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Proms at … Alexandra Palace: Jane Glover and the BBC Concert Orchestra
02 Sep 2018

The BBC Proms visit Ally Pally

On 25th March 1875, Gilbert & Sullivan’s one-act operetta, Trial by Jury, opened at the Royalty Theatre on Dean Street, in Soho. 131 performances and considerable critical acclaim followed, and it out-ran is companion piece, Offenbach’s La Périchole.

Proms at … Alexandra Palace: Jane Glover and the BBC Concert Orchestra

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Trial by Jury directed by Jack Furness

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

Just under two years earlier, on Saturday 24th May 1973, the Alexandra Palace and Park had opened, five years late and over-budget ( plus ça change). This ‘North London Palace of the People’, located on the site of a former 450-acre dairy farm which in 1856 had been inherited by the non-agriculturally minded grandchildren of one Thomas Rhodes, comprised a building spanning seven acres surrounded by 200 acres of landscaped gardens. Built by Royal assent, the Palace was designed to further the Victorians’ ethical endeavour to cultivate a ‘higher civilisation’ - promotional advertisements promised “Healthy exercise, rational recreation” - in which fresh air and music played an equal part. [1]

The eastern transept comprised a concert room that could seat 3,000 people, while the Great Central Hall could accommodate 12,000 people and a 2,000-piece orchestra. The huge site afforded the opportunity for varied music-making, including al fresco performances on the banks of the Triple Lakes. (If you’re wondering when my ‘review’ will start, I’d ask you to bear with me, there is a point to the preamble …)

Not all have been impressed. Nikolaus Pevsner (in The Buildings of England, 1951) described the Ally Pally, as it affectionately came to be known, as ‘one of the most extensive and most prominently placed of London buildings’, but dismissively quipped that ‘there is not much else to be said about it’. And, from the start, financial over-optimism or mismanagement, what you will, threw a shadow over the Palace’s future. In the six months from November 1875, the venue ran up a £23,000 deficit and economic dire straits becoming a recurring trope, continuing as late as the 1980s when the then trustees, Haringey Council, over-spent on a refurbishment and ice-rink. Fire also repeatedly threatened to curtail the project, with the building going up in flames just 16 days after the opening and again in 1980.

Over the years, the Palace has served as a hospital for Belgian refugees, an internment camp for German and Austrian civilians from 1915-19, and as a horse racing course, among other guises. In 1935, the BBC took on the lease of part of the Palace, setting up studios is some derelict Victorian dining rooms, and on 2nd November 1936 the first television broadcast took place from the Ally Pally. Transmission was disrupted by WW2, when its transmitter was used to jam German bombers’ navigation systems, and in 1947 by a fuel crisis, but Ally Pally studios remained the BBC’s main transmitting centre for London until 1956.

Alexandra Palace Prom.jpg BBC Proms at … Alexandra Palace. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

It seems serendipitous therefore that Alfred Meeson, who, with his co-architect John Johnson, designed the Palace, had also built the Royal Albert Hall - the home of the Promenade concerts since the summer of 1941. For, this year, the BBC has chosen the Ally Pally for one of their ‘out-and-about’ Proms, in anticipation of the official reopening of the Palace’s Theatre to the public on 1st December 2018 - restored with the help of an £18.8m lottery grant, and part of a £27m restoration of Ally Pally’s east wing.

So, what better choice to grace this Victorian stage than Gilbert & Sullivan, censurers and celebrators of Victorian frailties and foibles in equal measure. Staged with slickness and style by director Jack Furness and conducted with gleeful joie de vivre by Jane Glover, Trial by Jury returned to what BBC presenter Petroc Trelawny described as the wonderfully preserved dilapidation of the Palace’s Theatre, and provided forty minutes of slight but so less satisfying pleasure.

Originally composed and rehearsed in just a few weeks, and essentially a single act of trifling tomfoolery, Trial by Jury presents an unpretentious lampooning of Gilbert’s favourite target - the English judiciary. There is no elaborate artifice in plot, lyrics or music, and no spoken dialogue: just some direct expression and gentle musical parody of Bellini and Handel. The characters, individual and choric, are one-dimensional but the message is simple and clear. Angelina (Mary Bevan) is suing Edwin (Sam Furness) for breach of promise; everyone in the court, barring the defendant, is a hypocrite with their eye not on love but money, and hankering after economic advantage.

Keel Watson ushered the BBC Singers into the courtroom with stentorian, punctilious and supercilious concern for the decorum and propriety of judicial process, and the male and female chorus members ranked themselves stage right and left, displaying a wry appreciation of G&S manners and mannerisms - though Jack Furness, in his attention to detail, sometimes overlooked practicalities: it’s impossible to kneel and raise one’s hand in solemn oath, and turn the pages of one’s score.

