LSO plays Messiaen Éclairs sur l’au-delà

First concert of the new term and the London Symphony Orchestra under Rattles casts a long shadow on the summer with a touching performance of Messiaen’s last work L’Eclair sur l’au dela.

In his pre-performance address from the podium Simon Rattle recounted the first time he’d heard the 1991 work and how he’d begun to cry during the second (or was it the third?) movement after which he sobbed (quietly, presumably) throughout the remaining nine movements of the work.

I didn’t cry, but the sheer scale of the orchestration (approximately 131 plays squeezed on to the Barbican stage) made it both a visual spectacle and, in the case of the enlarged flute and clarinet section, made it a treat for the ears. A work that sometimes felt like it was written for wind orchestra accompanied by a string section in places. Massed legatos created in the wind and brass ensemble created a delectable ultra-smooth polished steel effect throughout. Birdsong transcriptions especially in the penultimate movement were a thing to behold. The sixth movement (tutti strings) was a serene creation – the point in proceedings where I was completely hooked.

I can think of no concert in recent memory when listening to a work for the first time has had such a massive impact on me. Riveting.

This concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 16 September 2019.

BBC Proms 2019 – 15: Season End

A fifteen strong blog post series about the BBC Proms isn’t complete with a retrospective on the six week season. All captured here from a personal perspective. There’s some curmudgeonly-ness as you would expect. But it comes from a place of love, on the whole.

What’s been good this year

Losing the BBC-themed Proms in a bid to cross-promote BBC brands has been a real strength which reduces the self-referencing and focuses attention on the most important element: the music.

For all my moaning about presenters and the banality, hyperbole and in one particular case a fairly striking inaccuracy, TV direction has improved immensely. The core content (ie what the cameras are pointing at on stage) is a pleasure to watch.

I experienced the tweaked arrangements for Promming for the first time this year, though I’m not entirely sure those tweaks were introduced this year. Specifically, the opportunity to buy from a limited number of promming tickets from 9am, and being able to secure your place in a queue with a raffle ticket instead of queuing all day is a massive boon. This I understand was a development initially proposed by the Royal Albert Hall in the aftermath of the Westminster Bridge attacks. I see a slight change in the profile of the arena audience too which is, after a few years away from the experience, rather refreshing.

Visiting orchestras have provided the most exhilarating concert and broadcast experiences this year. Notably Haitink’s last London appearance with the Vienna Philharmonic including a breathtaking performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emmanuel Ax.

Another boon for me has been the way I’ve reflected on the season as a whole. I’ve come to really appreciate the challenge of writing about a collection of concert experiences rather than one concert per post. It’s made for lighter touch writing, considerably less pressure, and more time for actual paid work. The weekly habit of ‘checking in’ has helped learn to trust (and remember instinctive reactions more and as a result meant that my focus on the performance and reaction to it in the moment has improved.

What needs improving?

Please overlook the pomposity of the question.

My biggest disappointment was the way in which contextual ‘entertainment’ generally left me seething. Contrived enthusiasm, banal answers to mindless questions, along with misjudged emoting in the aftermath of a moving performance create the impression that those involved are thinking only of making television rather than reflecting on what is actually going on in the moment: a live performance. The on-screen contextualisation of classical music still appears to go on in a bubble floating at various distances away from either the concert or, in some cases, the audience.

Someone does need to rein in the under influence of some record labels, although I wonder whether if budgets continue to be stretched and creative risk-taking is increasingly avoided whether we’ll see more and more safe programming and increasing amounts of hype around otherwise mediocre artists as a result.

Perhaps then the season’s greatest ‘weakness’ is its biggest and most demanding challenge in the years to come: reasserting creative risk-taking at a time when budgets are becoming ever more-squeezed. A turning-point for the Proms presents itself building on the integrity of creative successes like Aurora’s Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, education and inclusion like CBeebies’ Musical Trip to the Moon and the Relaxed Prom.

There is of course a ready made theme waiting in the wings for next year’s season: the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. There are a lot of assumptions, misconceptions and questions I have about Beethoven and his music. There’s a good deal of it I don’t know either. So, assuming that the stamina remains strong, there’s the opportunity to explore a whole range of different ideas, artists and ensembles. It will be interesting to see what’s on offer come the Proms launch in April 2020.

Flops and misadventures?

Let’s just keep this brief.

The Mozart Requiem with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was a bizarre performance. Infuriating too. Very disappointing.

The much-hyped CBSO concert with Sheku playing the Elgar Cello Concerto was surprisingly disappointing on stage, with some nauseating sycophancy and a clear conflict of interest in the inbetween presentery-bits.

The First of Night of the Proms lacked the sparkle I normally associate with the opening night.

Emoting before, during and after a performance on air just needs to stop. Otherwise, I’m going to get my mother to call the BBC and complain. None of us wants that.

On the subject of Proms Encore – the innovative and fresh new approach to TV programming about classical music that was neither innovative nor fresh (other than being done open air) – does I’m afraid, either need to go through a radical overhaul or just not be made anymore. So much effort and so much money for so much viewer irritation (at least viewers in SE6).

What has worked?

I started the season wanting to find out at what point my excitement grew for the Proms into what I remember it being 15 years ago, and to try and understand what was behind that excitement. That’s been an interesting question to reflect on during the season. It’s helped maintain my focus throughout.

The answer to the question seems very simple now. In the absence of a season programme that immediately delighted on a first glance, it was the comparatively straightforward process of visiting the Royal Albert Hall as a punter and promming in the arena or the gallery. Standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers peering at the stage there was a sometimes overwhelming sense that I had come home. Being in amongst lots of other individuals all communing with what was going on around them was a really powerful reminder of an experience I’d let go of in recent years. Promming especially has helped me reconnect with the detail in a performance, and I rather like that.

