon at the Royal Albert Hall, watching one of the finest orchestras in the world, the Royal Philharmonic, performing a selection of what would best be described as 'populist' classical pieces, alongside the band of the Welsh Guards and the City of London Choir. Pieces that even the likes of me, a complete musical ignoramus, of classical particularly, would recognise, though not necessarily name correctly. Throw in a laser show, indoor fireworks, cannon for the 1812 Overture, you get the idea. With celebratory greetings for birthdays and the like thrown in by the conductor, kids noisily eating popcorn even in the posh seats and the audience clapping in time to some of the pieces, Götterdämmerung at the Vienna New Year concert it wasn't.

Nonetheless, these were some of the finest musicians and singers anywhere, and it was an amazing spectacle and a display of musicianship which awed even my ignorant ears. But there were bits mixed in which I really, really didn't like. This was, after all, classical music for the British masses, and as such included a fair bit of the flag-waving, breast-beating, last night of the Proms type stuff. Thousands of little flags being waved furiously, repeated verses of Elgar's most bombastic pieces, that sort of thing.

Now I just don't like this stuff. My sense of Britishness is simply not bound up with it. Don't get me wrong, I'm of course proud to be British, but my feeling of belonging does not come in this shape. It was lapped up by the almost entirely white, largely middle-aged or older audience, but it smelt of insular, island mentality, nationalistic, Daily Mail-reading anachronism to me, and I simply don't recognise it in my own sense of national identity. I know I shouldn't let this wind me up - this was, in one respect, an extremely British affair - it wasn't taken entirely seriously, and a few paper flags, a bit of a sing-song and a few red, white and blue balloons is about as nationalistic as we get. But I felt, nonetheless, uncomfortable during those bits. Not as uncomfortable as when I almost blubbed during a stirring rendition of Nessun Dorma (yes, it was because of memories of my 19-year-old self's desolation at defeat in the World Cup semi-final at Italia 90, I freely admit), but that's probably another entry altogether.

One thing did make me laugh about it, though. Leafing through the programme bought by a friend on the way home, it turned out that the superbly-talented opera singer belting out Rule Britannia several times, wearing a union flag waistcoat, with a larger union flag held aloft behind him like an Olympian, chest puffed out, strutting around the stage like a popinjay with too much to be pleased about, was an American. Perhaps this was not nationalism after all, but biting satire...

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