Review: Verbier Festival 2019

Highlights, notes, and reflections from a three-day trip to the mountainside music festival, now in its 26th year

Too much music and too little time for painstaking reviews. Instead, some highlights and reflections from three days at the 26th Verbier Festival.

Joshua Bell

Bell’s performance of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto was a chance to see him in the flesh after hearing him at the Proms last weekend.

Interesting to see how Bell communication with various sections during performance – signalling emotional intent, tighter ensemble. Also striking how Bell’s musicianship focuses attention on the material sometimes to the exclusion of everything around him. A truly captivating player giving a magnetic performance. Pinned to my seat throughout.

Beethoven ‘Kreutzer’

There’s a thing about the world I frequent. Content demands stories. The stories usually come from the talent. That means getting close to the talent and getting them to tell stories about their life and work.

I had pitched for a Kavakos interview and very nearly got it (it would be after the performance depending on availability). That’s fine. What was interesting for me was seeing him perform the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata with Evegny Kissin and realising that I wanted to maintain a distance and not interview him.

The performance was intense. Multiple characters from Kavakos, intense playing. Electrifying. Maybe even a little bit terrifying. A sort of white heat all around him – something you had to look at it at the same time as fearing looking at it.

Kavakos is a gentle giant. Tall, perhaps even imposing. His near-shoulder length hair shakes gently as he plays. His body remains isolated from the music. When he plays it is as though he observing himself play and, like us, marvelling at the sound emerging. He is quite something to watch. And his performance of the Kreutzer was every bit as gripping as watching Daniil Trifonov play the Transcendental Etudes back in 2013.

First time seeing Kissin live too. It has a similarly intriguing and strangely beguiling quality about him. Intriguing facial expressions as he plays. Compelling to watch. The most remarkable touch to the keyboard. Three different colours in three successive chords in the second movement. Fascinating to watch the way he looked round and up at Kavakos at various points during performance. Endearing sight.

Quartet Ebene are a remarkable bunch

This was a surprise. The quartet play with a wondrous warm burgundy sound. Noticed right from the first note. There’s clarity in the sound, but also roundness to the tone; like the sanded polished edges of pine furniture. Ravishing. Like being handed a whiskey, drinking it, liking it and then realising now that you’ve been given the right whiskey you’d happily have more. I’ve never been quite so aware of narrative in a string quartet before hearing Quartet Ebene play Mozart.

Similarly, the Tchaikovsky was a bit of a revelation. Player of the concert undoubtedly was QE’s viola player who throughout communicated with audience and colleagues with relish and verve. She works hard to maintain this level of commitment with the players who joined the quartet for the Tchaikovsky. Sometimes I wonder whether they’re less open in their communication with her. If its possible for the sound of an instrument to make me go weak at the knees, then the cellist has the ability to produce it.

Magic moment in the final movement fugue – epic, uncompromising. We’re powering down a runway heading for take off, and then pivoting on a unison note played by everyone – an unexpected and much needed breathing space. Tone matched exquisitely amongst the six players. A joy to be present in the moment.

Schubert 9th is fiendish and hugely entertaining

The Verbier Festival Orchestra’s concert performance wasn’t entirely without error – the opening bars of Schubert 9 a case in point. Otherwise a thrilling performance with some standout moments.

I hadn’t appreciated how much material Schumann had written for the string players (bloody hell they all worked hard). Impressive gear shifts (in characterisation and speed), delicate detail, and warm colours from wind and brass. Delightful elegance in both melody and phrasing in the strings, trnasforming what could have been a dull toe-tapping second movement into something far more fascinating, brimming with detail. A glorious romp followed in the third movement – lots of gratifying string textures and dry articulation from the timpanist. Fourth movement: tour de force.

Player of the concert: number one, fifth desk, first violins. I think his name was Roman Vikulov from Russia. I know its not really on to pick out individuals, but his energy, precision, and style was a thing to behold. So too the look of elation on his face when he turned to the audience after the final note in the Schumann.

Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra woodwind section

One moment in the first concert I attended this year will last (I hope) forever.

Hearing the first woodwind cue in Weber’s Oberon overture. The combination of flute and clarinet (there might have been others in the score, I just haven’t looked yet) was an absolute joy to hear. Ensemble lovingly crafted.

Research the angle not the questions

I’ve long thought I don’t research enough for interviews. In general I think too much research for interviews is a potential minefield. You can’t really gen-up on a subject you don’t know very much about quickly without running the risk of making a mistake and making yourself look like an arse. Better in some instances (especially where arts journalism is concerned) to lead on curiosity and follow your instinct. I’ve also assumed that by using an interview style that relies on instinct, too much research will result in some questions being overlooked.

This trip I made the error of preparing for one interview by writing down questions, almost as though I was scripting the interview based on what I wanted to hear. It wasn’t a disaster, it just didn’t feel right. The next interview I just identified the angle, thought about the overriding question I wanted to answer for myself, and trusted my instinct I’d get there in the space of 45 minutes. “Had I known you were such a good journalist,” said Martin Engstroem after his interview, “I’d have given you an hour.” We had in fact spoken for 51 minutes.