Listening to the majority of Proms on the radio and watching a few on TV has been a nice way of connecting with the Proms. It is a unique kind of classical music festival mounted in what is effectively a massive temporary radio studio in London SW1. Maintaining a distance whilst still being connected seems to work. Put simply, I think its probably best for everyone I’m not there in person.

Finally, two mentions for my favourites in this year’s Proms: pundits Kathryn Knight and the marvellous and utterly gorgeous Dr Hannah French. They are both the blueprint for the kind of presenters who I want to see more. I don’t really understand why they’re not anchoring programmes not least because in the case of Hannah, her Radio 3 presenting is a delight to listen to)

15 personal Proms moments this year

My favourite Proms experiences from this year, in no particular order

  1. Huw Watkins The Moon
  2. Shostakovich 11 (minus the post-performance emoting)
  3. Leif Oves Ansdnes playing Britten’s Piano Concerto
  4. James Ehnes playing Britten’s Violin Concerto
  5. Czech Philharmonic playing Shostakovich 8
  6. Dunedin Consort Bach Night
  7. Daniel Pioro playing solo Biber – stunning
  8. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra strings
  9. Vienna Philharmonic with Emmanuel Ax and Bernard Haitink
  10. Ulster Orchestra
  11. Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto
  12. Errolyn Wallen’s new work The Frame is Part of the Painting
  13. Pianist Eric Lu’s devastating second movement from Mozart 23
  14. Meeting Dr Hannah French
  15. Shaking hands with Dame Fanny Waterman

Final thoughts

My relationship with the Proms has changed. It’s complicated, not unlike untangling ourselves from the European Union (if that’s something you still insist thinking is a good thing for us to be doing).

I’ve longed to be a recognised part of it and spent many years enthusing about it too. But this year perhaps more than any other I’ve felt distant from it. Part of that is down to the programming. Another significant part is realising that I’ve actively had to ask for inclusion at certain events say like launches or hobnobbing get-togethers.

For some outside the bubble that will probably seem unsurprising. I am after all quite a grumpy sourpuss a lot of the time, up in my bedroom sneering and snarling while everyone else is enjoying the party downstairs. I like my self-proclaimed status as an independent commentator, believing that people recognise the usefulness of an objective (well actually, its subjective really, isn’t it?) I’ve ended the season feeling as though I’ve had to clip my own wings a little this year. It’s easy to believe one’s own hype. Perhaps its healthy to be reminded that you’re not as important as thought you might be.

But as the season draws to a close, so a new season of concert opportunities presents itself. At Wigmore Hall it even starts at the same time as the Last Night. So I don’t, unusually, find myself feeling sad the Proms is over. Quite the opposite. It now feels as though there’s a new impetus to throw light on the concert-making endeavours of multiple organisations up and down the country in the intervening months.

The BBC Proms is the town procession in which multiple floats and displays trundle on past. The really interesting stuff is what happens after the Proms. That’s where the classical music sector needs to feel the benefits of our ongoing attention, love and appreciation.

BBC Proms 2019 – 14: Dunedin Consort, Vienna Philharmonic and Aurora’s Symphonie fantastique

My final listening instalment has got me closer to the experience I recall of the Proms from my ‘olden days’. A mixture of live, audio catch-up and TV broadcast has, in the final week, finally made good on the season.

Dunedin Consort first. Full disclosure: school pal was on stage playing so my usual objectivity ran the risk of compromise. But this was a riveting performance colliding four Bach orchestral suites with contemporary composers responses to it. It was a shame the audience hadn’t seen the programme request to avoid applause in between each segue, though better that than have someone on stage issuing instructions. I liked the contemporary responses, all of them giving an architectural and historical context by the use of vaguely recognisable ideas conveyed in a modern day language and framework. Very NLP.

The playing was captivating. Woodwind warbled and chuntered with effervescent charisma. Kudos to the oboes throughout the first suite and the flutes during the fourth. Efficient, thorough and brimming with personality.

The real star of the show for me was the principal cellist who seemed to drive the bounce, spirit and all round joyfulness with a graceful balletic bow on the string which was, as the evening progressed, utterly compelling.

My Vienna Philharmonic experience is at yet incomplete having only got to the end of Emmanuel Ax’s breathtaking rendition of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto with Bernard Haitink. I’ve listened to it four times solely because of one section which stood out as I was multitasking through emails and invoices. Ax’s finger work in the first movement was what prompted to stop what I was doing and gasp. Such control, such storytelling, and such lightness of touch even for a work so explosively rich. It has laid the ground for next year’s Beethoven anniversary. Maybe it won’t be quite such a drag as I’d originally thought.

And so onto the last. Aurora‘s Berlioz on TV first thing this morning. “They look like they’re at a cocktail party but there aren’t any drinks,” said the OH when he caught sight of the screen. I can see how the playing from memory ‘look’ can take someone by surprise – devoid of the usual furniture the players do look exposed. But what worked so splendidly was the modest stage moves and direction, engagement between actor Matthew Baynton playing Berlioz and players (especially during the second movement intro), and the breathtaking storytelling brought about by combining masks and lighting during the witches sabbath final movement. Strangely enough, conductor Nicholas Collon’s annotated introductions had a whiff of the Bernstein Sunday afternoon shows from yesteryear about it. I appreciated the detailed introduction and visual illustrations.

In this way I’m surprised Jan Younghusband (BBC Music Commissioning Editor) said in the podcast to me at the top of the season that it would be difficult to show Bernstein’s groundbreaking TV series again. Aurora’s presentation of SF proves the format works and, judging by a couple of friends who went and the comments I’ve seen on Twitter, that it was phenomenally well received. Collon is, for my money, a natural TV presenter in waiting for the Proms too.

But the concert also showed for me a strange contradiction. The core content here was a concert which sought to make classical music accessible by revealing what’s going on under the bonnet and making that part of the concert. And yet, classical music TV programmes as evidenced in this year’s coverage shy away from detail because it’s perceived that new audiences will be put off. Doesn’t Aurora’s obvious success prove that audiences do actually have an interest in the detail?

