Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra play Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov and Britten at Cadogan Hall

A majestic sound in an acoustic that left absolutely no prisoners in a concert that sought to illustrate re-asserted cultural ties between Russia and the UK.

Down the road Members of Parliament participated in the most toxic of exchanges seen in the House of Commons in living memory.

The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra completed their inaugural tour of Russia and the UK with a concert of music by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire concert, managing instead to hear all but the concluding Hamlet suite by Shostakovich.

What I heard mostly hit the mark. Playing throughout amongst the strings was fierce – responsive dynamics, impressive attack and, at times, a sumptuous rich sound when the score demanded. Although it sometimes felt like there were too many strings for the venue’s acoustic, it was lovely to hear such a rich cello and bass section resonate on the Cadogan Hall platform. Woodwind packed a punch, sometimes felt a little under-powered in comparison (I’m assuming as a result of an imbalance between the sections in places). Some ruffled brass entries during the Britten and Rachmaninov did slightly detract attention.

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

Sometimes thunderous, sometimes warm strings throughout. Impressive responsiveness, remarkable confidence, assertion and accuracy given that this is the concert opener. Sometimes it felt like the double basses dominated in the balance. Placing the ‘echo orchestra‘ on the balcony overlooking the orchestra was a deft piece of pragmatism, a nod to the 1910 premiere, and unexpectedly emphasised the chills I sometimes get from this highly reflective work. I wasn’t quite so moved by BSFO’s performance of this as I was the BBC Symphony’s during the BBC Proms this year, but there was nonetheless something really quite powerful about seeing a string section made up of majority Russian players performing music that so immediately and unequivocally evokes (for good or bad) such a strong emotions around national identity. A performance made more poignant given the events that were unfolding at the House of Commons a couple of miles away.

Conductor Jan Latham-Koenig introduces the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra in an interview recorded at the launch of the scheme in August 2019

Rachmaninov Paganini Variations

The Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme of Paganini had an uneasy feel to it as though orchestra and pianist (Pavel Kalesnikov) were operating under two slightly different speeds. This combined with Cadogan Hall’s remarkably clear acoustic meant more of the detail of the score and ensemble was laid bare – lots of verve and attack from the strings at the start though some of brass cues didn’t feel quite as ‘spot on’ as the score instructs or the acoustic demands.

Pavel Kolesnikov (Credit: Luke Toddfrey)

I found the often rapid pace Kalesnikov had adopted interesting, though at times I wanted him to pull back on the transitions into the next variation just so the present one could ‘land’. Things tightened up considerably at Variation 18 where the extended solo passage afforded the pianist the opportunity to assert a lead. From that moment the nervy-ness of the combined ensemble passed.

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes

I always think its a brave band who performs Britten’s Four Sea Interludes in London when the music has the potential of transporting me as I listen back to Aldeburgh. If I’m not transported (and I’m often not when I’m sitting in a London concert hall) I get a bit antsy.

Edward Fox, Jan Latham-Koenig, Freddie Fox and the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 25 September 2019 (Credit: Luke Toddfrey)

There were moments in this performance where I was interested in knowing how an extended stay in Aldeburgh over the summer months (or even better, during the winter) would have had on the expressiveness in the strings, say in interlude number three – Moonlight. This was an accurate reading throughout, but there were moments when I didn’t feel as though I was connecting with the emotion of the piece.

The ensemble better flute and upper strings in the first in Dawn detracted slightly from the intended effect. By contrast, Sunday Morning saw some fiercely tight playing, with chilling organ-like chords, and a silky sound from the cellos. The immense drama of Storm was reflected in the thunderous dynamics in turn illustrating the considerable stamina of the conservatoire musicians. A refreshing perspective was provided on the familiar suite of music with extracts from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough (that provided the inspiration for Britten in America to write Peter Grimes) read by Edward and Freddie Fox in between movements. Touching.

Picture credit: Luke Toddfrey

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BBC Proms 2019 – Epilogue

One event after the Last Night of the Proms last weekend has prompted a need (or maybe its better to call it a desire) to post an epilogue to this season blog posts.

First, some context is needed.

I did unexpectedly engage with the Last Night of the Proms on Twitter. It felt like fun at the time.