Those with vision lead; those without manage

The question in my mind for Martin’s interview was about leadership. This is partly because I’m working on a workshop for some arts administrators in the autumn. But it’s also because I realise (now, heading back to London) that for a long time I’ve aspired to go further in my chosen field (25 years ago in the arts, most recently in the media) but reached a bit of a brick wall. I’ve always assumed it was down to me not being the right kind of individual to go to the next level. A sort of failing.

The interview with Engstroem uncovered something I hadn’t appreciated. Leaders aren’t anointed leaders by others. They are leaders because they have a vision they need to get realised. And realising that vision requires other to follow you.

Leadership needs vision to kickstart it. If you don’t have vision then you’ve nothing for people to follow. Everything else is merely the mechanics of leadership.

Detach the production of the sound from the emotion of the music

This one’s a slightly more difficult thought to articulate. It stems from a similarly fascinating conversation with Alexander Sitkovetsky.

A comment he made during the interview recalled Menuhin suggesting he was unaware when playing what exactly his arms and fingers were doing during performance. It was as though the music was existing in its own right.

This got me thinking about the division between the mechanics of music production and the emotion. And specifically what we the listener or commentator project onto the experience of listening in order to make sense of what we’ve heard and the impact it has on us. Something for another blog post, I think. After I’ve read a little around the subject.

Imposter no more

I don’t want to show off. There are so many journalists who do that. It’s a bit tiresome. No. It’s nauseating. But …

A handful of people I know in the arts world will have heard me say to them in the past 18 months that often I feel as though I’m on the periphery of the arts world. They have expressed surprise about this. One visibly so. I realised this week that this statement was … shock horror .. a manifestation of imposter syndrome. Just like any presenting issue in a coaching session, this has gone under the radar for a long time.

But no longer it seems. Not on this trip. This has to do with a realisation about what seems to be happening more and more: people sending me stuff, people rocking up for podcasts, and feeling more and more comfortable saying what I do and for whom. The insight?

It’s also to do with the day-to-day process I’ve become more aware of on this trip. Me and my content creating peers – eg Fran Wilson, Andrew Morris, or Adrian Specs to name three of many – do this kind of stuff everyday. Podcasts require scripts. Scripts require writing. Reading your copy out loud on a frequent basis is what writing demands: being in a constant state of self-assessment with a view to correcting, improving and developing. Regardless of who pays me (or not), I do this stuff every single day.

And the insight that links these two things? Reminding myself that imposter syndrome subsides (nb it’s never overcome) when you start seeing yourself from a different perspective – how others see you.

Lina

Last note about the lovely Lina.

I worked with a pianist last year, doing some marketing and PR work, and getting him airplay on Radio 3. I had two meetings with him and various others, of whom Lina was one person present, quite by chance.

Volunteers Lina (L) and Nadine at Verbier Festival 2019

We met on other occasion (she thinks it was two, but she’s wrong) at the Royal Albert Hall.

I walked out of the VFCO concert first half, out onto the terrace and observed a woman I vaguely recognised pointing at me emphatically. It was Lina. She was volunteering on the festival.

Much laughter. Much nattering about this and that. We met up for a drink before my taxi took me back to the train station. Never has the company of one person I hardly know made a music festival mean so much more.

That makes Verbier my kind of Glastonbury I think.

Many thanks to Rebecca, Giorgia, Lucille and Sarah for their sterling work making this trip happen. Also, the Hotel Bristol, Verbier. They even have their own hotel dog. Beers/wine/gin all round (not for the dog, obviously).

The Verbier Festival runs until 3 August 2019

Review: Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra play Weber Oberon Overture, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, and Mendelssohn ‘Scottish’

It’s all about the detail.

The first thing I note down as I listen to the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra play Weber’s Oberon Overture, is the detail.

The string sound is warm; the opening woodwind cue exquisite – there is a warbling quality to the overall texture which is irresistible. Sweetness follows in the uppers strings, and a delectable precision in the ensemble playing as a whole. This isn’t like anything I’ve heard in a long long time.

And perhaps with good reason. The Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra membership consists of Verbier Academy alumni all of whom now play in professional orchestras across the world.

Conductor Lahav Shani works the band hard, demanding all manner of intricate details and extreme dynamic contrasts. He coaxes and stirs in an understated way. At one point an almost imperceptible trumpet takes me by surprise. My pen goes down. I lean in.

Vadim Repin’s Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 is a remarkable marathon building to a cacophonous conclusion. There were moments in the first movement when it felt as though the ensemble was out ever so slightly with the soloist – the most marked example when horns and cello exchange phrases in the third movement.

That said, the range of string textures throughout was a thing to behold, so too the precision closing of phrases with beautifully placed chords. Balletic. As though we were gently laying our heads on a feather pillow.

The second movement has porcelain delicacy in the solo line, and a music box quality in the accompaniment. Repin’s honeyed vibrato hints at anguish in the vulnerability of the movement. The return of the opening subject towards the end triggers an emotional rush I wasn’t prepared for. Here too it’s obvious where the core strength in this woodwind section lays: in the rapport between flutes and clarinets – some gorgeous textures emerge from their dovetailed tones.

