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Havergal Brian's Gothic - how we pulled it together

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Laura Sinnerton Laura Sinnerton | 17:29 UK Time, Monday, 18 July 2011

Photo of 1000 musicians performing Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony

The BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales join ten choirs at the BBC Proms for a performance of Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic Symphony’. BBC/Chris Christodoulou

I am writing to you from a coffee shop in Cardiff Bay. I am on my second coffee, so may now be able to write coherently. I make no promises. What has happened to my normal hyperbole-laden, over-enthusiastic prose, I hear you cry? If you were at the Royal Albert Hall last night, you would know!

This week, the BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales combined for the first rehearsal of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. It was wonderful to renew old acquaintances and make new friends, and there was a wonderful atmosphere of collaborative spirit. I say collaborative spirit: what I mean is, it felt a little like we were about to enter the trenches together. Everything about this Prom has been a feat of logistical planning, or rather, much like a military operation, from which rehearsal spaces could actually accommodate us, to who was bringing cake for tea.

Few realise how much goes on 'backstage' for a work like this to ever even get to first rehearsal – the weeks stage managers spend perfecting floor plans; the hours string principals spend trawling through parts trying to decipher divisi; the days librarians spend marking up bowings and rewriting illegible parts, the personal practice time each individual puts in (did you hear that xylophone part?!).

Photo of over 1000 performers in Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony

Martyn Brabbins conducts over 1,000 musicians in a performance of Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic Symphony’ at the BBC Proms on Sunday 17 July. Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou

We had more rehearsal time than normal for a Prom due to the sheer scale of the work. We started on Wednesday at Hoddinott Hall, with Part 1, relocating to the All Nations Centre - the largest open floor space in Cardiff - to rehearse Part 2 on Thursday (minus stage bands and choruses). On Friday we drove to Alexandra Palace for the first full tutti rehearsal. There was something faintly ridiculous about seeing so many people: it was like Brian had taken every single musical impulse he ever had, then quadrupled it. How our conductor Martyn Brabbins corralled so many troops through the Gothic I'll never know – he deserves a medal!

On Sunday night, sitting on the stage waiting to start, I have to admit to feeling a real thrill of excitement. I wasn't alive the last time the Gothic Symphony was performed and who knows when this colossus will be performed again. Much as I have complained during this week (in between mouthfuls of cake) about how difficult it was, and how, at times, I just didn't 'get' the music, this has been an amazing experience. During the coda, I actually felt quite emotional, and there are moments that are truly awe-inspiring, when the music takes on an almost architectural magnificence. It has been a privilege to be a part of this historic performance.

It has been amazing to see how much interest this Prom generated, both on Twitter and on the Proms' own website. Whether or not it is a masterwork is completely irrelevant, it has got people talking, it has enthused people about classical music - surely one of the central purposes of the Proms festival.

Laura Sinnerton plays viola in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Laura!

    Congratulations on the Proms performance (and I believe you’re also recording Murray Gold’s Doctor Who music and playing Firebird?), but you were actually alive the last time the Gothic was performed: you just happened to be in the wrong hemisphere of the globe. (I sang in the Australian première of the work last December, and at least one of our contingent sang with the LSO Chorus on Sunday.)

    Regards, Philip

  • Comment number 2.

    It was a magnificent achievement and the choral workshop with Paul Spicer helped to appreciate the work more. The choral singing was splendid especially the contrasted quieter passages.

  • Comment number 3.

    Having attended both previous RAH performances of the Gothic up in the Gallery, this time I was determined to hear it from the Arena. There was a lot of bogus fuss about a claimed lack of space in the Arena, but what space was lost was not much different from what was gained by the lack of the fountain. Many day Prommers who had queued all day were rightly miffed that ALL the Arena season ticket holders who wanted to attend were allowed in before selling to the day Prommers even commenced. There was in fact plenty of room in the Arena, and nobody had to be turned away.

    In the event, I feel Sunday's performance quite eclipsed those under Boult and Schmidt, though Radio and iPlayer listeners were cheated out of much of the impact by the ridiculously heavy dynamic limiting imposed on the very well balance audio signal. There was next to nothing about about -12dB below saturation level. Anything even moderately loud was squashed by the limiter. This even applied to the much vaunted HD Sound offering on the iPlayer. So full marks to Roger Wright for letting us hear The Gothic in all its glory at the Proms, but 'null points' for the horribly excessive dynamic compression applied to all versions transmitted.

    The same squashed dynamics were evident in the repeat on Tuesday afternoon.

  • Comment number 4.

    Oops, sorry for the typo, the relevant phrase should read " ... nothing above about -12dB below saturation level."

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks for many listeners who pointed out the limiting problem mentioned above. This was a fault and was tracked and corrected as soon as spotted. Huge apologies for any loss of enjoyment caused. I'm told it's now back to full range, verified by other listeners with golden ears and audio analysis equipment!
    From Radio 3 Interactive Editor.


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