BBC Proms 2019 – 13: Czech Philharmonic, Jonny Greenwood and Daniel Pioro

My penultimate night at the Royal Albert Hall made good on a one-day travelcard that took me to Windsor for a podcast with a member of the Queen’s Six, then onto the Royal College of Music for some meetings. Two Proms: Czech Philharmonic play Smetena, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich, followed by the much-anticipated Jonny Greenwood Late Night Prom.

These kind of nights are fascinating at the RAH because they highlight a transition between audiences. Get here early enough in the evening pre-concert and watch empty public spaces swell with a wide variety of people in anticipation of the performance. Dungarees, cycling shorts, and retro prints mingled in amongst man buns, suits, and biros in amongst dreadlocks.

Newcomers clearly irritated by the ‘no flash photography’ rule reiterated by a seasoned prommer during the first Prom who later left mid-Greenwood Prom, provided a fresh insight for me. For some potential concert-goers an early evening Prom and a Late Night Prom can be seen an entire evening’s worth of varied entertainment.

As the audience poured out of the doors post-Czech Philharmonic, so the crowd for the Late Night Jonny Greenwood Prom strode and shuffled in. Longer hair, fresher-faced, some donning sharp threads and a well-turned boot. The change in energy was palpable. I note the ankle length denim turn-up white plimsoll combination remains a popular choice.

The Greenwood Prom had much to live up in part down to the hype surrounding it but also because of what came before it. Spoilers: it didn’t.

Czech Philharmonic

The Czech Philharmonic were on blistering form from beginning to end, one of only a handful of international orchestras who fizz the moment they’re on stage. In my experience, overtures provide a useful entree for the band to get used to the acoustic with the audience contirbuting to it, meaning the overture can sometimes be the least ‘alive’ moment in the programme.

Not so during the Czech Phil’s Bartered Bride overture. Conductor Semyon Bychov brought out the score’s verve, charm and pride. Razor thin upper strings that reveled in the gaps in between notes combined with ever more buoyant pedal notes in the cellos and basses gave the work life, elegantly building tension before the principal theme soared.

The Czech Phil’s string section brought an impressive range of colours and textures throughout the Smetana – the sight of the leader and number 2 in the first violins exchanging winks and smiles during the Dance of The Comedians ramped up the excitement and brought the excerpts to a rousing and uplifting conclusion. There is a lot going on in the orchestra – during these bravura movements which makes this a technicolour kind of experience for orchestration nerds. But those of enthralled by woodwind players mirroring their string playing colleagues with scales and flourishes, providing the musical icing on an already ornate cake, the Czech Philharmonic wind section met the challenge handsomely.

That same commitment to discipline, range, and precision in the strings was front and centre in the second half 8th symphony by Shostakovich.

Some favourite moments in the performance follow. By the end this felt like drama carved out something very hard leaving us with a considerable musical edifice. I’m not sure I’ve heard a performance of a Shostakovich symphony that’s had quite so much dramatic impact on me since hearing the Lenningrad for the first time. But then, memory is a bit of a bugger for that kind of hyperbole, it has to be said.

So, the things to listen out for.

The opening quiet string subject – a single voice played across multiple strings with little discernible movement but strength and determination – created a theatrical contrast that silenced the auditorium. There is an emotional quality to the material which is difficult to pinpoint. It’s not fear, and its not defiance. There’s a sense of strength in it which is utterly compelling. Also impressed by how, almost imperceptibly, Shostakovich scores a flute and muted trumpet to track the melody in the first and second violins during the opening subject. It is a joy to observe.

Barking basses underpinned a taut terrifying and ostinato in the first and second violins (and later the violas). Relentless, unequivocal, never-want-it-end kind of stuff. Thelower brass mirroring the originating idea was something to behold. Bychov’s vocal encouragement (audible on the radio broadcast) topped the whole thing off with a satisfying dollop of terror. And frankly, who wouldn’t want to play that timpani solo (1:44 on iPlayer Radio)?

Stunning control in the principal trumpet line – especially in the high notes of the fourth movement, and a captivating solo from the cor anglais player. Interesting to observe how at points in the solo line Shostakovich blends a clarinet (and possibly flute) with cor anglais doubling the melody for added intensity.

And the pizzicato conclusion to the final movement is the most crushing thing I think I’ve ever heard.

Daniel Pioro & Jonny Greenwood

Billed as the Jonny Greenwood Prom (fair enough there are two works by the Radiohead bass player one of which was a world premiere), I was keen to attend to see Daniel Pioro play. His Wigmore Hall appearance earlier in the year was a jaw-dropping thing for me. I do think he is a remarkable player who is going to be heard and seen a whole lot more and I hope that we seem in a range of different places too.

Daniel Pioro (photo Mark Allan)

Interestingly, there was a different reverential vibe in the auditorium compared to the sometimes hotch-potch brusqueness of the classical music ‘regulars’. Touching. Rather sweet. But let’s not make the assumption that other audience groups don’t do reverence. They absolutely do.

Pioro opened with a solo sonata by Biber. Arguably the bigger sell and the impressive realisation too. A daring move, a bold statement and a fearless performance that left the curious expectant audience motionless. Seguing to Penderecki’s String Ensemble was a deft move giving the concert, mercilessly devoid of an on-stage presenter, a decidedly playlist feel. Some confusion was evident on the faces of the audience members in the row in front of me in the stalls, who seemed to find the inclusion of Penderecki’s music bemusing and, at times, even amusing.

Daniel Pioro with Jonny Greenwood

Greenwood’s Water, although a Herculean effort for the pianist lacks a much-needed narrative, established atmosphere but narratively speaking didn’t move beyond it, meaning it risked appearing a marathon of technical endurance rather than an reflective experience for the listener. It didn’t move me. Maybe it wasn’t intended to. It just irritated me.