Lahav Shani

The thrills and spills of the first half realised by the VFCO’s dexterity and musicianship come to the fore in Shani’s thrilling direction of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

Dramatic dynamic contrast in the first movement exposed some melodic lines I’d not heard before. The virtuosic clarinet solo that opens the second movement was an obvious highlight, followed by blistering articulation in the horns and double basses later in the movement. A noble celli solo was made more of by reducing the dynamic range of the string players that usually engulf it. With these simple elements brought front and centre, the VFCO made this an enlightening interpretation.

The detail-oriented Shani transitioned from an operatic opening at the beginning of the third movement into something wholly balletic in a few short bars, deploying demonstrative hand gestures to create gentle ebbs and flows in the strings.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast 47: Pianist Nicolas Hodges discusses Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles

Nicolas Hodges appears at the BBC Proms 2019 in a performance of Messiaen’s Des Canyon aux étoiles.

Here he discusses the different ways birdsong sounds across the world, how eight weeks when he was a teenager made contemporary music inescapable, and what happens in the moment between the final note of a piece of music and the applause beginning. 

The podcast is available on Audioboom or Spotify.

Recorded at Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer on Wednesday 23 July 2019.

Waterperry Opera Festival: talent, energy and rapport in a beautiful Oxfordshire setting

Waterperry Opera has a valuable USP and deserves to go from strength to strength

Waterperry Opera Festival is underway this weekend. The four-day event based in and around the Regency grandeur of Waterperry House and Gardens in rural Oxfordshire, has built on its highly successful inaugural season in 2018 and has returned hoping its bigger festival with more works, more spaces and more days will increase its 2018 inaugural figures of just over 1000 visitors.

The site at Waterperry is no stranger to creative endeavours. The near 200 year-old mansion on the the 17th century site was from the 1930s home to Beatrice Havergal’s School of Horticulture for Ladies, and between 1971 and 2016 was home to has a history of playing host to creative endeavours.

Bought in 1830 and home to the Henley family, then by Magdalen College in 1925, it was taken over in 1932 by Beatrix Havergal who established the Waterperry School of Horticulture for Ladies, hence the considerable acreage of blooms, shrubs and tree that adorn the gardens surrounding the house. When the School closed in 1971, arts and crafts took hold in the form of the Art in Action Festival which at its height attracted 28,000 visitors, finally coming to an end in 2016.

Waterperry Gardens on the hottest day of the year in 2019

It would be all too easy to regard the Opera Festival as just another rural summer arts event. There’s more to it than that. It has a USP which I think is quite unusual in the arts world: an air of sincerity. What’s particularly special about WOF is its energy and dynamism. That comes from the people involved in it.

I’ve been really impressed with the speed at which WOF at the hands of directors Rebecca Meltzer, Guy Withers and Bertie Baigent, has got off the ground (the original idea came about in 2017 with the inaugural festival in 2018).

Similarly, the obvious commitment to a longer-range strategy, built into an energetic plan for year-on-year development. This year has already grown from three days to four. An audience space has been erected in the grounds called ‘The Hub’, offering catering, talks, and a swiftly re-configurable performance space. The amphitheatre and ballroom are in use again this year. A range of spaces means different events. And that means more reason to stay throughout the day. That’s opera making a venue a destination for more reasons than just opera or picnicking. And with top price tickets at £40, their events are good value for money too.

What’s also clear to see spending a day there again this year is how the Festival is not only rooted in the local community, but also how its talent are eager to make their mark for the sake of the Festival too. This is a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of team effort.

The company for this years productions – Fairy Queen, Magic Flute, Mansfield Park – plus the volunteers and production bring the total on site at around 200 meaning there’s a buzzing atmosphere before things even get underway. And with performers already professionally engaged in events across the world, the quality is high. Performances in small-scale locations make sold-out performances a near certainty; the flip side for the audience is that we see the performers up close, and that means no detail can be allowed to slip.

And close proximity to a performance means something else emerges. The energy that Waterperry’s company exudes isn’t only down to the performers individual talents but also rapport. That’s no accident. Auditionees for the company are known by the well-connected team of Festival managers and production directors who have the added benefit of being one and another’s peers and contemporaries. In the orchestral world right now there’s a move to help develop musicians artistic management aspirations to change the ‘them and us’ relationship between players and administrative staff. Part of Waterperry’s success is down to a generation of artists blurring those boundaries from the start. A festival led by practitioners already making a headway in their chosen fields. A more resilient organisation model not hindered by the usual constraints, successful now.

Lunch for the Waterperry company: hearty, generous and meat-free

There are other slight quirks about experiencing Waterperry behind the scenes too. The welcome by the blue clad volunteers and staff is universally and noticeably warm even on the hottest day of the year. There is a sense of genuine engagement in the experience of visitors to the site whether they’re journalists or ticket-holders. In comparison to other endeavours I experience, the difference is striking. I ended my second trip to the Festival feeling as though I was a part of it. That’s a rare trick they’ve pulled off there.

