Comedy vs Classical Music

I remember the first time I went to a prom concert. Walking around the basement of the huge wedding cake that is the Albert Hall, trying to find the right entrance, from the cool municipal colour scheme, through a heavy swing door – and up onto the stage. A magical moment as you take your seat, look out over the thousands in the auditorium, who disappear as the stage lights come up and the house lights go down. We stood for the conductor, Richard Hickox, and then basked in this moment of mass silence before the first bars of Britten’s Spring Symphony slid out into the room, like a weak sunrise on a winter’s day. If you want to get bitten by either the performing or the classical music bug, that’s a pretty good start. I’ve been under the baton of the likes of Claudio Abbado and Mstislav Rostropovich, and shared a stage with Jessye Norman. And if that’s not an excellent pedigree, I don’t know what is.

And I like comedy too, so what’s not to like about Tim Minchin’s Comedy Prom (13/8/2011)?

Well sound was tricky. I’m a stickler for sound. If you can’t hear the words on a funny song, you are missing 99% of the joke. Tim Minchin is the exception to the rule that musical comedy is usually either bad music or bad comedy, and often both. From my seat, though, it was a strain to make everything out. I’m not sure whether the Proms are intended for the audience in the hall or the audience at home. If you watched it from home, you probably got more of the jokes than I did. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the Albert Hall isn’t geared up for comedy, but then neither are quite a lot of comedy clubs I’ve been to.

Comedy is, broadly, about focus. Steve Martin’s rule of comedy – ‘bright light on me, audience in pitch dark’ – nods towards this. So it’s difficult for a stand up to make their presence felt on a stage crowded with an orchestra, and part of the audience sat behind. The performer who I thought came off extremely well and held his own among the comedians was pianist Danny Driver, who is used to drawing attention despite an orchestra scratching themselves in the background.

(Orchestras, by the way, are notoriously badly behaved. I was always told to behave better than an orchestra, and then usually sat behind the worst offenders of all, the brass players. My other note was, ‘I don’t want to hear you inhale, you’re supposed to be a fucking angel!’ Which then makes you wonder where you’re supposed to get the air from. Through your bottom, maybe?)

Beardyman got it spot on, doing what he does with a classical twist: Pachebel’s Canon is my least favourite piece of music for it’s grinding repetition and monotonous ubiquity, but Beardyman turned this to his advantage with a version made entirely out of his own head noises. Beardyman and Danny Driver did what the evening should have done more of: comedians doing classical and classical musicians doing comedy. Much as I love Tim Minchin, using an orchestral backing for a rock song was missing the point for me.

Having seen Rainer Hersch at the Festival Hall briefed to achieve a cross over between classical and comedy, he struck a better balance, and maybe should be drafted in for next year’s Prom.

If it were down to me, I would look to the repertoire and find the funny bits. Music speaks to all our emotions, and doesn’t neglect the funny bone. How about Olim Lacus Colueram from Carmina Burana? Carmina Burana is mostly about sex and boozing, but this is a stand-out moment for me: a song from the point of view of a swan about to be eaten, sung in a ridiculous falsetto. It’s blackly funny, morbid, weird, and wouldn’t look out of place in The League of Gentlemen. Or a retrospective of the music of Wally Stott/Angela Morley? As well as the Goons and Hancock (capturing the star’s personality so brilliantly, Hancock didn’t ditch the music until he’d got rid of the Homburg – and Galton and Simpson), the composer also worked with John Williams, picked up Oscar nominations – and scored Dallas. What’s not to like? Mozart had a sense of humour; just as recent Edinburgh Fringes have seen classic plays interpreted by comedians, a Comedy Prom could be the ideal showcase for comedians doing Mozart’s funny bits. Translate it into English, and make Michael McIntyre play Figaro. If it’s funny, it doesn’t matter if he can’t carry a tune in a bucket.


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