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.

BBC Proms 2019 / 7: Proms Encore, Peterloo, Huw Watkins and Mozart’s Requiem

A review of the week. Not everyone’s week, obviously. But mine, listening to the Proms live and on catch-up

Proms Encore Episode 2

The second episode of Proms Encore saw a slight improvement. The interview with organist Oliver Latry had some spirit about it, including a heart-warming sequence where Rev Richard Coles played the subject from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on the Royal Albert Hall. There’s genuine rapport between the two in the film which makes it rather endearing.

Later in the programme Pekka Kussisto and Stuart Skelton join in the ‘fun’ with Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason in the Gazebo/Bandstand. Kussisto’s contributions are when the energy changes. Up until that point the OB Gazeo/Bandstand links with the Kanneh-Masons came across as little more than a Decca promo brimming with overly-rehearsed key messages pre-determined by the record label. Neither musician has that much to say about anything and it shows. The distance between host and guests doesn’t help promote a sense of intimacy meaning some of the exchanges feel rather stilted.

Peterloo Overture and Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini

The opening subject is enough to induce tears in me. That’s partly to do with Arnold’s melodic mastery imbued with an ochre colour of melancholy. Programmatic (it illustrates the carnage at the Peterloo Massacre) and highly descriptive, the various scenes depicted in this tightly scored concert opener have a Shostakovich air throughout – in particular, the moments after the battle and before the euphoric conclusion. The BBC Philharmonic’s warm strings here, in the middle of their register, were something to behold on the broadcast. The other reason its an emotional listen is the way it evokes memories of Suffolk Youth Orchestra – a crowd- as much as an orchestra-pleaser. A formative work for me as a percussionist (yes, I even played percussion at one point when the principal clarinetist returned post-A-Level to resume his duties) back in the summer of 1989.

Good to hear the detail in the opening variation of the Rachmaninov variations – not heard that before. Similarly later on, some exquisitely dry articulation in the upper strings. Delicious. When I originally listened to this (on the JBL speakers post-bath sat in a dressing gown on the stairs) I was certain I heard a fair few errors. Listening back a second time on earphones, I hear one or two tiny slips in the piano – maybe a few crushed notes – but that’s all. Closer listening also suggests pianist Florestan was pulling out some of the ‘in-between-notes’ of the chords in the syncopated variation. If so, a nice detail. Some fresh details in a work I imagine must be phenomenally difficult to do something original with if you’re a pianist. The famous variation felt like sinking into a freshly-plumped feather pillow and falling gently asleep.

Shostakovich 11

This was a gripping performance. Breathtaking. Pushed me right to the edge of my comfort zone in terms of emotions. There were moments when the emotion created by the playing was so intense as to be almost unbearable. The effect was similar to Kissin and Kavakos in Verbier – ‘remarkable gents, but please, no further than that otherwise I’m going to have to do something embarrassing like rip off all of my clothes and run around like some kind of mad thing’. Terrifying, compelling, and captivating. Such a shame that when I came to watch it on TV, post-performance Tom Service and Jess Gillam felt the need to extol the virtues of the scale of the spectacle rather than temper their delivery and recognise the impact the work as a whole has on the engaged listener. Unbridled joyous excitement after the conclusion of Shostakovich 11 rides rough-shod over the emotional impact of the work. Were you actually listening to the damn performance? Next time, let’s just have the credits roll with nothing but applause in the background.

Mahler on TV

Two odd things have happened since the last posts regarding Proms Encore (if you haven’t read it, know that the Decca-infused episode two didn’t endear the ‘new series’ to me in any way) and write-up re: the Britten/Mahler TV coverage. The first was that TV producer from Livewire TV (the company behind this year’s Proms TV coverage) ‘liked’ my Proms Encore Bandstand/Gazebo post. Awkward. (Had he read the post and then endorsed it? Or has he misunderstood how Twitter ‘likes’ work? Either way, maybe there’s a potential money-spinner there.) The second was a message from a pal asking me whether I’d watched the Mahler sit-down interview with Ed ‘Silver Fox’ Gardner. “No,” I texted back. “I only went as far as the Britten Piano Concerto because I’m a massive Britten fan and have an equally massive crush on pianist Leif Oves Ands-wotnot.” What’s the point in Mahler when those key requirements have been met?