And there’s an Enid Blyton feel to the industry going on in and around the house. Staffed by an army of festival volunteers back stage and front of house, free of the usual pretentions Waterperry has an honesty about it that focuses audience attentions on the core content: the performances. There’s that heady atmosphere that comes from endeavours brought about by recent graduates with a simple unfussy kind of professionalism that makes the visitor experience more immediate and direct too. And the lunch for company and production was, on the day I visited, a generous meat-free feast.

‘Dream’ in The Hub at Waterperry

I saw two performances in dress rehearsal on my visit. Caitlin Goreing and Harry Jacques voices made for an exquisite and intense combination in the realisation of Britten’s second canticle Abraham and Isaac up in the ballroom. The other Young Artists Programme performance was ‘Dream’ in The Hub – a piece devised from various Shakespeare texts pages of which were hung up on a washing line above the performance space and resourcefully used in parts to illustrate the story being told by the four performers.

Laura Attridge, Magic Flute director at Waterperry, explains what she’s been working on since her work on Trinity Laban’s Rape of Lucretia in 2018, including workshopping primary school children’s reactions to operatic material.

Logistical work-related challenges prevented from staying the whole day for Laura Attridge’s Magic Flute in the amphitheatre, but the opportunity to see a revival of Rebecca Meltzer’s production of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield was too good to miss. Dove’s music (and the libretto too) moves the action on in this comic piece at a fair rate, with some motoring rhythms, delicious syncopations, and hummable tunes. In ensemble numbers the music soars, pinned to the optimum range of each voice, the harmony shifts instinctively enveloping the listener in a warm blanket of sound.

The ensemble cast all but two of whom were reunited commit to the performance with verve, relishing every cue, and feeding off one another’s energy. A lot of this is down to the direction which begins with characters inviting the audience up into the performance space in the ballroom where the ensemble is already gathered indulging in conversation, song, misunderstanding and japes. By the time the action starts, we’re already invested. The cast doesn’t have to work that much harder to engage us.

Mansfield Park Director and Waterperry Opera Director Rebecca Meltzer talks about the revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera at Waterperry, and give notes on my unexpected participation in it.

Special mention to new boy in the cast Australian tenor Damian Arnold who gave us a handsome Henry Crawford with brooding menace underpinned by a strong jawline, marker-pen eyebrows and a chilling stare. A big hand as well for British Youth Opera alumni (and soon to be Cambridge PHD student in psychology) Milo Harries as Edmund Bertram, whose burgundy voice can, will, and did melt hearts.

Waterperry Opera Festival runs until Sunday 28 July 2019. Next year’s festival is in August 2020. For more information visit www.waterperryoperafestival.co.uk.

James Ehnes at the BBC Proms playing Britten's Violin Concerto

BBC Proms 2019 / 3 – Dvorak on TV, Ehnes’ Britten on the radio, and the burning sensation of shame

I’m journalling my Proms season this year. Not necessarily day to day. More documenting my experience of it and the thoughts that arise from it. The numbering I use in the titles refers to the posts rather than a direct reference to the Prom number.

Ehnes plays Britten

I remember seeing Ehnes play something or other in Verbier Church a few years back. What I loved about his solo performance was his unpretentiousness – a charming, effortlessly calm and direct style of communication that made me go slightly weak at the knees.

(By way of comparison Finn Pekka Kuusisto achieves a similarly unequivocal level of ‘hotness’ when I’ve seen him play.)

That I was reminded of Ehnes’ on-stage charisma when I listened to Britten’s Violin Concerto points to the fine indeterminate details of a musicians expression that have the power to trigger memories. Defining indescribable characteristics that have the potential to momentarily paralyse the listener in near-ecstasy.

Well, maybe near-ecstasy is gilding the lily somewhat. But bloody hell the Britten was brilliant. Meaty, solid, anguished and, above all else, an evocative trigger of ‘home’ on the east coast of Suffolk. On a second listen I hear a romantic approach to the candenza which I rather like. The strings of the orchestra also sounded pretty good too – especially in the Shostakovich-esque Passacaglia. Very strong Royal Academy of Music and Julliard School. Nice work.

Listening to the concert on the radio (in the kitchen, on the oil-spattered digital radio) I had my first pang of ‘I really ought to be there’ of the season. This wasn’t so much ‘fear of missing out’, as ‘fear of missing the point of the season’. A sudden realisation dawned. I seem to spend so much of my time pedalling around, talking to people, writing about stuff in order to generate work, that I don’t actually set aside time to experience the thing that I write about. And that means I miss out on the thing I love. I need to build some time in.

Another tweet (mine this time)

Eagle-eyed individuals will recall I tweeted about the BBC Symphony’s principal oboist using a shot of the considerable impact his embouchure has on his cheek muscles. This appeared at first to have been received well by nearly all. One or two responded with ‘he played so well though,’ leading to me to conclude that some thought I was ridiculing the chap. I clarified in typical Jon Jacob fashion. Things escalated when another oboist, revealing her connection with the subject of the image (his partner), commenting on how she hoped Twitter could be a nicer place, confirming in my mind that yes, it has been interpreted as me having a dig. Phoned a friend for context, held an executive board meeting with myself then deleted the tweet.

Some thoughts arise.

My intent was sound, respectful and fun. That other professional musicians (high voluting ones too) ‘liked’ the tweet confirmed that most others recognised the intent.