It was a bit like the old days with Eurovision. Everything was up for grabs then. We could laugh about it online. Nothing was off-limits. Then things changed (for the right reasons). We started seeing the human element in television. These were real people on stage. It wasn’t fair to be personal about them. Celebrate the experience of the event. Don’t poke fun at the people participating in it.

What defines good fun and bad fun is a reflection of where you are on the political spectrum. I’d still argue that referring to an oboeist’s striking breathing technique in the way that I did at the beginning of the Proms wasn’t a personal dig at him (why would I seek to do that?) but quite understand that others may well think differently. I’m OK with that too.

I also recognise that drawing attention to a selection of Prommers who attended the Last Night of the Proms with a collection of teddy bears (the bears are, I now understand, part of a fundraising effort for various orchestras) may break the unwritten rule for classical music commentators that says ‘never criticise the audience’.

I broke all of those rules this season. I surprised myself. I’m not sure whether I feel a bit dirty about that. I can see my intent behind the teddy bear reference however. The inclusion of the shot has an unintended (or maybe it was intended?) to the broader TV audience who join the Proms on the last night. It projects classical music fans as being a bit weird. Its inclusion effectively ridicules classical music fans. Or at least it plays into a stereotype.

But credit where it’s due, I did acknowledge the striking piece of television during the Last Night that pulled-down from the ceiling, down to the orchestra. I avoided hyperbole but showed enthusiasm when I said “Shitting Christ, that is a gorgeous shot.”

A few days later, one of the production team commented on the thread who it was operating the camera that night.

But a matter of seconds after that, another message from the BBC Proms TV producer behind the coverage popped up. “Nice big up for Dave. But, I’m surprised you follow this bore, Chris!”

Taken aback, I sought clarification by responding to the producer in question. When the exchange with the original commenter continued it seemed fairly obvious that describing me as a bore was, as I originally feared, exactly his intention.

The offending tweets from Chris Goor and Ben Weston were subsequently removed. The following morning I discovered that the producer had blocked me on Twitter.

I can see how I might be a bore. I don’t especially mind being called a bore. One piece of feedback from the ESC Insight website about a podcast series I made a few years ago pretty much said the same thing albeit with a slightly more charming description. Wing-back chairs, pipe smoke, and slippers are the words that immediately spring to mind. Far more amusing.

And I can see how my criticisms of the BBC’s Proms coverage on TV (and radio don’t forget) probably won’t have gone down that well amongst the independent production team behind it.

Communications and PR at the BBC had in recent years always adopted a more feisty approach to responding to criticism. But it’s only the past couple of years I’ve noticed it become something named individuals do (presumably proudly). This wasn’t a BBC staffer (unless of course the producer’s account was a spoof – consensus points to it not being so) and, given that the production company isn’t subject to the BBC’s social media guidelines by virtue of being an independent business providing services to the BBC, I suppose that means the gloves can be taken off whenever is deemed necessary.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

What I’ve struggled with over the past couple of days isn’t the descriptor, more the action. That you’d respond to a member of the audience (that’s all I am) by wanting to be seen as insulting that individual to a colleague is pretty low-down. I may have been critical in my writing, but I don’t think I’ve been personal. That’s important to me.

But why the struggle? Because in that one tweet one man has done more to damage how I perceive the BBC Proms than any programme, off-kilter performance, presenter, or over-reaching personal expectation.

Because the action of posting that comment, the intent, and the implicit message behind it, showed contempt. All in response to a compliment about a camera shot.

Between now and next year’s season I’m hoping that unpleasant taste the observation leaves in my mouth will eventually pass. Right now I’m unconvinced it will. Maybe that was the point.

Dani Howard’s ‘Coalescence’ premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Dani Howard is one of a handful of composers at work today whose work consistently combines immediacy and compelling narrative. And that’s a powerful combination making her a powerful advocate for the contemporary classical music scene, providing leverage for the ongoing campaign for music education.

‘Coalescence’ is her latest work for large ensemble – triple wind, extended percussion and strings – and was premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra yesterday.

“Coalescence explores the concept of humans versus nature, and how over the centuries I feel our species has attempted to ‘outsmart’ nature in many ways. It was originally inspired after walking past an enormous tree, that evidently over the decades had grown in and around a solid metal railing that had been built into the pavement in central London. The piece features real church bells, which signify the warning signs given to us by nature, and the work explores humans ignoring these warnings (with short brass interjections representing humans being both ignorant and resistant to accepting our climate crisis). There is a playful-like dialogue between the two, and almost like a game, the different elements bounce off each other in both playful and serious ways.”