I watched Kathryn Knight and The Derham’s Mahler TV interval insert on the train back from a filming gig in Surrey on Friday. Glamma.

Turns out the Mahler sequence with Ed Gardner was quite good. Not massively keen on seeing knowledgeable pundit Kathryn Knight accompanying The Derham. Knight speaks with passion and authority. Feels a bit odd when she doesn’t ask Gardner a question in the three person set up. Subsequent rehearsal sequence however where The Derham and Knight discuss Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is very good. Fantastic timing, skillfully edited.

BBC National Orchestra do Mozart’s Requiem

Listened throughout. Still can’t shake the disturbing opening. Less plaintive cry of belief in the almighty, more signature tune from a lesser-known ITV imitation of Steptoe and Son. Ensemble issues in the opening Kyrie. Tenor’s vibrato was difficult to listen to – sheep-like. It all felt rather rushed and unloved. Quite disappointed. Seemed a like a cavalier approach, plus a love of staccato singing. Odd.

Huw Watkins’ The Moon

Can’t overstate how satisfying Watkins’ new work is to listen to. His textures are bold, melodic ideas pleasingly old-school, and treatments fresh but captivating. He is a lover of chords. Big chords. I love that.

This was the Prom I’d intended (and announced) I’d go to, but couldn’t get to owing to public transport issues. Gutted. Telephoned the BBC Proms PR drone about my impending non-attendance on the basis that he might be able to sell the ticket. Not being able to attend a concert you actively sought out is how I imagine football fans feel when they have a ticket to the FA Cup Final they can’t get to. Like being denied Christmas. Kind of.

John Wilson. Still adorable.

Listened back twice to his Warner Brothers gig. Loved it. His product is reliable. Prompted me to revisit this interview from 2011.

Prom12_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_ (3)

BBC Proms 2019 / 6: National Youth Orchestra, and concertos by Britten, Schumann and Sibelius

TV presenters, the need for awkwardness in art music, and the power of reportage to transform a spikey mood

Let’s start with the top line message in this post. I may go to a Prom next week. I may actually prom. I’m not 100% sure yet. But I know that I want to go. I want to feel a part of it. I want to experience the atmosphere. I don’t want the summer to have run away with me and not have been there physically in the hall again.

Why the change of heart? Shostakovich 5 was a big contributory factor. It touched me in a way I hadn’t been expecting and it reminded me that there are those moments when magic happens. You can’t predict that magic from the brochure (though its more likely to happen when its an international orchestra I’d suggest) nor from the hype in various broadcasters voices. Maybe one of the things I’ve forgotten about the Proms is the inherent risk in a one-off concert. It might move you. Only you’ll be able to judge. No one else can tell you. A brochure certainly can’t. The brochure is hype. The TV and radio is hype. Shostakovich 5 reminded me that unexpected things can happen and that its the unexpected discoveries that bring the joy.

The National Youth Orchestra

The opposite is the case with the National Youth Orchestra Prom. I watched the TV broadcast on catch-up first. The two presenter approach is infuriating, especially when the pair – in this case Tom Service and Jess Gillam – attempt to match one another’s energy in the short sentences each inevitably has to deliver because there’s two of them sharing the same one script. There strikes me as very little rapport between them. I’d rather have one of them than both. And to be honest, I’d really rather see Tom.

The opening work by Lera Auerbach Icarus is an entertaining listen, brimming with textures with a celluloid programmatic feel to it that makes it instantly appealing. It also sounds like a great youth orchestra piece too, ideal for one as big as NYO. Loved it on TV and on radio.