The sense of shame that has arisen since deleting the tweet burns. This I consider a good thing to an extent. It demonstrates that I’m not a cold-hearted bastard and, given that I’m talking about here, a reminder for me that valuable thinking and actions emerge from confronting things which others might feel embarrassed about.

Why the sense of shame? The timing was interesting, hot on the heels of the Phase Eight thing last week, you’d think I’d have foreseen all reactions and thought twice. The orchestral world is small than a bands scale on stage might lead you to believe. And whilst I don’t derive much if any revenue from the classical music world, the idea that me (self-proclaimed advocate) ends up pissing off the world I seek to champion seemed (and still does seem) uncomfortably possible.

But it got me thinking, had the picture been of a brass player would the reaction have been unequivocally different. If it had been a percussionist displaying a similar feat of technical agility, might some have seen it as a dig?

Dvorak Violin Concerto on TV

One of the big ‘innovations’ this year as trumpeted (boom) by the BBC press team has been the inclusion of Jess Gillam as a new presenter in the Proms TV lineup. I’m not entirely sure this is an innovation driven by independent TV production company Livewire or whether its something Jess’ record label Decca have been keen to see happen (see earlier post for an explanation).

Certainly, Jess being called out as ‘the youngest presenter on Radio 3’ by Controller Alan Davey when she took on This Classical Life, makes her inclusion at the Proms less innovative and more of an inevitable consequence of a strategy designed to make classical music more appealing to a young(ish) audience.

As it’s her first appearance, it made sense that Katie Derham held onto the reins, introducing the newcomer to the regular(ish) audience. But there were times when the presence of two hosts made things feel a little cumbersome – in the same way that two news anchors swapping delivery sentence and sentence makes for a disjointed viewer experience. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of on-screen rapport between them (note – on-screen rapport is different from how they might be off-camera, so I’m not being a bitch here in case anyone screams) and the mismatch of styles of delivery (inevitable given Jess’s significant lack of experience) highlighted the presence of the script. Two hosts speaking to one interviewee looked a little strange, it has to be said. A sledgehammer to crack a nut, if you will.

There are some nice touches. I do really like the presenter-less talent-led introductions, this evening given by Joshua Bell. They’re natural, straight-forward and pleasingly authentic.

The introductions to works given by the pundit – a spoken programme note – are useful though their success depends solely on limiting the information and maximising the delivery. Not an easy ask at all, but for me worth sticking with. It needs a consummate broadcaster able to deliver a rich script by combining warmth and knowledge.

The opening sequence to the broadcast is marvellous. It does a great deal in an extremely short space of time to settle my nerves and set the tone.

BBC Proms 2019 / 2 – Dvorak Violin Concerto

Prom 2 and its worth stating the three things that usually take me by surprise at this point in the season.

One. The Proms live broadcasts give me the permission to stake my claim over the household sound system. As a result, its a moment in the year when me and the OH actively listen to classical music together.

Two. People read this blog more around this time of year.

Obviously that’s a great thing. But it always surprises me that anyone cares that much what I have to say about it. The life script that plays out in my head whenever I’m writing a tweet or a blog post is something along the lines of ‘what on earth do you have to say that is interesting what with you being a massive curmudgeonly pain in the arse?’

I probably need to find a coach to unpack some of that stuff.

But it is that people do keep coming back to read the blog (even in its new location the traffic is consistently high) highlights for me one unexpected consequence of the returning Proms season: increased leadership hooks me into the season, even if the season itself doesn’t.

Three. The official First Night isn’t necessarily my First Night. Sometimes the right combination of factors collide to create something that sounds like that hazy summer evening experience I’ve come to associate with a live Proms broadcast. Maybe the prism I look at the Proms through is so niche (classical music broadcasting) as to make the readership numbers even more of a miracle than they strike me. But, the Bamberg Symphony with a first half of Dvorak Violin Concerto played by Joshua Bell is just the broadcasting concoction I needed in order to kickstart me into the Proms this year.

The Bamberg immediately fill the hall with a much rounder, much deeper sound. There’s a powerful emotional effect to hearing it. A sense of relief perhaps? The strings are rich, solid and strong right across their range. There’s a depth to the overall mix too. I feel like I’m listening to a broadcast of a symphony orchestra rather than one given by a radio orchestra (there is a subtle difference).

Dvorak’s Violin Concerto is a much-better work compared to the Golden Spinning Wheel the night before. It has a little more to hook into compared to the comparatively more programmatic work the from the first night. More demanding music: more melodic and harmonic development. The work combined with the band playing it immediately lifts my mood. Soloist Joshua Bell still very much has it too. A scintillating performance. The same commitment to his performance I noted in 2009.

I may have had my fill of Dvorak however. I notice I can’t take too much of his musical brand of sentimentality before I start feeling like I’m a character in a period drama. Precision crafting, of course. Just way too much sugar.

So, Bell’s performance with the Bamberg Symphony lulls me into thinking that maybe this year’s Proms won’t be quite such an ordeal as I wrote a few days ago. Then I see pictures from the TV recording (see above). A tightening of the chest follows. Maybe I spoke too soon. The next test for the 2019 season? Will the newest member of the Proms presenter line-up cut the mustard?

