Four carols to kick off the festive season

The tree is up, the lights are on, and save for one or two decorations in need of repositioning, everything’s looking good, even if my arms are now covered in an unexpectedly prickly rash.

Baubles, lights, and other ephemera retrieved from surprisingly tidy boxes demonstrates that me and The OH’s decoration packing strategy honed at beginning of this year had paid dividends. Rediscovering each decoration in the box also triggered memories of traditions started in years gone by.

Decorating for Christmas has then an element of being reunited with old friends.

Similarly so where the music that accompanies the decorating process.

The carols and seasonal music one plays to ease the unpacking of Christmas only really gets listened to once every year. The melodies and harmonies bind themselves to memories of Christmases past, and hopes for Christmases future. No other music has the power (and is required) to command so much in such a short space of time.

Some of the music we play (this is me and The OH’s twentieth Christmas together) as we decorate remains the same – Hely Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, a smattering of Rutter, plus the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

But some of my music has been superseded by new personal discoveries. A selection of this year’s new entries is included below.

I’m struck by the personal needs this music meets. There’s a desire for something distinctive (or maybe just different), a ‘hard edge’, or in one case something mystical, fantastical and a little other-worldly.

Not so much revelling in the headiness of a contrived Dickensian Christmas, more a musical articulation of the way I now see the Christmas story.

Once in Royal David’s City / Voces 8 / Thomas Hewitt Jones

The third verse arrangement by Thomas Hewitt Jones subverts expectations set by the familiar-sounding verses that precede it, with a heady almost seductive range of harmonic progressions.

The first few chords (I’ve no idea what chords they are, so I won’t even try to describe them) take us on an entirely different path, each line of the carol’s conclusion the aural equivalent of biting into salted caramel. All decorated with a simple descant that climbs and climbs until it disappears into the darkness.

Voces 8’s precision execution of Thomas Hewitt Jones’ writing transports this carol from the usual combination of heavy organ and sluggish congregation into something stylish and sophisticated.

Balulalow / Ceremony of Carols / Benjamin Britten

My first introduction to Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (1942) was singing This Little Babe during a school carol service in the early 1980s. The antiphonal fireworks in the three part round was an electrifying experience in Suffolk’s St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Britten’s musical language seemed stark and awkward in comparison to the melancholy burned into the more familiar congregational carols.

But it’s Balulalow which speaks to me more now thirty five years later. It’s relentless shift from major to minor chords throughout the carol gives this lullaby a dark restless feel (though others regard this as the characteristics of a love song – I’m not quite so sure). This isn’t a saccharin depiction of Christ’s first night in the cot – a happy ending. There’s menace in Britten’s use of the chord progressions which gives things a sense that life will be hard-fought.

And I particularly like the fragility of Britten’s original recording. The boy treble sounds as though it might shatter during the opening verse. There’s a sense of reassurance when the boys choir joins in, but still that threat of danger remains. It’s Christmas music that gives Christmas a hard edge.

Illuminare, Jerusalem / Judith Weir

I stumbled on Illuminare, Jerusalem one Christmas Eve a couple of years ago listening to Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The late Stephen Cleobury then Director of Music at Kings College commissioned Weir to write the piece for FONLC for the 1985 Christmas Eve service (there’s a video of Weir reflecting on an archive recording of the premiere).

It’s mysterious other-worldiness crafted by a melody that seems to crawl over the words and tracked by an underlying melodic line, paints remarkableness of the Christmas story in a multitude of brilliant and arresting colours. There’s a human quality to the uneven lengths of the phrases too, tidily resolved by the ‘Jerusalem’ phrase repeated throughout. Modest and efficient writing.

Bethlehem Down / Peter Warlock / King Singers

I’ve always loved Warlock’s music. The Capriol Suite is an obvious starting point, brimming with ‘English-sounding’ modes that evoke Sunday lunch roasts, bracing walks in the Fens, and a roaring log fire on return. Where Britten’s music evokes the bruised skies and plump ploughed fields of East Suffolk, Warlock’s scores seems to compensate for the lack of contours in the West Suffollk. Music that fills in the gaps left by nature.

Review: Lambeth Wind Orchestra and saxophonist Rob Burton play Rhapsodies and Fantasias

A demanding programme of unfamiliar and invigorating works for wind orchestra including a cracking show piece from saxophonist Rob Burton.

“Why are you going to a concert given by amateurs?” asked the taxi driver on the way to Lambeth Wind Orchestra’s Saturday night concert this past weekend.

“Because they work hard and I’d like to hear the results,” I replied.

A far more succinct response would have been, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I was irritated by his rookie attempt at jocularity. It didn’t land well at all. When he then moved on to pissing and moaning about the borough where I lived I was keen for the journey to end (preferably at the sought-out destination) and for me and The OH to pile out.

What LWO does well is cultivating a community feel. This was the second concert of theirs I’d attended, the first where guests were greeted by conductor John Holland at the door. Don’t underestimate the dividend. If the conductor is welcoming you personally, then you’re going to have to be a cold-hearted bastard to end up not appreciating something in the hours that followed.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very hard. LWO players are an impressive bunch. Thirteen of the 52 players were ‘guest musicians’ meaning the core of the rich ensemble sound is powered by regular members. And when they play a chord as one complete ensemble the evocative sound of well-balanced wind band resonates across the chest, (for me) stirring happy memories of twenty-five years ago when I was at university conducting a wind orchestra.

