Tim is a primary school teacher and Bristol UWE drama graduate with wide and varied musical tastes.
I have a confession to make. I know nothing about classical music. For a Prombassador you’d think this would be a problematic issue, but in actual fact it seems somewhat appropriate for the setting at the Bristol Proms. Keen to break down the stuffy stereotypes that can sometimes be associated with accompanying classical music, this is all about making it relevant and accessible to a wide range of audiences.
Nevertheless, as I take my seat for the first show I feel like a fraud. My concerns are short lived, however. “Who here is new to classical music?” asks Jonathan James with a smile on his face. I shyly raise my hand and am relieved to see a smattering of other people living their similarly fraudulent lives alongside me. Genuine audience members that too have no background knowledge to classical music. There must be 5 or 6 other people. I am not alone. “Wonderful!” responds Jonathan, “we can talk about it more over cake later”. Apparently, classical music and cake are a winning combination. This is going to be fine, after all.
Jonathan then begins his talk on War and Music and it is both interesting and engaging. I don’t pretend to fully understand everything that he talks about, but generally I follow the discussion. He leads us on a journey through music and interlaces his talk with snippets of sound played from his catalogue of music on his phone. Some of the tracks he plays are powerful and emotional, as is his own response to them. Jonathan has a smooth and charismatic manner, which makes him easy to listen to. Other audience members clearly share my feelings as they feel relaxed enough to interlace the discussion with their own thoughts and responses to the excerpts, met by keen interest from Jonathan. The only disappointment was that it could not be longer, the discussion with our host spilling out back into the foyer. But there is no time left as on stage next is world-renowned pianist Ji Liu.
I have never heard of Ji Liu before, which given the size of the audience and the rapture his arrival is met with, I keep to myself. He is clearly a big deal. And for good reason. He is witty and engaging, which is not what you would expect when you imagine a typical pianist. Dressed in a fitted black suit complete with a sparkling black tie and brightly shining silver shoes, he is a presence. He draws attention to his feet, sharing with us how he is sometimes frowned upon for playing Bach with the pedal, quipping that he feels the pedal on the piano is like the alcohol in a cocktail. “I drink a virgin bloody Mary, but I play Bach with pedal”. I already like him.
His music is no less spectacular than his character. He performs pieces by John Cage and Bach. Both of which could not be more different. The first is a piece that focuses on the sound in the world around us, with Ji Liu seemingly sitting at his piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without playing a single note. The opening and closing of the piano lid is symbolic of the start and end of the piece. It is entrancing and made all the more interesting by the artistic camera work projected in black and white behind the grand piano.
Ji Liu’s main piece by Bach is simply unbelievable. As you know, I am not a classical music fanatic, and I am not familiar with the music of Bach. In fact, I’d even say that the composer of the work is not the person that deserves much of the credit for the artistic value of the piece. Ji Liu is just amazing. He plays the longest piece of piano music I have ever heard in one sitting and does so largely with his eyes closed and all from memory. His hands and fingers move at a speed that seems impossible and everyone in the auditorium is lost in his music.
Still reeling from Ji Liu’s magical efforts, I have a quick chance to catch up with Jonathan James in the foyer just before the start of the evening performance of The Songs That Went To War. I ask him what to listen out for in tonight’s concert as a newcomer to classical music. He tells me about the story told through the “folk tale in music” and during the requiem to ‘imagine yourself in a cathedral of sound”.
The last show of the day is just as spectacular as the previous performances. It seems like two very different performances. John Tams offering a beautiful and friendly trip back in time exploring songs sung by soldiers and civilians alike during the time of the Great War. It is educational and entertaining. He has a casual stage manner to which the audience are positively responsive. It is clear that I am sat next to a few big fans of his as a very enthusiastic few whoops and cheers go up when he is announced on stage. The audience are encouraged to sing along to the chorus of the songs, projected onto a large screen behind the performers.
The second performance group is made up of the Erebus Ensemble. I do not to exaggerate at all when I say that they are the most stunning group of singers I have ever heard. Very rarely, if ever, am I moved quite so emotionally by a piece of music and this is a wonderful exception.
The most powerful song is saved for when the group splits up and performs from the audience area within the auditorium. Singing over two levels of the theatre, and spread around all sides, the sound fills the room. Stood two seats to my right are four members of the group and you can feel the strength in their vocals as it pulsates through the fittings of the room. I am entranced. A stunned silence fills the room briefly as we all consider what we have just heard. The requiem is just as beautiful as I had hoped and suddenly Jonathan’s idea of being lost in a ‘cathedral of sound’ makes a lot of sense. A beautiful end to a beautiful day of music.