Karina Canellakis at the First Night of the BBC Proms 2019

BBC Proms 2019 / 1 – First Night

A deceptive concert programme more compelling on radio than TV.

On-screen presentation had a gratifyingly retrospective feel with some satsifying innovations and an engaging live feel.

What was the First Night like? Not bad, is the short answer.

I watched the TV broadcast – usually a good barometer for awkwardness – and appreciated the efficiency of the introduction, the live exchanges between pundits and presenter, and the fresh approach taken to first person anecdotes and introductions given straight to camera. I was expecting to be annoyed by it.

I was expecting there to be endless young people in shot. There wasn’t. It left me wondering why on earth the BBC had led its PR campaign on the representation of young people in its presentation. I could have saved myself quite a lot of gnashing of teeth if they’d just explained exactly what we could expect from the opening night.

The Pundits

Kathryn Night, Rob Adediran from London Music Matters, and Greg Beardsall -were worked very hard and were as far as I could see operating on considerably more adrenaline than perhaps they were comfortable with.

They also seemed to have to talk for a long time without any interruption or challenge. I did wonder whether that contributed to their comparative dis-ease with proceedings. A bit more conversation to break up the monologues will improve things immensely.

All that said, I appreciated seeing the pundits having their moment to reveal interesting insights about the works. We must all agree above all else however that Greg Beardsell must never stand up and demonstrate flossing ever again, even if it’s an analogy.

The greatest element of the TV presentation was a return to live coverage. This gave things quite a buzz which was rather refreshing. So much of what the BBC does nowadays is pre-recorded or deferred that sometimes the spirit of the moment is lost. The live ‘feel’ was infectious and reminded me of Proms broadcasts from 15 or so years ago.

And I adored The Derham’s self-deprecation too. Very Emily Maitlis.

The music

The concert programme wasn’t especially scintillating. I found my attention waned a little during Zosha Di Castri’s Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory a problem where TV tends to amplify those moments where there’s a lack of compelling content. On radio, Di Castri’s piece worked better, though listening back on radio I wonder whether there might have been an opening flourish included at the top of the concert programme, that helped meet my expectations for a season opener.

I don’t especially get what the appeal of Dvorak’s The Golden Spinning Wheel is musically speaking. Pleasant melodies evoking dreamy pastoral locations and all that, but a work that failed to stir the emotions for me.

It was a little more difficult to maintain attention during Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass on TV, where the radio broadcast was a considerably more satisfying experience. Listening back this morning, The brass of the BBC Symphony Orchestra stirred the heart with a range of burnished chords. Some of the upper strings felt thin and ‘splashy’ at the top end, although this shifted to something more pleasingly rounded in the mid and lower ranges and faster sequences. Tenor Ladislav Elgr has the most remarkable voice (every note committed to with considerable energy) and striking presence that suits Janacek’s melodic language. And I’m sure there’s one chorus cue that reminds me of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Overall

It wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t feel as distanced from it as I thought I might. So much so that I might possibly entertain the idea of heading to the Hall on Monday night. Programmatically I wanted it to be a bit more ambitious.

That I’m being that picky suggests that the hype around the Proms now is building expectations higher and higher. On the plus side there wasn’t really anything (apart from the flossing demo) that riled. So you know, surprisingly, it all went better than expected.

Related Podcast

Listen to Jan Younghusband, BBC Music Commissioning Editor discuss TV coverage for the BBC Proms 2019. Podcast available on Spotify and Audioboom.

BBC Proms 2019: The curse of the enthusiast

Am I the kind of classical music fan that is at the heart of classical music’s problem?

A number of unexpected things occlude my usual unbridled enthusiasm at the start of this year’s Proms season.

Back at the press launch in April I’d already concluded this wasn’t looking to be a great year for the Proms. This was partly because I had already identified a question I wanted to answer : how do my feelings about the Proms change between season launch and the First Night? Does the brochure still have the impact it once did? Would I still pore over it? How would my feelings change come the First Night?

That’s the angle for me this year: is there a critical point in time in the season when the cynicism wanes and joy steps in to take its place?

I’ll get back to you on that. It’s not happened yet.

Changing things for the better … kind of

The classical music world is going through a significant change it seems to me.

That’s not altogether a bad thing, of course. Those with clout (usually big budgets) are bringing a commercial mindset to the sector. Marketing and PR is getting classical music talked about more by a wider group of people.

But there is a flipsidee.

The redefinition of the classical music genre by the commercial sector to include more musical styles (there’s a parallel with the Proms season as a whole this year) isn’t for me about social mobility, diversity or accessibility. It’s purely to do with increasing sales which is made more possible by widening the scope of the content.

If it can be monetised and it has an orchestral instrument in it somewhere, then we can call it classical. No one will care because no one will notice. We’ll drown out the detractors. They’re just enthusiasts.

The closer connection between record industry and BBC Proms is coming more into focus for me this year too.

