Covent Garden, Royal Albert Hall and the National Youth Orchestra Proms concert

This morning we had the rare chance to sleep in a little and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, as our buses didn’t leave until 10:30 a.m.  When they did, it was off to Covent Garden, London’s old market area where once vendors of fruits, vegetables and flowers plied their trades (remember Eliza Doolittle of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”?  She was a Covent Garden flower seller before she learned to “speak proper English”!).  There we had a couple of hours of free time to shop and sightsee and grab lunch.   We arrived there early enough to beat the crowd that came later – tourists and locals all jostling to look at the wares on sale and enjoy the many street performers (there’s a 500-year tradition of buskers, or street performers, in Covent Garden — nowadays you have to be good enough to get a license to busk, so the standards are pretty high!).  Nowadays the wares on sale in Covent Garden tend more to be the likes of Chanel and Jamie Oliver than fruits and veg, although there were also a lot of very good artist-craftspeople selling their handmade work.

I grabbed a latte and some eggs benedict at an outdoor table (since I’d taken full advantage of sleeping in and had skipped our hotel breakfast) and watched our students happily wandering around and enjoying the buskers (a quartet playing Vivaldi and a costumed Yoda who seemed to be levitating were especially popular).  Then it was back to the buses for a trip further west in London, to the Royal Albert Hall.

The Royal Albert is one of the great performance venues in the world, and one of the largest concert halls, seating 6,000. Completed in 1871, this massive round building was based on Roman amphitheaters and was dedicated by Queen Victoria to her late husband, Prince Albert.   She so grieved over his death (he died of typhoid in 1861, at the young age of 41, after they had been happily married for 21 years and parented 9 children) that she dedicated many things around London to him, including the polychrome tiered monument in back of Royal Albert Hall.  The Albert Memorial houses a larger-than-life gilt bronze statue of Albert, topped by a black-and-gold spire and surrounded by mosaics, enamels, wrought iron and more than 200 sculpted figures.  Victorian ornamentation at its most over-ornamental – you can’t take your eyes off it, though, and the students were fascinated by it.

We went inside the Royal Albert for a treat: the chance to hear the final rehearsal of the National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choir of Great Britain before their Proms concert this evening.  They spent time fine-tuning their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which is having a big year – it’s the 200th anniversary of its premiere, which happened right here in London!) and then rehearsed their world premiere performance of noted British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Frieze,” a work inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth.  OCYSO, of course, will be performing the West Coast premiere of the Turnage piece next season, so everyone listened to it with a great deal of interest.  It’s a dense, lively work that looks to be a challenge, but OCYSO is proving on this tour that they’re up to the challenge of practically anything.

The composer, Mr. Turnage, was present at the rehearsal and came over to say hello, chatting with Maestro Wachs and giving a shout-out to the students. It was very nice for all of us to meet him.

We took a brief break for a tasty barbecued chicken dinner in the Royal Albert’s cafe-restaurant, and then it was back into the hall to watch the Proms concert.  The concert was also filmed for BBC broadcast, so hopefully audiences in the U.S. will get the chance to see it.  It was THAT good — the Turnage and a work by Vaughan Williams were impeccably performed, and the Beethoven, of course, blew everyone away.  For us, it was also an eye-opener to see that huge hall almost completely filled — nearly 6000 people, then — for a youth orchestra concert, including the “Arena” area on the ground floor. which was packed with shoulder-to-shoulder standing audience members.

Then it was back to our hotel – we’re up early tomorrow for our scheduled excursion outside London, to Windsor Castle and Oxford University.  So look for what will probably be the last blogpost of the trip tomorrow.  Hard as it is to believe, our time in London is almost over and we’ll be on our way home soon!

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The students get a chance to explore and shop in Covent Garden, one of London’s oldest and most famous covered marketplaces.

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Covent Garden – Apple Market Hall (there were no apples – lots of craftspeople stalls and places to eat, though).

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The Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet, adjoins Covent Garden.

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Best souvenir from Covent Garden: giant pencils!

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Pub sign near Covent Garden, referring to famous actress Nell Gwynne, who once worked at the Drury Lane Theatre.

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OCYSO poses in front of the ornate Albert Memorial.

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And– turning them around the other way, the students pose in front of (well, really in back of) Royal Albert Hall.

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OCYSO listens intently to a rehearsal inside Royal Albert Hall by the National Youth Symphony.

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The National Youth Symphony of Great Britain rehearses for Sunday’s evening show.

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Maestro Wachs (middle) greets composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and Royal Philharmonic Society executive director Rosemary Johnson.

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In between courses at the Royal Albert Hall’s cafe-restaurant, where we had a barbecued chicken dinner.

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Maestro Wachs (right) ran into OC Philharmonic Society president Dean Corey during an intermission reception.

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