AP Male Chorus.jpgBBC Singers. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Sam Furness was the epitome of masculine artlessness and unconcern, frankly admitting, as he lounged easily in the ‘dock’ and drew nonchalantly on a cigarette, that he had dumped Angelina, but that was because he was tired of her. Que faire? Edwin seemed positively guiltless judged against the avaricious scheming of Bevan’s Angelina. She is “no unhappy maid” as she reminded the solicitous chorus and her faux histrionic appeals for compensation, “I love him, I love him!”, and hyperactive hyperventilating had their desired effect on Neal Davies’ equally unprincipled Judge, who vowed to ditch his ugly wife - married for her father’s wealth - and, having fined Edwin, take the newly enriched Angelina for himself. Ross Ramgobin, as Angelina’s Counsel, rivalled his client for thespian extravagance, as he urged the jury to consider the misery inflicted not by Angelina’s loss of a husband but by her financial forfeiture.

The goofery gushed along but, given that Gilbert’s lyrics are the ‘simplest’ - in diction and form - that he ever wrote for Sullivan, it’s a pity that we didn’t hear more of them. The acoustic in the Theatre is good but the patter largely defeated the cast.

Bevan, Davies, Furness.jpgMary Bevan (Angelina), Neal Davies (The Learned Judge), Sam Furness (Edwin). Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

The first part of the Prom was devoted to overtures and songs that would have found favour with the Palace’s first Victorian audiences. Glover coaxed some vivacious playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra: woodwind sparkled at the start of Sullivan’s Overture to Act 4 of The Tempest (1961-62), and here and in the Overture to Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14, rev. 1921) there was plentiful melodrama and colour. Three movements from Parry’s incidental music to The Birds (1883) proved less engaging, though there was some delicate clarinet and horn playing to admire in the Intermezzo.

Bevan sang Alfred Cellier’s ‘All alone to my eerie … Whispering breeze’ with unaffected directness and sweetness, caressing the phrases gently, and she was beautifully complemented and balanced by some sensitive string playing. The soprano was joined by Sam Furness for a beguiling rendition of Stanford’s ‘So it’s kisses you’re craving’, which balanced musical charm with dramatic causticity. Neal Davies was no more successful in the Lord Chancellor’s party piece from Iolanthe, ‘When I Went to the Bar’, than he was in the Learned Judge’s subsequent and similarly named, ‘When I, good friends, was called to the bar’. At least in the latter a context had been established for the Judge’s conceited and corrupt self-praise, but the Iolanthe number came and went in a blink of an eye, so swift was the tempo set by Glover. Though, after Davies’ first two garbed lines, she tried to put on the brakes, the damage was done, and it didn’t help that Davies’ eyes were rather glued to his word-sheet.

The best vocal item was Furness’s ardent rendition of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Onaway! Awake Beloved!’, in which warm horns and strings established a restful bed of sound from which Furness could assail the melodic peaks with assurance and strength. Here we could hear every word, and the earnestness of the sentiments was touching rather than cloying.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ally Pally was both a white elephant and economic millstone. But, it did and does represent a powerfully persuasive emblem of Victorian aspiration and culture. The success of Trial by Jury encouraged Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D’Oyly Carte to form, in 1876, the company which would present the collaborations of the Victorian age’s most celebrated comic writer and composer. At the start of the twentieth-first century, the majestic exterior of the Palace, the tastefully distressed interior of the Theatre the spacious majesty of the glass-domed East Court which forms an impressively capacious ante-room still cast a spell. Let’s hope that the magic results in both uplifting entertainment and economic success in the years to come.

Claire Seymour

Proms at … Alexandra Palace: Neal Davies (The Learned Judge), Mary Bevan (The Plantiff), Sam Furness (The Defendant), Ross Ramgoblin (Counsel for the Plaintiff), Keel Watson (Usher); Jack Furness (stage director), Jane Glover (conductor), BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - ‘Onaway, Awake Beloved’ (from Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast); Alfred Cellier - ‘All Alone to My Eerie … Whispering Breeze’ (from The Mountebanks); Dame Ethel Smyth - The Boatswains Mate, ‘Overture’; Arthur Sullivan - ‘When I went to the Bar’ (from Iolanthe); Charles Villiers Stanford - ‘So it’s kisses you’re craving’; Hubert Parry - The Birds, Suite (Introduction, Intermezzo, Bridal March), Prelude to Act IV of The Tempest; Arthur Sullivan - Trial by Jury.

Alexandra Palace, London; Saturday 1st September 2018.



[1] See Paul Watt, Alison Rabinovici, ‘Alexandra Palace: Music, Leisure, and the Cultivation of “Higher Civilization” in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Music and Letters, Volume 95, Issue 2, 1 May 2014: 183-212, for a detailed account of the origins, development and history of the Palace.

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