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti didn’t quite sit right for me. Some sections felt perilously fast. Some material contrasts – those moments when the orchestra picked up material and moved proceedings onto a different section – felt a little clunky as though we were listening to an actual youth orchestra performance.

I watched the ‘painfully-on-message interview’ between Jess and Nicola Benedetti (Katie’s presentation and interval interview is far more interesting and natural-sounding in comparison). After that, watched the corresponding TV interval ‘feature’ and looked on in horror at the sight of Tom Service duelling in the arena with a former ballet dancer whilst the NYO rehearsed. Made it through four movements of conductor Mark Wigglesworth’s selection of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet before losing interest and heading off for a bath. Saturdays. Rock and roll.

The flipside of the NYO (and other mean thoughts)

In the bath, some dark thoughts emerged.

One. Is the NYO in danger of being seen in future years as an indicator of the health and success of music education in the UK hides the impact that multiple governments have sustained to systematically downgrade music in the curriculum?

Two. It seems odd to represent young people on-screen in a bid to reassert classical music’s appeal, when there is a dearth of universal music provision in the UK curriculum? What is the point in inspiring children and teenagers to work harder at music, when the value of music has been downgraded and music education funding has been cut and the infrastructure isn’t there?

Three. I’m tired. I find marketing messages irritating. Right now I’m looking on the Proms from an industry perspective (both recording industry and broadcast) and seeing only how vested interests water down the original ethos of Henry Wood and Thomas Newman’s original vision for the season. And I look on the numerous TV and radio presenters who cannot help themselves but to say how wonderful everything absolutely is or was as evidence that we’re all too happy to lose sight on what makes this artform wonderful. Is it ignorance on their part? Is it ego? Or was it an email they received from the Head of Presentation that told them that its now deemed acceptable to tell instead of show.

Four. I’m jealous. I’m surely turning my lack of achievement into a bitter statement on others. Jealousy is a horrible feeling. On a par to laying in a bath and realising the water has gone cold.

Leif and Britten

I capitalised on the surge of enthusiasm I experienced listening to the first of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s gigs, by revisiting the Britten Piano Concerto from last week.

Leif. Lovely.

Leif Oves Andsnes with BBC Symphony playing Britten ticks most of the boxes. I’m a Andsnes fan, in particular his recording of the Britten. By chance, I’d also caught sight of him at the Royal Albert Hall Cafe when I was there for a meeting, asking a uniformed Royal Albert Hall drone for directions. There was something rather touching about the seeing a recognisable face asking for something as banal as directions to the way in to a concert hall. There’s an odd paradox here. In Verbier I wanted to maintain a distance on Kavakos in Verbier because of the white heat of his Kreutzer Sonata with Kissin; in London, I’m more invested in a concert broadcast because I’ve seen the humanity of its top billing.

And of course its Britten’s music. Aside from it being a hugely entertaining work, Britten’s musical language reminds me of home. There’s something awkward about the mismatched phrase lengths he uses. There’s a childlike quality to the way the melodic and rhythmic material is committed to the timeline – as though the musical idea that comes first and bugger the bar lines and balance – especially in the opening Toccata. And the downward scurrying strings that concludes the opening statement just makes me think of Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes written seven years after the concerto in 1945.

There’s also an air of Poulenc in the playful (borderline cavalier) way Britten subverts expectations. But what appeals to me most – is the way neo-classical works like this take something vaguely familiar and insert the slightest twist to make things jar – just enough to push you out of familiarity and into an imaginary ever-so-slightly-dark-and-twisted world. You can hear it in the Impromptu. Mild unease of the likes that is often found around twilight in the wilds of East Suffolk. Alluring stuff (just so long as there’s no danger to life).

Leif is good though there are some piano/ensemble slips throughout. The mobile phone going off is very nicely handled however.