It would be easy for an amateur band not to sound that way – one duff bit of tuning and everything jars, heads start to turn, and people start looking at their watches. But not so for LWO. Even at the point of tuning for performance its apparent that people listen, adjust and adapt. They pay close attention to Holland’s exacting and expressive beat – one of the reasons I imagine LWO secured Gold at the National Concert Band Festival last week.

The quality of the playing was most evident in Holland’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Daring. So much of the work depends on the textures of the strings. Dry mournful Sunday afternoons are best evoked by string players. That a quartet of players sat behind us played VW’s transcribed score with such warmth demonstrates not only vision on the part of the arranger, but an understanding of who in the band could realise the dream to greatest effect. The Thomas Tallis Fantasia is a demanding blow for a wind and brass player – endless extended sequences for (some) instruments right at the top of their range. But there were moments of intense emotion. The hideousness of the real world outside was momentarily put on hold. Exactly (I think) what VW intended. Quite some achievement for an amateur band playing in a concert hall at a school in which the composer taught.

Similarly impressive was Morton Gould’s epic Jericho – brimming with detail, dramatic perhaps momentarily piercing dynamic range – and Claude T.Smith’s blistering Alto Saxophone Fantasia. Soloist Rob Burton deftly delivered the punishing solo line with a warm round tone and gratifyingly unpretentious articulation. Sometimes swamped by the massed sound of the band in the opening material, his consistent musicianship made this an exhilerating discovery, the expansive and demanding cadenza in particular demonstrating how there’s much to discover from this remarkably mature instrumentalist.

Recommended recording of Claude T. Smith’s on Spotify from West Texas A&M Symphonic Band.

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Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

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A night at the Gramophone Awards 2019

The Gramophone Awards are an industry event which celebrates that which has been released the year before and, in the process of handing out the gongs, brings industry figures together in a spangly affair.

But, I’ve always struggled a little to understand where the Gramophone Awards sit in my classical music world.

Beyond the simple explanation I’ve always felt the Gramophones (and the magazine come to that) was another world – the world of recordings, expert assessments, probably a little bit of flannel here and there and, perhaps most importantly, a world where I’d be forced to confront how little I know of the current classical music world.

Perhaps there was even a thought when watching the Gramophones from a distance via a live stream in years gone by that the ceremony and its contents and participants didn’t necessarily represent me or illustrate my connection with the art form. Gramophone magazine was something for the grown-ups not for the frivolous light-on-detail person like me.

What the narrative, contextualisation and representation of the artform actually looks like for me has come into sharper focus over the past six months or so.

But, after a disappointing Proms season, taking to time to gain a deeper understanding of where commercial radio sits in encouraging and catering for a new and varied audiences for classical music, and now the Gramophone Awards, I’m getting accustomed to a more nuanced take on the sector.

Last night’s awards ceremony at the De Vere Connaught Rooms shone new light on the classical music world. A human one.

Jakub Józef Orliński. Counter-tenor. Model. Break-dancer. Skipped dessert.

Seeing counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński (someone I had no previous knowledge of – the shame) take up his seat at our table prior to proceedings getting underway provided an opportunity to observe the remarkable energy he exudes. To then see him leap to the stage to sing in a fascinating yet matter-of-fact way meant the mesmerising tone he produced when he sang was electrifying. One minute Jakub was someone sat a table, the next his voice was creating a moment of stillness. The magic of live performance highlighted once again, so too the wonder the human voice can have on other human beings in an instant. I think I’m right in saying that he skipped dessert too. So a lot of self-control there, because I wolfed mine.

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin had a similar impact. His stint at the keyboard (Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words No.1 if I’ve recalled that correctly) silenced the inevitable awards dinner murmurs, glass chinks and fidgeting ice-cubes to create a similarly electrifying moment: busy-ness tackled head-on with innate and immediate musicianship.

The awards also have the added bonus of signposting a path for future exploration.

Knowing that someone who was previously sat across from me (who I also didn’t recognise – the shame) and who I’d assumed was a marketing type but who later turned out to be an award winner made him an interesting character to know more about. That he then sat down at the piano and commanded perfection to emerge from it was one thing. That when he spoke into the microphone when collecting his award with breathtaking understatement and unfussiness made him all the more fascinating.

Double award winner pianist Bertrand Chamonoy. Self-effacing to a fault. Adorable.

A lot of this of course is down to the event itself, an entertainment format which, it strikes me, is unique in the classical music world. There is no live cabaret style event where audience surrounds the stage and music is interspersed with speech. We might hear an idea of it on the radio, but we don’t see it on TV. Not anywhere. And that kind of experience would do much to reveal the magic of the art form – intimate music-making for a wider audience where the musicians natural personalities shine as brightly as the music they make just by virtue of speaking from the heart.

