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Magic moments at the Barbican

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 01:24 UK Time, Monday, 12 April 2010

BBC Symphony Chorus alto Monica Todd completes her series of blogs on the premiere of Ian McQueen's Earthly Paradise

Andrew_and_Pat_sm.jpgIt was the biggest wooden mallet I've ever seen. The handle was several feet long and the head looked big enough to serve as a traffic bollard. It was quite a spectacle when it struck the wooden box beneath it, making a huge resonant boom. This piece is big. Very big.

And such a big piece of music needs a big orchestra. This made the distance between us and our conductor Sir Andrew Davis bigger than usual. Fortunately he conducts so clearly that it was as if he was standing directly in front of us, something we rely on when performing such a large-scale and complicated piece. Rehearsing with a piano doesn't prepare us for the full extent of the orchestration hence I can get surprised by giant mallets!

To perform such an epic work as Ian McQueen's Earthly Paradise, the only possibility is to launch into it wholeheartedly. We gave it our all. Hearing the texts over so many instruments meant we had to spit out the consonants with exaggerated clarity. We wanted the audience in the hall to hear the words and for the Radio 3 microphones to pick up every detail. The Symphony Orchestra's chief producer Ann McKay listened from the outside broadcast van and recorded the concert for Performance on 3 on Tuesday 13th April at 7pm. I can't wait to hear it again. I'm sure it will sound different from what I heard in my place right behind the huge percussion section!

Often I approach the concert platform looking forward to one or two particular moments, little snippets that I particularly relish. This piece was no exception. I love the huge, robust ending of the first movement: three strong chords which bring it to a very gratifying close. And movement three contains my favourite chord of the whole piece. After the line 'Little there was of joy and mirth' (and again after 'Seem'd foolish things that waited death') the music is suddenly hushed for the most glorious shimmering chord in the strings. It's very atmospheric. (For some reason it makes me think of a misty glade in the moonlight. That movement is all about a knight wandering through woodland so perhaps I am not too far off in my imagery.)

I love the very end as well. My anticipation was focused on the spine-tingling moment when the huge climactic final chord finishes and the bells continue to ring out for a few seconds... All activity on stage ceases and yet the performance continues. All eyes are on Andrew who stands motionless yet still in charge. The audience and performers are hushed, anticipating his signalling the end of the performance by lowering his hands. Then the applause begins and the performers relax, sit back and take their praise. Magic.

  • The photo shows Sir Andrew Davis autographing a copy of the concert programme for the Symphony Chorus archive, a long-standing and much-loved tradition. He is with our chairman Pat Dixon.

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