Those closer to the stage or listening on the radio will have got a more satisfying mix of Reich’s Pulse. In Row 6 Door J, the clarity that drives Reich’s repetitive cells fell victim to the Albert Hall’s boominess. Certainly, listening back on iPlayer Radio this morning, it was an ensemble primarily configured for radio and TV broadcast rather than being an auditorium experience.

As the concert was overrunning, I needed to leave after the Reich. This as it turned out resulted in a better listening experience when I came to listen to the premiere back on iPlayer Radio.

Greenwood’s music (like the Reich as it turns out the morning after) is a studio-like listening experience. His new work Horror vacui for solo violin and 68 strings contained a cracking extended cadenza (or an entire movement?) for Daniel Pioro which was for me the most compelling element in an unexpectedly long work. There were some interesting and appealing soundscapes and a greater sense of narrative, but it didn’t quite resonate for me in the way I assumed it would given the anticipation around the event.

On reflection, this felt like a strategic concert – an ‘audience builder’ banking on the Greenwood name and past collaborations, welding a fanbase and radio audience (6 Music) to the BBC Proms with a playlist-esque offering that was big on experience but light on substance.

It was also a big opportunity for BBC NOW to firmly align itself with modern, ambient ‘Unclassified’ content, distancing itself from its Doctor Who soundtrack days. From this perspective raising awareness of the event including those aligned properties (BBC NOW + Greenwood) will be paramount in framing not only the artists, but reframing perceptions of the wider Proms season.

Reflecting on the concert more this morning, I think the concert was conceived primarily for radio and television (hence why the Reich sounded better via broadcast). In that way, I’d have liked to see Daniel pair up with the Manchester Collective on a much-punchier programme of the kind I experienced at CLF Cafe and King’s Place earlier in the year, a collaboration which would have yielded more content and highlighted some of the creative forces Adam Szabo and his team at Manchester Collective team surface.

BBC Proms 2019 – 12: Vaughan Williams Thomas Tallis Fantasia, Eric Lu, and Proms Encore

Irritating stuff, weird stuff, devastating stuff and a joyous surprise this week, plus some notes on Proms Encore

Let’s get the odd stuff out of the way first. The Lost Words Prom and Orchestre de Paris.

The Lost Words Prom – a mixture of spoken word, looped sound files and music. An interesting idea on paper, no doubt. A sort of Words and Music but on the stage with dancing and live painting. I switched off after about 10 minutes. It didn’t engage me at all. In fact, the sound of Greta’s (?) voice repeated over and over again at the beginning just irritated me (even though I’m pro-Greta, obviously). Maybe you just had to be there.

In my defence I’ve been listening to a lot of Proms whilst I’ve been painting the new decking (I was doing the edges while The OH did the middle bits with the sponge on a long pole). Maybe I was just a bit tired. Irritable. That kind of thing.

Next during the day-long painting frenzy. Orchestra de Paris’ Beethoven 6. By this point in the day the meditative benefits of doing something repetitive like painting had helped with my focus. As a result I had to keep going over bits I’d heard, certain I’d heard a duff note here and there. I’ve had to go over it again this evening. I count two wrong notes in the woodwind in the first movement. I’m fairly certain there are others in the movements that follow.

Casual readers will interpret this observation as evidence of me being a grumpy, mean-spirited arsehole. Fine. Whatever. I’m not here to persuade you. But I will make the point that I don’t mind about split notes amongst the brass (embouchure is a tricky thing and susceptible to nerves). And whilst one wrong note can liven things up and remind us that we’re not listening to a studio recording but an actual live performance powered by fallible human beings, when there’s more than one wrong note I do – I’m sorry if you’re annoyed by this – get a bit irritable.

Point made, the woodwind at the beginning of the second movement of the Beethoven is divine. The clarinet and bassoon pairing has a tangy earthiness to it – enhanced when the cellos join in. The muted upper strings in the section that follows are taut but let down momentarily by misplaced woodwind chords at the ends of phrases. What’s apparent in this movement is that there is the intent of conductor Daniel Harding is pretty clear – he adopts a thorough approach to phrasing (even if the resulting detail is sometimes lacking).

A lot of energy in the third movement. Shaky ensemble in the final sequence of the fifth movement. The OH thinks there’s something lacking from proceedings though isn’t clear (or isn’t sure) what. I conclude it as a confusing listen. I’m left unsure whether Daniel Harding was deliberately going for a pseudo-period performance sound (ala Isabelle Faust playing Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra) or whether they are a period band playing on modern instruments because they’ve all had to leave their proper instruments at Customs on the way in. Strange.

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

For all my bleating about how this year’s Proms has been getting up my nose, this week has seen another reminder of one of the things it excels at: that moment when events. programming, and performance align, after which emotion is released.

The BBC Symphony’s performance with conductor Andrew Davis of Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is a good illustration. It was a breathtaking performance – rich strings and bright heartfelt violin solos saturated the score with a range of colours. Luminescent harmonic progressions abounded.

The performance had an arresting effect on me. There was a sense that the main theme – plaintive, strong, and defiant – unexpectedly drew attention to how fearful I feel right now.

The world is a scary confusing place where the principle of holding power to account has been devalued. Trump, Johnson, Dominic Cummings, all of them. I understand how we’ve probably got here, but the apparent gleefulness of all those parties (actually, let’s fold in Michael Gove and wet-lipped Dominic Raab) makes me feel quite lonely, unrepresented and powerless. If their behaviour is the new norm, what has most of my reasonably well-educated life been about?

The BBC Symphony’s performance of the VW Tallis had the effect of reassuring me at the same time as highlighting why I was in need. A sense of resilience pervaded. Music as a companion in beleaguered times.

I’ve listened to it maybe ten or fifteen times this week. That’s how good it was. That’s how much it had an impact on me. That’s how much its needed right now.

The paradox is moments like this – special unexpected Proms experiences – can’t be planned, predicted, or contrived. These experiences are personal. They rely on active listening. At their heart is perfection of artistic expression. And at the heart of the classical music experience is something entirely counter: that no live performance comes with any guarantees whatsoever.