I do wonder watching him on TV whether he’s been out in the sun just a little too long. Wasn’t entirely convinced about the coda in the last movement. Have listened to it back a few times and I’m fairly certain the percussion section were in time with themselves but not with the soloist. Fluffed bit in the opening woodwind cue of the final movement too. Final movement on the whole was a little on the tardy side for my liking which made the last cacophonous chords feel a little everyone had got to the end of a 5K run.

On TV, the presentation (feat. The Derham and Kathryn Knight) was much better than the first night, benefiting from there being only one presenter and one contributor. Looks better too that both are stood up. Less content, less rushed, slightly easier to watch. Considerably less ‘innovation’ too. Good show. First rule of TV: keep it as simple as the commissioning editor’s expectations will allow. The strategy paid off. Keep it like this and you’ll have won me over.

Schumann vs. Sibelius

Pekka Kussisto with conductor Thomas Daussgard

I’ve listened to the Schumann three times since broadcast. Once in the bath on the JBL speaker, once with earphones (the best way to downplay the mushy reverb applied by the BBC), and once on the Onkyo in the lounge. I find the work massively irritating. It is the musical equivalent of that annoying kind of individual in the workplace who finds everything absolutely fantastic and berates anyone from looking negatively on anything for fear the entire fucking world will fall in on itself. This is all very odd as I had assumed listening to it that it was in the major key (there goes my musical education) hence it dripping with positivity. It’s actually in A minor. How is it something in a dark key can be so nauseatingly upbeat all the time?

This is where the dark thoughts from yesterday return. The Schumann A minor seems to represent everything I find increasingly annoying about the classical music world right now. This in turn triggers thirty-or-so minutes of inevitable self-loathing whilst I analyse the list of people I’m actually jealous of, pitting them in a football team which faces only one player – me – drawing on a mixture of cynicism, bitterness and resentment to win the tournament and lift the meaningless but otherwise weighty trophy for the assembled crowd to cheer.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto from Pekka Kussisto helps reset me.

Like Leif, I’m a big fan of The Kussisto. He does epic. He has an electricity about him which is beguiling (even if you’re listening on the radio). And the material is more rewarding. Segueing from the Finnish folk songs is a deft move – a sort of musical starter uninterrupted by applause or stage moves. The violin concerto has a greater range of material that makes for a richer story. The emotions are ambiguous. The world Sibelius paints a picture of is complex and satisfyingly authentic. There’s a hint of Mahler about proceedings. My metaphorical fist relaxes.

Official photographer Chris Christodoulou’s shot of Kussisto talking to the Prommers is a master-stroke. So much storytelling in the image – singer smiling, Kussisto and audience members leaning in. Applause. Bright light in the top third. The composition is stunning and the effect incredibly uplifting.

And I’m wondering whether this shot – beyond TV and radio and the brochure and the works that have got my goat so far – has done more to reunite me with that enthusiasm I remember from 12 years ago than anything so far this season.

More on that in future posts.

Prom15_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_ (8)

BBC Proms 2019 / 5: Shostakovich 5 from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Tuesday’s performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra highlights a newly adopted habit: a new way of listening.

I’ve listened to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Tuesday night performance of Shostakovich four times since I’ve got back from Verbier. I concur with Times arts wonk Neil Fisher – though I give him the credit through gritted teeth. The BRSO gave a quite remarkable performance.

The magic starts at the beginning of the first movement, in the upper strings. Strong. Whisper thin. They creep in and out. There’s a warmth too, underpinned with a low resonant bass. There’s a hint of approaching menace far beyond the simple beauty of the pure sweet melody.

Much of this is down to the BRSO. The sound they produce is quite something. And its consistent throughout the concert, evident in the concert encore. Sweet resonant upper strings, a strong bass, warm woodwind, delicate decoration from the percussion instruments, understated but vital accents from the brass. If it was a car it would be a sophisticated design with a plush leather interior. The engine would be almost inaudible. That kind of ride.

I can get lost in the sound world. A myriad of objects, colours, and people occupy a three-dimensional world evoked by Shostakovich’s writing and constructed by my own memories.

