Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Chris Tams on the Aurora Orchestra’s performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

For another in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series we took Chris Tams (above) to see the Aurora Orchestra give a dramatized production of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Chris talks though his musical experiences as a plugger before joining the BPI, where he works as Director of Independent Member Services and International.

Mathew Baynton (actor), Jane Mitchell (stage director / scriptwriter), James Bonas (stage director), Kate Wicks (production designer), Will Reynolds (consultant designer), Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (movement consultant)

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830)

Orchestral theatre staging; script by Jane Mitchell;
excerpts from Berlioz’s Mémoires translated by David Cairns

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 12 September 2019 (first of two evening performances)

Chris, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I had a family that weren’t particularly musical, but they were always encouraging. I grew up in a large family, with three sisters and a brother, and we were always encouraged to follow what we wanted to do. I remember my dad buying a record player when I was about nine, and buying an Elvis Presley album and a Spinners album. I remember pathologically hating them for ever and ever! I got quite in to electronic music very early on, I remember liking Vangelis when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I went to junior school and wasn’t musical at all, but when I went to grammar school they had a choir and I made the mistake of singing properly on the first music lesson so I got roped into the choir for two years! Then my voice broke and I went from a soprano right down to a double, double bass, so they didn’t have much say after that. I played the violin as a child and hated it, learned to play the cornet and got to hate that.

I quite liked music as a subject though, and I was one of the first people in the country to take GCSE Music, which seemed to move away from just learning composers’ birth dates and death dates, much to our music teacher’s disdain. Unfortunately I still had to play the cornet for a bit, which I still didn’t like, but I got a greater appreciation of music and the science behind it. When I got to 14 or 15 I suddenly discovered there was a world of gigs out there, and I started writing and talking about them. Getting into gigs for free was a big thing in the 1980s in Yorkshire. I used to frequent a pub called the Duchess of York in Leeds, and I used to write the most hamfisted fanzine you could ever imagine, using a Methodist church rotary printer to print out a single A4 sheet. No copies of that survive to this day but it mostly consisted of me rambling about how much I loved Simple Minds and hated U2. I went to university and discovered I could put on gigs and club nights, using other peoples’ money which was always a good thing!

I put on gigs in independent venues – I remember getting Radiohead a gig when they were supporting the Frank and Walters, I gave Oasis a gig, and a very early form of Blur. My biggest gig at university was Rolf Harris, and it was so big we had three people have to go to hospital with crush injuries! All of this set me up for working in the industry afterwards.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Firstly I would say Simple Minds. I’ve been a fan since I was about ten years old I think. I fell in love with New Gold Dream when I was in my teens and have loved them ever since. I fell out with them a bit in the late 1990s but it’s all back again now and they are the best band I know.

There was also a record I remember called Perfume by a band called Paris Angels, and it was one of the first records I ever heard that was an Indie dance record. I hated dance music up to that point, and thought it was all rubbish. I sort of liked Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s ‘Jack Your Body’ when it came out but it got annoying after a while. Perfume really opened my mind to the idea of using music across genres, it really blew me away. I listen to it now and it’s still an amazing record, one of the first progressive house records. You can really see where that movement came from.

Thirdly I would say The Prodigy. I’m very lucky that early on in my career I worked with them, pretty much from the start of the second part of their career. They had already had a number one record with Charly, and I started with them around 1992-93. I got to work on The Prodigy Experience and Music For The Jilted Generation, and that was just mind blowing. Kids who were ravers loved it, and kids who were into Led Zeppelin liked it, the out and out rockers loved it too.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’ve worked on classical music a lot. I used to work for a distribution company that did some classical music, and I was always very sheepish when they came across my desk. I was always aware that I knew very little about the music and about them, but I always found that the classical people I worked with were always really welcoming. I still claim to know nothing about classical music and have never pretended to, but I like good music and can appreciate all sorts of different types. My thoughts are that I’ve heard so many different types, it’s not just the same 10-15 composers, there is a lot more variety.

When you look at films, games and TV I’m amazed how much classical music is used there without us even noticing! The games especially use a huge amount of it, and there is not a film goes by without one or two bits showing up. There is some weird shit for sure – and my particular highlight was going to a classical event in Vienna some years ago and witnessing four women shrieking, that was a particular thing! I always remember meeting Gabriel Prokofiev, who who puts classical music in line with dance music and described his own music as ‘challenging’ once which I thought was interesting. I really liked what he did where he would take classical music and make dance music out of it, but without the use of computers, he would use the beats that are there. I thought that was really clever and it was really listenable and open. I thought it was amazing, and still do now!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I really enjoyed it! It helped that the conductor came out and explained a lot of what was going to happen, otherwise I would have been at sea trying to work out what was happening. I thought he made it really accessible. I didn’t get any sense of elitism or snobbery, and in fact the woman who was next to me pointed out to her partner that the last time she was at the Royal Albert Hall she saw Nine Inch Nails, which I thought was great. You couldn’t get two more different artists to watch in the same venue!

It helped that the concert was short, but I think it was really accessible and interesting. I quite liked the orchestra, they weren’t stuffy. They were quite young, and standing up which I thought was interesting. There was an audiovisual element that I really liked as well. In terms of popping my Proms cherry I thought it was a really good one to go to!

What might you improve about the experience?

I don’t think I’ve got enough experience to change anything about it! It is quite intimidating if you haven’t been there, because you make assumptions about it. None of those assumptions are correct in any way, shape or form. I went dressed in a shirt, jeans and trainers – and so did most of the other people there did too! I thought most people would be dressed in dinner suits, but not at all. It was quite a mixed age crowd, a lot of young and old there. The thing I loved too was that the people there were really experiencing it, they weren’t looking through a mobile phone at it. I couldn’t think of anything to change on that one experience.

Would you go again?

Definitely. I thought it was a really good introduction to a British institution and would definitely go again. The range of concerts is absolutely awesome, and I think it’s a jewel in London’s crown that a lot of people are missing out on!

For Arcana’s thoughts on the Aurora Orchestra Prom of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, click here

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