Eric Lu’s Mozart 23

I am big old Eric Lu fanboy ever since seeing him in the semi-finals at the Leeds Piano Competition last autumn. His playing had an immediate impact on me. Since then I’ve often doubted the accuracy of what I recall, wondering for example whether its the passage of time which has elevated my memory of the experience.

It wasn’t so when Lu performed a solo recital at St Lukes earlier this year. And it wasn’t in this morning Prom. It’s worth documenting here how his playing impacts me as a listener.

First, its the discipline of the moment – most evident in the opening movement. Next is the grace in the long decorative phrases. Disciplined yes, but also flexible enough to accommodate the smallest of rubatos at the ends of phrases. A sophisticated kind of expression.

Second is Lu’s ability to create stillness. The opening of the second movement a case in point. After the opening chord the audience settled. I was transfixed. Everything that followed was utterly devastating in its apparent simplicity.

Ensemble was a little raggedy in places which detracted from Lu’s precision and focus. Most notably in the run-up to the first movement cadenza, and the final section of the third movement – minor slips where woodwind and strings were a little out of sync.

At other times the Shanghai Symphony – say the first tutti entry in the second movement – showed stunning sensitivity and precision, mirroring Lu’s phrasing in the piano to great effect. And whilst Lu’s expressiveness still shone in the final bars of a painfully tragic movement, intonation in the woodwind combined with slightly misplaced flute and clarinet chords made the conclusion a little raggedy.

Shanghai Symphony’s Encore

I’m going to revisit Shanghai’s Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances in the next few days. But in the meantime, a few words on their encore which, if you are not already aware, was a little unorthodox.

There’s nothing wrong with unorthodox of course, it’s just that even listening back the effect is quite quite remarkable.

An encore made up of two parts. Something from China. An orchestral setting of ‘Jasmine Flower’. Segue into an awkward mid-tempo march-rhythm introduced by a drum kit, a vaguely familiar sounding piano riff, followed by a saxophone solo completing the musical jigsaw – an orchestral arrangement of ‘Hey Jude’.

To go from Rachmaninov to China to ‘Hey Jude’ in such a short space of time felt at first like too much of a musical gearshift. But the solo trumpet descant reassured and the subsequent truck driver’s modulation galvanised.

People clapped. I have never seen music take people so much by surprise to the extent they’re on their feet in the space of four minutes. A delightful thing to experience and to listen back to.

One doesn’t want to come across as ungrateful or cynical or anything, but I think the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra want to come back to the BBC Proms.

Proms on TV

The best thing in Proms Encore this week was undoubtedly Dr Hannah French’s appearance on the bench in the gazebo, previewing the Henry Wood Prom she was presenting for BBC Four.

During Proms Encore, viewers were ‘treated’ to a heavily edited two-hander with Yolanda Brown – less of an interview, more of a missed opportunity. Every time an insight or archive treat about Henry Wood was introduced by the Dr, the line was cut short and we moved onto something else. What could have been an interesting exploration into one of the men behind the Proms, was cut to allow time for …

Three Henry Woods visit the Proms for the first time. An interesting idea with a bit of playfulness powering it. Three people from outside London – Henry Wood’s namesakes – attend a classical music concert for the first time and share their insights. Only, they didn’t really. Comments abounded about how the sound of the organ really shook the building during the conclusion of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. And the inevitable, it wasn’t like anything I was expecting. Why spend the money or the time filming both pieces when neither really unearthed anything of any consequence or really provided any emotional content?

Do one, not both. Dare to spend a bit more time one or thing. Have the courage of your convictions. Please.

Can there be anything as decidedly uninviting as the prospect of being told that ‘In our final episode we’ll look forward to what you can expect in the Last Night of the Proms”? Does the Last Night need to be previewed? Should it, in its present format, even be broadcast anymore?

BBC Proms 2019 – 11: Sheku’s Elgar Cello Concerto and Dieter Amman’s Piano Concerto

The crazy perfection of Dieter Ammann’s piano concerto, Sheku’s much-heralded performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a double dose of dodgy TV presentation

I’ve been on holiday this week, escaping from work by holing myself up in a hotel with a book. So my listening has been limited to a handful of concerts. There’s a greater bias towards broadcast presentation in this post, but that’s only because there have been moments when my heart rate has, disappointingly, reached scary new heights.

Jonathan Dove / Dieter Ammann (Prom 43)

High point of my week’s worth of Proms listening was undoubtedly the double bill premieres of Jonathan Dove’s We Are One Fire and Dieter Ammann enthralling Piano Concerto.

Dove’s work for the BBC Symphony Chorus secures the composer and his output as my new favourite thing from this year and, looking ahead, a back catalogue I want to explore further. We Are One Fire illustrates the composer’s love of storytelling, his desire to connect with the audience and the enthusiasm he has writing for voice. There was some joyous celebrations in this work – a present-day musical evocation of the universal themes expressed in Schiller’s Ode to Joy – that had an infectious inclusive feel even on catch-up. Loved hearing it. Haven’t stopped listening to it all week.

In a similar way, German composer Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto (a co-commission with a variety of orchestras and venues in addition to the BBC) was a miraculous thing on a first listen. Driving rhythms, enthralling textures, and arresting sound worlds made this a dazzling work with a fascinating narrative.

CBSO and Sheku Kanneh Mason (Prom 46)

I listen with interest to Sheku’s performances. I’ve written before about how I think he is (like a couple of other recent Decca signings) heavily- perhaps even over-marketed at a point in time when he is still in the early stages of his musical development. His exposure is important for the sector and for music education, of course. At the same time, I think its important to pay close attention to performance as with any other professional musician.