The emotional narrative of the work hasn’t changed over the years, but the way in which I occupy its world has. Listening to the fifth symphony is no longer only a matter of reminiscing. I listen this afternoon on the train back from Milton Abbey trying to identify what the emotions are I experience, what it is in the music that stirs them, and more and more nowadays what it is about the quality of the sound that has the power on my senses it does.

What I return to time and time again is the three-dimensional aspect of the sound. That’s not only about the quality of the broadcast sound, but the way in which the individual colours in this performance especially appear in front of me in the present, in a three-dimensional way. Whisper-thin strings pulled taut high above the score, deep basses rumbling underneath, distant trumpet calls piercing the haze with a bright light. It’s all about the detail. Delicate, beautifully crafted detail. We cannot half listen to this kind of music-making. To half-listen is to miss out on some of the joy.

Maybe its mindful listening – that process of focussing attention on what is going on in the ears whilst noticing what is going on in the rest of the body. Maybe that’s what is going on more and more now for me.

As it happens, I don’t actively resist reminiscing as I listen either. To not recall the first time I heard Shostakovich 5th would be to disrespect a great many people who contributed to my most treasured musical experience.

Suffolk Youth Orchestra. 1989. A residential course at my school (the only time when my school felt like somewhere I wanted to go to). The first time I get to sit in the middle of a full-scale symphony orchestra and feel the power a group of 100 reasonably good musicians can muster in rehearsals. If you’ve never sat in an orchestra before and experienced the impact music has all around you then you’re only getting half the experience when you listen to a concert. It is a truly magical and highly emotional experience.

As I write, listening to the aching simplicity of the stripped back third movement orchestration, I’m recalling those emotions from 1989 now. Sitting in amongst a small army of people my age, hearing sounds I didn’t think people my age were able to produce. The emotions are there in the throat, ready to burst out. Tears. But tears that don’t stand up to any kind of rational explanation. They are tears in response to exquisite beauty.

I can see what’s going on here. I’m listening to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in their Tuesday night performance. Their playing is triggering an emotional reaction in me which I’m then projecting on a memory from thirty years ago. I don’t kid myself thinking that we sounded anything like the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra. Only that what they’re doing to me now, reminds me of what the other members of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra did to me thirty years ago.

I’ve written before about Suffolk Youth Orchestra, about its conductor Philip Shaw who retired a few years ago, about the friends I made when I was a member of it, and the way it along with my university music-making helped save me. Shostakovich 5 was the first significant work we played and the first significant work I got under the bonnet of.

That’s the thing about great art. This stuff demands more than a one-time listen and ‘Yeah, that was nice.’ It’s stuff which invites further listens. By repeat listens we discover new things and, in turn, deepen our understanding of it and strengthen our connection with it. It is as though each performance is me giving that work a big hug. Each successive hug gets tighter and longer. We are now inseparable.

From time to time I hear from the friends I met in Suffolk Youth. Rebecca, Gig, Tim, Caroline, Hannah, Ali. Just recently Mel – principle oboe – who’s a keen knitter now. Bassoonists Ellie (who used to use the same train station in South East London) and Tim (now a composer). Nikki on timps. Chris (a solicitor) and his wife Judith (published author) whose first born is about to embark on three years at Cambridge. And there’s never a year that goes by when a Philharmonia Prom concert doesn’t trigger the thought of floppy-haired horn player Olly who frequently messed up his cues in SYO, but went on to great things and secured a seat in the Philharmonia before dying way too young in the mid-2000s.

It is in the performances of Shostakovich 5 in the summer of 1989 that these people (and countless others) stepped onto the stage to perform what seemed then like an epic undertaking for a group of teenagers. I remember looking at familiar faces during these concerts and not quite comprehending that they were the ones producing what I thought at the time was such a professional sound. Such is the power of music making, and being in the thick of it.