This is more of an assumption on my part (which I’ll happily flag in advance) which will no doubt underpin my enjoyment or otherwise of the season as a whole. I see a closer connection between Decca and the BBC – seen in the BBC Young Musician signings post-competition, and various on-screen ‘practitioners’ meteoric rise despite them only being at the beginning of their musical development. The knowledge and experience they bring to mediating a concert seems quite low. This doesn’t matter it seems.

This isn’t envy on my part (though I get that some people might think that). I just see some of the presenting talent this year as being record industry ‘property’ first and foremost, and that their appearance on-air is as much about increasing visibility for the record label as it is about supposedly reaching out to a young audience for the BBC.

In short, I remain unconvinced that putting A Young Person in front of a camera with a microphone is really all that’s required to get young people interested.

Even before the Proms has started this year, it is the way we’re packaging up the classical music world to make it ‘appealing’ that makes me assume that I’m going to feel distant from this year’s season – that I’m not the target audience.

The Proms is an epic battle

There’s more. I’m sorry. There’s more.

I see a fractious classical music world at the beginning of this year’s Proms season too, one distinctly unable to hold disparate views about the way it works now and the way it could work in the future. A classical music world coalescing around big names, backing entertainment rather than artistic endeavour, all of it part of a grand if hollow call to arms to make genre more ‘accessible’.

People with big budgets and only a little expert knowledge, dismissive of knowledge, convinced that the audience will be put off by any mention of knowledge, or what it takes to be an elite performer, for example.

And a classical music world where anyone who challenges anything that doesn’t quite sit right for them being accused of being the cause of that stuffy problematic world the great and the good are trying to deal with once and for all.

So, I see this year’s Proms as an epic battle. And I fear I am going to get to the end of it and conclude that it is because I’m passionate advocate of it, that I am seen as part of classical music’s present-day problem.

That Phase Eight Thing (and other stories)

Some may interpret this rather odd stance to what happened yesterday – the Phase Eight thing (see below).

In actual fact, it’s not the cause of this post, but yesterday’s nonsense does rather encapsulate everything I’ve been thinking for a while now.

Phase Eight’s digital content plan included one Tweet aligning the brand with the BBC Proms. “If you’ve got tickets for the Proms you’ll need a dress.” Or words to that effect.

It was a spectacularly odd and for me after an evening out with a pal during which I had one or two sherries, massively idiotic message to put out. One tweet that illustrated the assumptions people outside the classical music world make. A tweet that sought to raise awareness of the brand (laudable) and succeeded in the wrong way, for them and only sought to reinforce misrepresentation. Fodder for people like me.

Enthusiasts are the problem

What I noticed yesterday was something fairly predictable I suppose for our day and age, but also rather saddening.

After the initial guffawing had died down, the opposing view was inserted into the discussion about how it was good that a brand was talking about classical music, and we should stop before slagging people off because there’s a person behind the account, etc etc. And then after that the back-biting.

One tweet in particular shifted the attention to somewhere entirely different.

“Nothing says ‘classical music is welcoming and non-elitist’ like mocking a simple misunderstanding … if classical music dies it will be the enthusiasts that kill it.”

Alexandra Coghlan, 18 July 2019, 3.12pm

I see the perspective. I appreciate seeing this from Alexandra’s perspective. Indeed, this one tweet alone prompted me to reflect on whether I had something to pedal back from late last night. The outcome of that particular executive board meeting prompted me to conclude that on balance, I don’t because we all of us have different views and that the classical music world should be robust enough to play host to those different views.

But it also reminded me of the division which is laid bare – perhaps not because of the Proms, but more to do with social media and the age that we live in. It is now common for the ‘originating issue’ to quickly morph into tribal spats. As the discussion progresses or breaks down (you decide which it is) so we move further away from the thing that actually unites us all. I used to think that classical music provided an escape from the hideousness of the rest of the world. Now I can see its been just as susceptible as every other avenue of pleasure I’ve naively skipped down.

Enthusiasts rock

Enthusiasts are vital for this art form.

It is because you’re an enthusiast for a subject that you picked up and progressed with an instrument in the first place. It’s probably what propelled you through the education you received and perhaps what motivated you to study more in depth in higher education. Being an enthusiast is what drives many adults to return to music-making later in life – something that has resulted in a university friend of mine becoming a highly successful professional musician since graduation. And importantly for me, it is because of enthusiasts that we have passionate debate, that shifts in how the thing we profess to care about are challenged or celebrated.

Enthusiasts care about the thing they’re enthusiastic about. In other areas of entertainment, say for example the Eurovision Song Contest, enthusiasts have been at the heart of a brand’s revival. That the Eurovision is the commercial operation it is today (and a potent brand for the European Broadcasting Union) is testament to the positive sheen an enthusiast can bring to something. It wasn’t always so.

There was a time – not so long ago – when the Prommers in the arena were the focus of the criticism about classical music world. They were the lightning rod the societal discussion about everything that was wrong (and right) with the Proms and the classical music world. As marketers widen classical music’s appeal and reach, so the arena for discussion and the subjects fought over in it widen to include all sorts of different people.

Maybe that means that classical music appreciation has just grown up a bit, finding itself in the big wide world with all aspects of it vying for attention just like anything else right now. If that’s the case, that makes the Proms this year feel like a potential ordeal. Probably best just to listen on the radio in that case.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast 46: Cellist Matthew Barley

Matthew Barley’s recording of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil was released on the Signum label in June 2019. It’s available via Spotify.