If I was coaching a client who was saying this to me, I’d be reminding them about the old adage that we see what we’re looking for. In other words, if I am approaching a performance from a cynical perspective I’m almost certainly going to find fault with something. So I feel as though I have to (in case of the rare chance that he or a member of his family actually reads this) work hard to keep my usual curmudgeonly-ness in check.

The Elgar comes with baggage undoubtedly. Jacqueline du Pre’s landmark recording casts a shadow across the work for surely any cellist long before they’ve reached for the manuscript, let alone lifted the bow to the strings. And whilst I know that this is described by Sheku as his favourite recording of the work, I wonder whether it would have been better to avoid discussing it before the live performance. Certainly, hearing Andrew McGregor say in the pre-recorded interview, “I have to ask you about .. ” means that minutes before we hear Sheku play Elgar’s iconic work, we are as listeners even if we don’t mean to, comparing Sheku’s interpretation with our memory (perceived or otherwise) of du Pre’s.

The third movement was undoubtedly the most rounded section of the work, with warm tones, tender phrases and an aching autumnal heart to it. But intonation slips in the faster solo phrases of the first and second movements distracted attention from the emotional intent of the solo line. The main subject in the allegro of the fourth movement lacked the gravitas I’ve come to expect from the work (though this is not to say it’s what is required). Similar intonation slips in some of the exposed lines of the fourth movement increased the pressure in what sometimes felt like a rushed movement.

The Elgar on BBC Four

I’ve listened a few times to the catch-up recording on iPlayer Radio, and complimented that with the TV broadcast, partly to make sure I haven’t misheard but also to see what the overall story the BBC has told ‘in vision’.

A rather awkward pre-title introduction featuring Tom Service, with Sheku and his sister Isata introducing one another. Post-titles up in the gallery, anchors Tom and Isata looked rather uncomfortable talking with one another, Isata’s lack of TV presenting experience evident in some dry pieces to camera and lack-lustre questioning with pundit Kathryn Knight. This is not Isata’s fault by any means – she is a musician not a presenter. Her presence seemed rather odd because she was the soloist’s sibling – any objectivity we might have hoped for from the presenters about the work and the performance after it was complete were dashed.

If its annoying when a radio presenter shares their opinion of the work we’ve just heard, then its pointless to hear glowing remarks come from a family member as their sibling soloist takes their bow. That’s a conflict of interest.

If promming at the BBC NOW concert a couple of weeks ago reconnected me with the BBC Proms, the TV coverage with Tom and Isata distanced me. I saw this as a commissioning decision rather than a directing/producing error. The programme served the needs of a record label (for whom it was imperative to promote both Isata and Sheku in the same programme) rather than the audience. And that must have been knowingly entered into – it couldn’t have been an accident. And I can’t believe that experienced TV people wouldn’t have at some stage in proceedings paused and thought, isn’t this going to look a little odd?

If its annoying when a radio presenter shares their opinion of the work we’ve just heard, then its pointless to hear glowing remarks come from a family member as their sibling soloist takes their bow. That’s a conflict of interest.

For casual readers (or those unaware of the way I’ve approached these Proms blogs this year), this experience is important for me. The Proms (and perhaps even classical music?) relies to a great extent on advocacy by its fans. This was an episode where I as an advocate felt alienated. Until someone says otherwise (given that a considerable number of the independent production TV company behind the coverage were those who up until a couple of years ago had worked inside the BBC producing the same coverage), the only thing I can conclude is that this is a deliberate move. Maybe people like me are more of a pain in the arse than I had realised. Certainly what I feel at the moment is that in pursuit of doing something different (in the belief that this will attract a different audience) the thing I love is being trampled on spectacularly.

Meeting Hannah French

For every gushing Proms presenter that brings me out in hives, there are though new ones who fit the bill and make me clap excitedly.

Dr Hannah French is a leading contender for the Proms Commentator of the Year Crown (a new award initiated just this week). Hannah brings personality to the job but leaves ego behind. She delivers a punchy script with verve, knowledge and objectivity.

I let out a sigh of relief when I heard her introduce Solomon’s Knot’s concert on 14th August. So, when I caught sight of her in the commentary box as I left the Ulster Orchestra Prom, I couldn’t help but do what I normally do in such situations.

“Are you Hannah?” I asked her, leaning across the Radio 3 banner separating stalls from box.

“Aren’t you Jon Jacob?” she replies

“Yes.” I point at her and say, “You are very good at this. Really. I think you’re brilliant.”

Her hands clasp her cheeks. She says thank you. We hug. I say hello to her commentary box ‘plus one’. Thank her again. And then scarper.

Up until this moment I have never hugged an actual Proms commentator in situ at the Royal Albert Hall. An important moment.

The BBC had better sign her up for next year. And for more. And whilst we’re at it, Dr Hannah French needs to be on TV too. Get her to do everything. You might as well.

Proms on TV

Proms Encore (episode 4) has been the best episode of the series, it has to be said.

Lloyd Coleman’s sequence with Martyn Brabbins discussing the role of the conductor was a confident exploration of the art of conducting. As much as I like Rachel Parris (Mash Report), her package spotlighting Queen Victoria’s piano with Stephen Hough was a little disappointing. Using the clip of Rachel swaying around next to Stephen in the ‘menu’ of the programme made me wriggle uncomfortably – contrived and a little unnatural.

Guests Odaline de la Martinez and Peter Edwards were natural and engaging (Odaline especially so). My connection which Robert Ames veered through a range of a emotional reactions based on not knowing who he was, to finding his hair fundamentally annoying, to then wanting to berate the presenter for asking Robert about his hair, and finally screaming at the television to Robert, “If you don’t know what to do with your hair in a concert then get it cut!” If I ever catch myself asking such banal questions during a podcast interview I will cease interviewing anybody ever again.

BBC Proms 2019 – 10: Ulster Orchestra play Clara Schumann Piano Concerto, Beethoven 1, Shostakovich 1 and Sofia Gubaidulina

Some sloppy moments in the first movement of the Beethoven; warm colours and seductive shapes in the second; spirit in the third; slightly underpowered in the fourth. First and second violins don’t work well – cues lack clarity. Firsts particularly undisciplined in places.

Clara Schumann Piano Concerto. Not quite sure whether this was worthy of being programmed. First movement shows the work as juvenilia. Second movement cello solo ravishing. Third movement scrappy. An otherwise dull work.

By far the most interesting work of the evening is from Russian Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931). The work hangs together well. Compelling story about a piece of chalk. Interesting colours. Evocative playing from the pianist. Liked it. Performance made me lean in. Orchestra appears more engaged in performance.

Shostakovich 1 saw the band most at ease. Warm string colours, mostly tight ensemble and a glorious clarinet solo in the first movement. Mercurial opening to the second movement; movement dominated by demanding changes of tempi successfully navigated. Interesting material. Sensitively executed. Especially sensitive playing in the third movement. Payare’s baton technique is a thing to behold – bounce, verve, and grace. Opening of fourth movement taut, woodwind slick. String/brass not together before timp solo. Warm cello solo. Impressive commitment from Payare throughout. Pleasingly convincing.

The Ulster Orchestra have transformed themselves in recent years. There’s more spirit. More joy. That’s largely down to the deft signing of soon to be departing principal conductor Rafael Payare. How the band fare under their next conductor is what will secure its newfound reputation. There is much to play for in the next two years, not least the opportunity to position itself at the heart of the current political clusterfuck. Ignoring the artistic opportunities the political melee presents will see the Ulster Orchestra miss a trick. Riding the melee and even taking a lead could do wonders for it internationally. No pressure. Nerves of steel may well be necessary.

BBC Proms 2019 – 9: Mendelssohn, Elgar, Errollyn Wallen, and Mussorgsky at the Royal Albert Hall

It’s a toss up between finding the ideal spot in the Royal Albert Hall or holding your nose and listening to the live broadcast. After my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall, I think its probably the latter.

I finished off a day of coaching sessions, interviews and meetings with my first trip to the Albert Hall for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ concert last night. And I went in on a promming ticket too – first up in the gallery, and in the arena during the second half.

It was also the first time I’d prommed for (quite possibly) five years meaning the odds were stacked in favour of gaining some useful insights on where the innermost joy to this years Proms season is to be found. In that respect the trip didn’t disappoint.

I’d been inside the hall earlier in the day to interview the conductor for last night’s concert Elim Chan. She and I walked and talked as we moved from backstage to podium (the first time I’d done the walk from the bullrun to stage since 2011), and by the time we’d made it to the empty auditorium, I was reminded of the scale of the place.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast – 54 – Elim Chan at the BBC Proms

The stage appeared as just a fairly banal area (as opposed to the elevated space it normally appears to punters like me during a concert). Out beyond the rail, one breathtaking view: long sweeping lines; opulent but not ornate or fussy; graceful movement throughout; warmth. All of this contributed to an unexpected sense of inclusion. It sounds slightly self-obsessed to say, but for a moment the Proms felt like home again.

Up in the gallery during the first half there was a similar atmosphere. The disordered presence of other human beings standing, sitting or lying around, some of them peering over shoulders to see the action way down below, creates a sense of both relaxation and urgency at the same

Wafting around is the order of the day up in the gallery. At the same time there’s a fear of missing out. Heads crane to get a better view in between shoulders, pillars and railings. In this way we’re all contributing to the live experience.

Here I felt part of the event. There was no one contextualising it, marketing it, or trying to turn it into something it wasn’t. It was just me and the live experience. Standing, leaning, and focusing. A meditative experience almost – Church-like – transporting me back to the early Promming experiences I’d had. It appears I had reconnected.

There was a surprising diversity amongst the crowd too. My friend Miya (her first Prom concert experience) said the same herself looking around the gallery. A range of ages from under 10s to over sixties. I can’t remember television ever commenting or showing that. I don’t recall any magazine, radio programme or indeed the Proms brochure itself talking about the audience other than in general terms. But a look around the gallery in a popular concert like this and much of the perceived problems classical music has marketing to different audience groups aren’t immediately obvious to me. Sure, maybe those who are looking at their mobile phones during the Elgar are distracted, but they’re here for some kind of experience. The fact that they felt motivated to come in the first place is surely what’s important.

As anchoring as this experience was, there were some drawbacks. The sound from the gallery lacked the detail I’m accustomed to and found myself getting frustrated. The Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture (and certain sections of the Elgar Sea Pictures after it) suffered from a lack of power.

Down in the arena was the best place to move to for Errolyn Wallen’s premiere This Frame Is Part Of The Painting. Rich colours, strong vocal and instrumental lines were evident combined with unexpected splashes of orthodox harmonic and melodic language that sought to exploit the acoustic. The addition of the organ from time to time gave things a more three-dimensional quality making for a more immersive experience.

Whilst hearing the detail from the arena was more satisfying, there were times in the Mussorgsky Pictures when that detail revealed weak spots in the ensemble.

The ambulatory opening accompanied by a wavering trumpet solo didn’t provide the silvery fearsome opening I’d expected from the opening of Pictures. Some sections dominated in tutti sequences – percussion and brass from time to time. And in The Old Castle out of kilter woodwind ensemble slightly detracted from the otherwise warm atmosphere conjured up by saxophone solo and lilting strings. There was a similar problem in the fourth Promenade.

A taut Battle of the Unhatched Chicks marked a turning point in the performance however, consolidated by The Market with renewed spirit, tighter ensemble, and more a compelling characterisation. Unexpectedly prominent trombones in the grand theme were arresting (the effect sounded like an accidental fog-horn on a bright sunny day. That said, on playback the idea behind bringing out that part of the score provided a fresh insight into the sequence.

BBC Proms 2019 / 8: Stop banging on

Give the listening audience the chance to reflect on what they’ve just heard and what it means to them, instead of resorting to hype, sycophancy, or post-performance reviews

My BBC Proms odyssey this year (entirely broadcast experiences) was intended to help me identify at what point my enthusiasm increased and why.