In the audience at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday night was a friend I went to school with. Ruth was in the year above me at school. We sang in the school chapel choir together. But she never played in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. I read on Twitter that she arrived late to the Beethoven in the first half, she was there ensconced for the second during which she heard Shostakovich 5 for the first time (and loved it). She’s got some catching up to do.

BBC Proms 2019 / 4: Proms Encore

A few days out of the country has had a significant impact on my perspective.

Not everything I heard or experienced in Verbier has made it to the blog yet (there are one or two more posts to come), but the thought of returning to the Proms and catching up on broadcasts I’ve missed since has felt like a bit of an effort in comparison.

Worth noting here for those not already aware, that the question I’m exploring the answer to in my Proms posts this year is about my enthusiasm for the season. I have a hunch its waned. I can’t work out whether that’s because there’s something that doesn’t really work about this year’s season or whether I’ve grown out of it. I’m trying to track when that exuberance returns and, if it does, why?

Some of the lack of enthusiasm is rooted in the season programming. I’ve touched on this before in earlier posts. In short, it seems rather unambitious. I suspect that’s largely down to slashed budgets.

But there’s also a need to look at the way the Proms (and therefore classical music) is packaged up at a point of time in the year when the biggest audience in the UK glances the classical music world. And a lot of that ‘packaging up’ is down to the language used and the presentation style.

These may seem like insignificant things to focus on. They’re not. What comes first in a broadcast are the introductions (visual, spoken, PR announcements that kind of thing). After that is the core content: the actual music. If done well, introductions can compliment or enhance the core content. If not, it can get in the way.

Proms Encore – the BBC’s ‘magazine’ programme bringing us the best of the Proms in a series of weekly half-hour programmes – is the latest addition to the Proms brand that has the potential to change my perspective on this year’s season. Spoiler alert: it hasn’t.

I’d originally heard on the grapevine that last year’s programme – Proms Plus – had been ditched in favour of a new show filmed outside the Royal Albert Hall in a big perspex box. I was given short shrift by a BBC person who advised that this wasn’t the case and that I would be wrong to publish anything like that because ‘it isn’t true’.

And yet, now I come to watch the ‘fresh, innovative’ Proms Encore I wonder whether it was just the thing about a perspex box that wasn’t true. Sure, there are similarities between the two. Proms Encore is presented by Katie Derham, it highlights Prom concerts in the season, and it features people sitting on chairs talking about things they’re looking forward to.

Unlike Proms Plus, Proms Encore is filmed outdoors (in a makeshift gazebo bandstand behind which members of the public can wave like goons). Also unlike Proms Plus, Proms Encore has hardly any discussion (there wasn’t an enormous amount before but there’s even less now), and significantly less atmosphere about it.

Aside from the editing which makes things feel a little cut together (Proms Plus always felt as though it was filmed as one complete programme or as near-to-live as possible which made for a more seamless viewing experience) there is one plus point in the first episode of Proms Encore. The story about the Philharmonia staffer who’s life was transformed after attending the Doctor Who Prom was surprisingly touching.

The contributors in episode one didn’t have much to say other than promoting events that they’re ‘looking forward to’ later in the season. All fairly anodyne. The theremin thing was interesting. I’m still not clear on why the BBC thinks there’s a connection between Holst Planets Suite and space travel though.

I’m not convinced the move to the Proms Gazebo Bandstand was entirely worth the effort. I cycled past there on my way to the Royal Albert Hall and couldn’t see it erected, so I’m assuming that means it has to be set up each week – what a pain in the arse that must be.

More importantly, the programme feels more marketing than journalism, and has considerably less substance by cutting broadcaster David Owen-Norris and his Chord of the Week. Shame.

Fair enough, I wasn’t really expecting Proms Encore to turn my head. Perhaps my expectations were a little high. The point is that television costs a lot and it has the potential of having a significant impact on audience perception. I saw one production team member this week describe the episode as ‘TV gold’. I remain unconvinced.