The Inaugural Concert at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales' new concert hall, the Hoddinott Hall, was held in Cardiff last night. This is a remarkable venue - it took half a Scandanavian forest to construct, and it is really a concert studio, because it works as a rehearsal and recording space for the BBC NOW, with seats for 350 people.
Yes. 350 people. A symphony orchestra and chorus, and 350 others get to listen. Well, potentially millions get to listen via the radio and the web, but 350 in person.
So - last night. The great and the good of Wales assembled. And I was in row C. (Presumably not being in the great, I scrambled in on the coat tails of the good). I have to say - it is a remarkable venue. The acoustic is warm and clear, it blooms without cloudiness, and then you get hit by a surprising clarity. I wanted to liken it to a Chandos recording, but at times it had the fullness of Decca, and then the clean-ness of Phillips. Where you sit affects the balance - I was too near the front; the piano was startlingly forwards in the mix. Next time I shall go further back. The photo is from the very back of the hall, just to give you an idea of the immediacy of the space - I snook my camera in and shot this pic before the evening began.
Anyway. The programme was designed to show off the hall and the orchestra - are you ready?
We began with a festival overture: Alun Hoddinott's Badger in the Bag. Can't hum that one? It's a riot of Celtic bombast, and a good joyful start. I didn't really hear it: I was listening to the occasion too much, feeling the glory of the first notes played before a paying crowd in this newest of Concert Arenas. A place beginning to yawn and breathe and stretch its limbs and come alive. Wonderful.
Then most of the band left so that the 13 percussionists could play Edgard Varese's Ionisation. Whistle along now! Actually - it was the epitome of squeaky-burpy 20th Century music. It genuinely squeaked and burped. I think someone was playing the vacuum cleaner. There were definitely sirens. And clacking things. And drums that played rhythmically without ever producing rhythm. I did the decent thing: I felt we were supposed to laugh, so I complied.
Next, the double basses and brass and a bit of woodwind came back for a world premiere! Simon Holt's St Vitus in the Kettle. It was sort of like the "Birth" section of Prokofiev's Lt Kije, but without so good a tune or any harmonic progression. The composer (who wore his best jeans and open necked shirt for the occasion) came forwards for our applause.
The first half finished with Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, which featured the superb pianist Llyr Williams and the BBC National Chorus of Wales. It's Beethoven. It has tunes and harmonic progression. Call me old fashioned, it put me in a good mood. Llyr Williams looks uncannily like Adrien Brody, whom you may remember from The Pianist, and he does a stunningly good line in meaningful looks at the audience at the end of long runs. His playing is beautiful - flowing, glorious, Beethoven as Beethoven should be.
The second half was split between two pieces: first, the Sibelius violin concerto. This was my highlight of the evening. Baiba Skride, a Latvian in her mid twenties, was stunning. And she played well, though occasionally I worried that she would have enough of her bow to finish the piece as she kept tearing off loose strings. And the piece is glorious and was gloriously played - all that Scandanavian angst resonating with Scandanavian forest we were sitting amongst.
Finally we luxuriated in Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, the choir wordlessly joining in, the orchestra pulsating, the extremes of dynamics playing with the hall's acoustic and our ability to cope.
The BBC NOW was better than I have heard. Conducter Thierry Fischer seems to be personable and totally in charge. I loved the whole thing. The whole thing. Chatting with the people around me was great, and catching up with Byron Jenkins was super afterwards.
If you are here in South Wales, then go to the BBC NOW site and see if there's anything you fancy. It's cheap and worthwhile. Treat yourself!