In this podcast Matthew discusses how the impact of a skiing accident forced him to reevaluate his playing, led to a diagnosis of Ehlers Danloss Syndrome, and how his subsequent understanding of hypermobility demanded learning how to play the cello all over again.

Classical music gets a bashing once again

A big broadcast classical music festival is about to get underway. Someone call in the clickbait writers to have a poke at the artform. Predictable.

Thursday’s Guardian editorial is a mismatched poke at the classical music world in the UK just as the classical music world gears up for the annual music festival which seeks to celebrate it in all its forms. What predictable timing.

It’s frothy self-loathing masks the writer and sub-editor’s ignorance about the artform, the audiences who love it (for whatever reason), and its psychological effects. It has, inevitably, had classical music afficiandos, artists and advocates up in arms.

A summary of the piece to save time: classical music has been reduced to tackling anti-social behaviour in retail outlets, it’s being overrun by rich people who use it to virtue signal, and the landmark music festival most audiences know classical music by is in danger of being so watered down as to be meaningless.

For some businesses, [classical music] is the aural equivalent of homeless spikes, deployed to shift or subdue targeted undesirables; for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts. 

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

There’s not a great deal to disagree here with necessarily. The evidence provided isn’t far from the truth. Classical music is often piped into tube station ticket halls and coffee shops and it does have a surprisingly calming effect.

So what?

To describe that act as ‘a grim social function’ means the author of the piece (newspaper editorials are never published with a by-line) is making a class judgment on the art form, elevating it to a rarefied status – an act which is part of the problem classical music (and no other musical art form) continues to struggle with today.

Are there any alternatives solutions for the social problems he or she describes as grim? None appear to be forthcoming.

People who own Royal Albert Hall seats are reportedly reselling tickets, with a pair of stalls seats for the Last Night of the Proms going for about £2,500. Harrods Estates is marketing a 12-seater box in the same hall, available to buy on a leasehold of more than 840 years, for £3m – a snip if you want to avoid rubbing shoulders with cheap-seat plebs.

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

The point about the sale of boxes at the Royal Albert Hall highlights the ignorance of the piece too. Leases on boxes are sold by the Royal Albert Hall (not the BBC Proms) which stages a variety of events throughout the year, of which ‘the world’s greatest classical music festival’ is one. Boxes are therefore ‘owned’ by corporate entities or individuals with considerable disposable income, giving those in the lease agreement access to sporting events, musicals, rock concerts, Carols by Candlelight, the BBC Proms and a great many other things.

That system is part of the Royal Albert Hall’s business strategy (and has been since its inception). That tickets are sold at that price isn’t because of the high value on classical music per se, but on the opportunity that classical music presents for leaseholders to make money out of their Royal Albert Hall asset. I imagine tennis matches go for a similar price. And, if ABBA were to reunite and perform at the Royal Albert Hall, the prices would be even higher.

The unwillingness of many audiences to expose themselves to the shock of the musically new is more acute today because most of the output of Britain’s three classical music radio stations is devised to be unchallenging.

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

Blaming the audience for being ‘unwilling’ to ‘expose themselves’ to the ‘shock of the musically new’ effectively tramples on the work of many of today’s composers who seek to create compelling works of art that delight. If the author knew as much as he or she professed to care about the way the art form was widely regarded, then seeking to support contemporary composers by avoiding the word ‘shock’ would have been a good place to start (though would have demanded more than a few paragraphs in an editorial).

Britain’s three classical music stations are catering for different audiences, go after them aggressively, and present entirely different repertoire. Anybody who has bothered to listen to them would know that already.

Where the BBC Proms is concerned there is an element of truth in the editorial. The season’s broad strategy is to be more ‘inclusive’ and ‘accessible’. That’s something which supports the BBC’s current relentless drive to reach out to more young people in a desperate bid to replenish its audience who it thinks will eventually wither and die.

It has significantly less money because the season is heavily subsidised by the Licence Fee, the financial limits of which have been highlighted once again by the BBC’s announcement it would not be automatically be granting free licences for the over-75s.

The Proms doesn’t delight and excite this year as much as it has done in recent years, and that is a disappointment. But anyone who ‘laments’ the state of the season by dismissing it as ‘easy listening’ clearly has spent as much time flicking through the season brochure as they have done event skim-reading the press release sent out by the BBC on launch day.

I’m not in the business now of defending my former employer. Not any more. There’s a lot wrong with it. A lot of its faults are down to a range of spectacularly inept individuals who work there. The Corporation and its activities deserve to be held to account and its endeavours scrutinised and contextualised. And if there’s something that absolutely needs to have closer attention paid to it this year its the way in which the artform is contextualised in its presentation.

But the Proms is, arguably, one of the constants which has maintained classical music. That people want to and are able to spend lots of money in order to be present in a box at a concert demonstrates the art form’s appeal for a particular audience demographic and therefore the Proms success at raising awareness.

Listen to BBC Music Commissioning Editor Jan Younghusband introduce this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage in the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast.