Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 1, 3 & 5 at the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall

Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard
Another visit to the BBC Proms 2018. A wonderful concert in a pleasantly cool Albert Hall. The three fabulous Bach Brandenburg Concertos were interspersed with three modern pieces.
Cellist Maya Beiser taking a bow after the piece ‘Maya’ written for her
The first modern piece was Maya by the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage with the brilliant American cellist Maya Beiser – an interesting virtuoso piece, moving and exciting. After the Brandenburg Concerto No 3  the orchestra played Bach Materia by Swedish Anders Hillborg with the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuussisto . A fantastic piece – especially the duet between the violin and double bass. Last modern piece was Hamsa by the American composer Uri Caine playing the piano part himself – for me a sorry parody of the great 5th Brandenburg Concerto which preceded it. Much of the piano part was a cacophony sounding like a cat walking over the keys – banging out tight discords. I was nine years old when I started to learn to play the piano with the organist of the local church. At the time, 1940-1942,  I was evacuated to a hostel for Jewish Children in Dawlish, South Devon. Listen to my account of that experience from my memoir Woman in a White Coat. You can buy my book on Kindle at £2.99 or search on ISBN 9781979834391 for the paperback version on Amazon at £9.99 Memoir extract from Chapter 5 Pages 68-71 To Dawlish Matron put up a notice saying she had written to our parents asking if they wanted us to learn to play the piano. I didn’t think my parents would agree to pay for lessons though they were quite cheap, especially as I had just been in trouble for refusing to wash on the Sabbath. Three of us girls decided that, as Jews aren’t allowed to do any work on the Sabbath or do things as minor as switching on a light, it would also be against the Jewish religion to wash or comb our hair on the Sabbath. On Saturday mornings we got up, dressed and went down to breakfast unkempt and unwashed. Matron wrote to our parents and my father wrote back to say it was all nonsense. I felt let down. He should have supported me. Matron called me into her office. ‘Today is your first piano lesson, Abby. Mind you behave yourself. Your mummy must love you very much to forgive you for that business about not washing on Saturdays. Run along now. Mr Lawson’s waiting.’ I knocked on the door of the room where a piano had been delivered the week before. The smell of cigarettes and mothballs greeted me as I pushed open the door. A short bald-headed man, wearing a rumpled dark grey pin-striped suit, stood by the piano. His waistcoat was tightly stretched across his paunch, a silver watch chain hanging between the pockets. His steelrimmed glasses were held together with sticky tape and perched on the end of his nose. On the top of his forehead, he had a round swelling, about the size of a plum. I tried hard not to stare at it. ‘Come in. Come in. You must be Abby Waterman.’ He flicked open his pocket watch. ‘Right on time, my dear. I’m Geoffrey Lawson, the organist at St Stephen’s.’ He rested his cigarette carefully on the edge of the piano lid and held out a stubby hand for me to shake. ‘Nine years old, are we? Ever played before? No? Come and sit yourself down beside me. Tell me what this makes you think of.’ He stuck his half-burnt cigarette back between his lips. As his hands glided over the keys, I was fascinated by the dark curly hair on the backs of his short square fingers. I saw waterfalls, faery grottos, beautiful princesses and knights in shining armour. ‘Very good. Chopin of course,’ he said, changing to something dark and sinister. This time the music spoke to me of dwarves toiling in the dark, beating out gold bars in smoke-filled caverns. ‘That’s it exactly,’ he said. ‘Wagner.’ He ignored the column of ash dropping off the end of his cigarette. When the cigarette had burnt down, he removed the stub, coughed, and used it to light another, putting the stub into the empty tobacco tin he took out of his waistcoat pocket. He began by pointing to the black and white keys, explaining that they were named A to G, and that you found middle C by looking for the keyhole below the keyboard. He taught me how to play London’s Burning as a round, and wrote it out for me letter by letter. ‘That’s all we’ve got time for now, my dear. You’ll need to practice every day, if you want to be a real pianist. Next week I’ll bring a manuscript book and start to teach you how to read music.’ He was a kind and patient teacher. I soon built up a small repertoire of easy pieces. Time slowed at school on Tuesday afternoons until it was home time, and I could rush off to my lesson with Mr Lawson. One afternoon he played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for me. It was the most beautiful piece of music I’d ever heard. ‘Get someone to bring you over to St Stephen’s on Sunday morning. I’ll be playing it before the service. It’s even more magnificent on the organ.’ I nodded, but I knew no-one at the hostel would take me into a church. My orthodox Jewish parents would have been horrified.      

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