Dani Howard, RLPO programme notes, Thursday 19 September 2019

The work showcases Dani’s distinctive style. A motoring rhythm that holds attention, highly descriptive musical cells, and an evocative sound-world with a sense of depth. The addition of vibraphone from time to time gives the whole thing a pleasing aural depth too. The switch between industrialised world and nature is efficient making it easy for audiences to identify where they are in the composer’s realised imagination.

With climate change ever present in our daily thought patterns, the pastoral sections in this work have a sobering effect on the soul.

There’s a video of the event on the RLPO’s Facebook page combining Radio 3’s broadcast.

London Mozart Players at Fairfield Halls Gala Opening

It was a sort-of first night for Fairfield Halls on Wednesday 18 September.

After four years of refurbishment and one a few false starts, the doors were flung open and Croydon’s proud community gently passed through the public areas and took their seats for resident orchestra London Mozart Player’s triumphant return.

An interesting programme conducted by a selection of LMP’s roster of conductors, charting the past twenty years of the orchestra’s 70 year history. Differing conducting techniques brought out a fascinating range of responses from the hard-working chamber orchestra.

The new air-con didn’t work quite as everyone would have wished and the front of house procedure is in need of tightening up just a bit. Ushers on the doors to the auditorium would be a boon. Teething troubles, nothing more. And it’s worth noting, the Duke of Kent was running a little late too.

Prokofiev Classical

The opening Prokofiev Classical Symphony demonstrated how clear the Fairfield acoustic is. A bright sound from the strings in the first movement balanced with voluptuous clarinets and mid-range flutes. The strings settled into a warm rounded tone in the second movement march.

Mozart’s ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?’ and ‘Zeffiretti, lusinghieri?’

Elizabeth Watts stood in for soprano Louise Alder at the last minute. My plus one (a rare thing for me) commented on how much she loved Watts’ voice. For me, there were moments when the soprano battled for prominence with the brass. Jane Glover’s baton technique however is joy to behold: graceful moves; a delightful bounce in her long frame; a precise beat mixed with a one or two gratrifying flourishes.

Alex Woolf’s commission – Fairfield Fanfare – was full of vim and vigour. Fun. Touching. A demanding play for such a small band, but a satisfying and a must-programme for any county youth orchestra whose conductor wants to please his or her students.

Listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast recorded during rehearsals for the Fairfield Halls Gala Concert, featuring contributions from Howard Shelley, Neil Chandler, and composer Alex Woolf.

Beethoven 7

First movement started strong: a muscular sound topped with precision detail. Felt like we were listening to an entirely different orchestra – and a much bigger orchestra too. Gerard (a string player) makes them work hard. Nice. Second movement march had a resonant string sound, but was prompt. Possibly restless. Maybe even a hint of agitation about it. Third movement lost energy in places. The final movement saw sections competing; powerful brass in the fortissimos. Sometimes it felt like Gerard concentrates more on the strings than the brass. Missed out on the grinding bass at the conclusion of the movement.

Overall

Fairfield Halls (technically we should refer to the renamed concert as the Phoenix Concert Hall) is a rare thing. There’s an infectious democratic kind of atmosphere created by the audience. A real mix of people were in attendance to listen to an orchestra that has a vitality and warmth to it borne out of recent financial struggles. Considerable civic pride abounded. If we want to see an illustration of how classical music brings a community together, this would be a good place to start.

LSO plays Messiaen Éclairs sur l’au-delà

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Proms 2019 – 15: Season End

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

What’s been good this year

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

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

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

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

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

What needs improving?

Please overlook the pomposity of the question.

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

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

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

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

Flops and misadventures?

Let’s just keep this brief.

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

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

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

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

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

What has worked?

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

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

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

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

15 personal Proms moments this year

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Czech Philharmonic

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

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

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

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

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

So, the things to listen out for.

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

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

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

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

Daniel Pioro & Jonny Greenwood

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

Daniel Pioro (photo Mark Allan)

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

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

Daniel Pioro with Jonny Greenwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Lu’s Mozart 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai Symphony’s Encore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proms on TV

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

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

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

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

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