After seven posts and well over half the season through, my feelings appear to have lurched in entirely the opposite direction.

Listening and watching the Proms has now elevated the summer-long festival to the equivalent of the wayward upper fifth on the back seat of the school bus sneering at everyone else in front of him while everyone else is trying their best to ignore him and his cronies.

Or, if you want a more present-day analogy, the BBC Proms on radio and TV is the noisy office colleague whose banter isn’t as scintillating or demanding of attention as they think it is.

Everyone collectively wants to tell both irritants to shut up. Instead they purse their lips, and swallow the bile, their irritation increasing exponentially.

These analogies may be a little purple if taken too literally. But they do help identify my general spikiness towards the festival this year – far from waning, it’s actually increased as the weeks have gone on. And a lot of that is down to broadcasts.

Nauseating syncophancy coupled with a seemingly insatiable appetite to review every concert on-air seconds after its conclusion effectively forces the listener out of the collective experience. It’s pretty much everyone too, except for the more seasoned commentators. There is also an increasing sense of self-satisfaction evident in the delivery. If it was a party host doing the same thing the moment I’d stepped across the threshold, I’d say my goodbyes and leave.

Style of presentation may not seem like an important point to get so worked up on given that the focus of the concert is in fact the music, but done badly it can turn out to act as nothing more than a distraction. Listening back to various concerts over the past seven days yesterday I was either skipping the radio introductions and back announcements or increasingly shouting at the speaker, “Shut Up!”

Running concurrently in my head is a conversation I had with a classical music exec who presented an interesting perspective that caught my attention: amid a time when it feels as though classical music is getting represented more and more, its important for the backbiting to stop, for a united front to be presented, and for everyone within the classical music world to support one another.

The valuable conversation stemmed from a discussion about composer Einaudi. But, whilst I’m listening to the Proms and shouting at the speaker as I do so, I’m also pondering whether I’m falling into the trap of being a curmudgeonly old bastard who hates change. Am I the problem? Am I irritated by it all because deep down I’m jealous of what they do (its possible – I’m open to that and will hold my hands up to it)? Am I in fact deflecting my post-BBC bitterness onto its most potent brand? By getting more and more irritated by it, am I in fact damaging the potential for new relationships across the classical music industry just by voicing a feeling few others feel comfortable expressing?

All of this before we get to the actual music. Little wonder the Proms feels like a spikey experience when each broadcast is accompanied by all of this internal dialogue.

I don’t resist change. The thing is that I’ve grown up with this art form in my ears with the conventions of its contextualisation baked in. It is because of those conventions – resisting hype and maintaining an objectivity so that the audience can make their own minds up – that the bond between me as a punter and the art-form has grown stronger throughout my adult life.

I’m not saying don’t fiddle with it or strive to improve things. I’m asking you to remember that presenters play an integral part in making the audience (even those at home ‘listening in’) feel part of the performance. Commentating is an art in itself which I’ve always thought could be boiled down to ‘less is more’. The audience is part of proceedings.

Take a deep breath. Speak fewer words per minute. Limit the range of your intonation. And for crying out loud, give us a moment to think about how we feel about what we’ve just heard, before you start describing what we’ve just heard to us.

Ticket for Glyndebourne Magic Flute 2019

Magic Flute at Glyndebourne

A rich score, strong vocal lines and scintillating conversation at Glyndebourne at a performance of Barbe and Doucet’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute

Yesterday was only my second trip to Glyndebourne. Last time it was Rape of Lucretia (2013). This time, Glyndebourne’s first production of Mozart’s Magic Flute in ten years.

Some travel challenges presented themselves early on. Pro tip: the London train to Lewes leaves from London Victoria not Waterloo, and it will take you twelve minutes to get from one station to the next using the Tube. Also, be sure to take account of the gradients in Sussex (the height is in grey on Google Maps so not immediately obvious). Some of those hills are a bastard to climb. I managed arrive an hour before the performance began with bike grease on my trousers. Also, I am fairly certain I was one of only two people there who flouted the assumed dress code. No dinner jacket for me. Just loose slacks, a flowery shirt, and deck shoes.

Glyndebourne 2019 production of Magic Flute by Barbe and Doucet was a feast for the eyes. The set design was playful. Costume design – Sarastro and the Priests, and Papageno – had a delightful whiff of Alice in Wonderland about it.

The strong vocal lines made this an unexpectedly immersive experience exploring what was a surprisingly rich complex score. Queen of the Night solo was a remarkable feat deserving of the rapturous and extended applause soprano Caroline Wettergreen received. Magic moment of the entire performance: when Pamina and Tamino sang their duet – the opening octave sung by Pamina pierced my heart and tickled the tear glands.

What made this a special experience was the conversation. I ended up going because a friend of mine from yesteryear had a ticket going spare. We met up beforehand for the obligatory picnic, only to discover that a couple of others we knew from the classical music world were also present. Easy conversation – a mix of giggling, commenting, and discussion – flowed. The time raced by.

“We’ve not had a bike before,” said the cloakroom attendant when I left my Brompton

The social aspect of classical music and opera experiences represents a new development for me. For a long time I’ve seen my attendance at events as something for me or the blog or podcast – a wholly singular experience. I’ve seen people at those events but usually assumed that my presence on proceedings would be an imposition on their plans – a mild kind of imposter syndrome I suppose.

Meeting people at events and (importantly) having sufficient time to engage with them without having to rush makes the experience as a whole all the richer. Feeling able to discuss a subject I have a huge amount of background information about (I know little about Mozart’s operas about from Marriage of Figaro) without judgment is a special thing too and throws into start contrast my experience of similar exchanges on Twitter which in recent months have felt rather spikey. That some of the people I was there having those discussions with were people I had known for 25 years made it all the more heartwarming.