Hot-desking is in vogue at the BBC these days. Since Radio 3 returned to the 1930s splendour of Broadcasting House a few years back, offices have been banished. Us presenters arrive for the day, and stake a claim to any desk that’s going free. The scheme seems to have been extended this week to include the nation’s railway carriages. I’m writing this speeding through Cheshire on a beautiful spring morning, returning home after the first week of ‘Radio Three Live in Concert’.
The 1220 from Waterloo provided my first mobile office, as I wrote my script and gathered my thoughts en route to The Sixteen concert at Sherborne Abbey Festival (that's me on the roof of the Abbey above).
On the train back the next morning, I sketched an introduction to Christine Brewer’s performance of Strauss's Four Last Songs, while it was a Virgin Pendolino that provided the space to pen a few thoughts on what to ask conductor Mark Elder about Elgar's Enigma Variations. Have laptop, will travel. There’s something rather liberating about working on the move. Now all I need is a good pair of noise-reducing headphones so I can hear the music over the endless announcements and the clatter of the coffee cart.
The first week of Live in Concert started with The Sixteen singing renaissance motets in praise of the Virgin Mary, and ended with the BBC Philharmonic performing Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. In between, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall, listened to 23-year-old Korean pianist Sunwook Kim deliver a thrilling performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, and witnessed Alison Balsom, in a stunning crimson dress, with an account of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto that was both lyrical and suitably militaristic.
The welcomes have been warm, from Sherborne Abbey onwards. After the rehearsal, the Verger promised us a special and rare treat - a trip up the tower. 'You’ll need to sign a form absolving us of any responsibility,’ he added, quietly. We climbed up a shaky metal spiral staircase, crawled across beams studded with rusting bolts, and edged along the lead-lined roof, to be rewarded with a magnificent view of the pretty Dorset town below, surrounded by a ring of lush, green countryside. Great vista, and great acoustics in the building below, the vaulted ceiling and granite pillars beautifully reflecting the voices of The Sixteen.
It’s much easier commentating on a live concert - you just explain what’s happening. If a piano move takes a bit longer than expected, let the listener know, and pass on a few extra facts about the artist. One brain-glitch saw me gaily introducing Christine Brewer as ‘the acclaimed German soprano’, before sending greetings to her family listening in Illinois. And a minor Michael Fish moment: ‘A balmy, sunny evening here in Manchester’ I said. Well, it was last night at 7.25. Thing is, by the time I made my proclamation, at 7.55, there was a terrific thunderstorm and the rain was coming down in buckets. Lesson one – don’t ever discuss the weather west of the Pennines.
The really exciting thing about being live is that everyone gets to revel in the music at the same time, whether in a £30 seat at the Royal Festival Hall, in a car in Crewe, or a potting shed in Portadown. I was chatting to Michael Kennedy, the distinguished Manchester critic and biographer, after the Halle concert, and he gave me an impromptu review of the LPO from the previous night, heard on Radio 3. ‘Great "Enigma" last night,' said a couple of BBC Phil players, who’d tuned in to the Halle. And in the Digby Tap, a fine free-house in Sherborne, there was a group who’d been at The Sixteen. A couple of their friends walked in and were told they’d missed a great concert. ‘No we didn’t,' one of them said: ‘We were listening at home on the radio.’
Martin Handley introduces the lion's share of next week’s broadcasts, but I can’t wait for a return to my railway carriage office, and my seat in the concert hall. As that now forgotten Austrian band ‘Opus’ used to sing, ‘Live is Life’.