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Behind the scenes

We heard not one but three renditions of the traditional chorus ‘Heave ho’ on Friday night at the opening of this year’s Proms season.

22 July 2009

12:00 AM

22 July 2009

12:00 AM

We heard not one but three renditions of the traditional chorus ‘Heave ho’ on Friday night at the opening of this year’s Proms season.

We heard not one but three renditions of the traditional chorus ‘Heave ho’ on Friday night at the opening of this year’s Proms season. Impromptu, responsive and a bit disrespectful, it’s the most British thing about this annual musical jamboree, much more so than ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Jerusalem’. The Prommers get the chance to join in, become part of the ‘live’ broadcast, as the lid of the precious Steinway piano is lifted into place. In the interval we heard from the team of logisticians whose job it is to manoeuvre one, two, three and sometimes four pianos on and off the stage in time for the ‘Heave ho’ chorus.

Moving Pianos took us backstage at the Royal Albert Hall in the first of the special Twenty Minutes programmes on Radio Three designed to be more than just an interval-filler. ‘You do have to be a bit fearless to shove £90,000 worth of Steinway across the stage in front of five and a half thousand people. And then there’s the TV and especially the radio audience, who would hear you curse if it doesn’t all quite go to plan,’ explains Jacqui Kelly, the Proms co-ordinator at the RAH. A shove too far and the piano will start rolling down the stage, which is gently raked.


It takes three men to move a concert grand, although it’s much more about balance than physical strength: ‘You need to know where the balancing points are.’ Jacqui Kelly thinks of the piano as a stiletto heel — a huge weight poised upon a spindly leg. Sunday 9 August has been etched on her mind since last September when she discovered she would need to stage-manage not one but four pianos into place for ‘Multiple Pianos Day’, when six pianists will between them perform music by Fauré, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Lutoslawski and Anna Meredith.

Every piano has its own special tonal character, so to bring four together that will complement each other has itself been quite a challenge. But in addition she has had to ensure that they will have been tuned to the correct pitch: foreign orchestras work to a different, slightly higher pitch (442 Hz instead of 440 Hz) and retuning a keyboard with 88 keys is not something that can be done in half an hour. Ulrich Gerhartz arrives at the Hall at six in the morning in the hope of finding it quiet enough for him to ensure the pianos are in tune, but instead finds himself competing with an army of vacuum cleaners working at full throttle.

Over on Radio Four this week and next we are also being taken behind-the-scenes — into the offices of a group of barristers in the Outer Temple. The Chambers has been put together as if it were a fly-on-the-wall documentary, a day in the life of…TV-style. But there’s a problem, apparently not foreseen by the producers. Barristers can’t talk about the work they’re involved in, for obvious reasons. The PR promises us ‘exceptional access’ to life in Chambers but after the first programme all we had learnt from a barrister was the difficulty of leaving the job behind to go off on maternity leave and of choosing a new logo for the Chambers’ corporate image. Twenty designs were given to the staff to choose from. Not surprisingly, no consensus could be found.

Moving Pianos showed how in just 20 minutes the sub-story of life at the RAH during the Proms can be conjured up. But The Chambers gave us no sense of how the barristers prepare for court, or the working life of the Chambers’ clerks, a closed shop as embedded in Dickensian tradition as the powdered wigs and silks.


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