Guitarist Sean Shibe. Award winner for concept album SoftLoud. Loving the musicianship, Less keen on the ruff.

The discoveries I made I’m committing to future exploration (with one or two inclusions on the first Thoroughly Good Classical Music Playlist) include Bertrand Chamayou who appeared surprised and possibly even choked when his recording of Saint-Saens piano concertos was announced as both Concerto of the Year and Recording of the Year. Albums recorded by pianist Denis Kozhukin, Víkingur Ólafsson (adorably self-deprecating), and counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński.

And a wildcard too.

Cardoso’s Requiem on Hyperion which secured the Early Music Award. Partly because of the arresting image on the cover of the album, but also because it was the Early Music Award I accidentally kicked as I squeezed past table twelve in search of Catherine Bott. No damage was done, but the look on recipient Pedro Alvares Ribeiro’s was momentarily distressing. Profuse apologies offered and accepted, and I managed to find Catherine Bott too.

Review: Alexandra Dariescu and the Moscow Philharmonic play Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet

I was cutting things a little fine arriving in my seat panting and sweating just as the first chord of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet sounded. By its inclusion – 5 minutes longer than the billed duration – my heart rate had reduced and my face and neck had dried off. Conductor Yuri Simonov took the work, even in its fast sections, at a surprisingly slow pace so that slow bits felt rather long and drawn out. Consequently, the the yearning and the emotional rushes never really felt convincing. It was as though Romeo’s heart wasn’t really in it and Juliet just felt relieved when it was all over.

Cadogan Hall’s acoustic is arguably the most demanding space to play in. There is nowhere to hide. Errors are then distracting. That’s not altogether a bad thing – it often means a deeper appreciation of what’s involved in a live performance is laid bare and it’s possible to notice when an ensemble has become used to the concert hall with its audience ensconced. So whilst there were some disappointing errors in intonation and ensemble in the woodwind in the first 10 minutes of the piece, that things were consolidated into a richer unified more passionate sound in the final section created something real with a story of eventual triumph. I just would have liked it a little faster.

My probable impatience with proceedings continued in the Rachmaninov. Dariescu is an assured performer – resilient, accommodating and strong. There’s lyricism in her right hand in all the places, and an enviable strength where the score demands. But there were times when it felt like Simonov was wanting to go at his pace and not hers. Some of the energy – that Hollywood verve and brio that I think exudes Rachmaninov’s movie-gold sound-world – petered out.

That said, there were some blissful gossamer string textures in the upper strings during the second movement. The Cadogan Hall acoustic also revealed some pleasing detail in the cello line and woodwind.

At times Simonov paid more attention to the strings than communicating with the soloist. In the second movement this projected Dariescu as a paradoxically lonely figure on stage. This emphasised the pathos of the second movement though I suspect that was by accident than design.

One of two most trusted pals

As it’s World Mental Health Day, it seemed timely to rewrite and update a blog I’ve published before. The bonus for those who read it before is that this time it’s all a lot more concise. And for those who are new to this blog, its a chance to understand why classical music remains an important part of my life.

Twenty-seven years ago or so I experienced an unexpected, deeply unsettling and confusing event which brought about the biggest personal challenge in my life.

It was only in 2016 when I saw a play at the Edinburgh Fringe about male rape that I began to understand that my experience, although not rape, was in the category of sexual assault. And, importantly, how such experiences are inherently confusing.

The details aren’t especially important to this post – I don’t really want to delve again. I’m not sure it necessarily helps anyone. I certainly don’t need to. They’re not especially unique or especially harrowing. What’s important here is the impact the experience had on my mental health and everything else.

It catapulted me into depression, and brought about a tiresome ‘identity crisis’. It ushered in drug-related and psychiatric therapies. It threatened my studies, my A-Levels, my university career. It also, I re-discovered a few weeks ago, prevented me from embarking on a teaching training course because the college where my place had been accepted had gained access to my psychiatric notes and deemed me a threat to children.

All this inevitably placed a variety of special relationships under immense pressure.

Everyone delivered. I remain indebted.

One particular moment in time was particularly dark. The first term of my third year at university. ‘Plans’ were made. The only thing which kept me from pursuing a self-inflicted fatal path were my commitments to practical music making with members of the university music society.

This critical moment in time took seven or eight weeks to reach something manageable. Weekly rehearsals of the university wind orchestra put me back on track, chasing the dark clouds away on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturday were the precarious days. Sundays and Mondays were the days I was preparing for the next rehearsal. The end of term rehearsal sealed the deal and, thankfully, rock bottom was left far far behind.

There were wobbles that followed – some I’ve been reminded of recently flicking through some personal diaries a few weeks ago – but November 1993 and the role that classical music, participatory music making and my student friends combined all helped the subsequent turn-around.

The counter-experience – the ‘treatment’ if you’d prefer a slightly more blunt work – was a sense of routine, personal responsibility to others, and discipline. Conducting was something which helped me make a connection with my own personal values. Classical music saved me.

Since that time I’ve returned to classical music as a listener, a commentator, an arts manager, and a content producer. Sometimes classical music has provided an escape. At one time it provided me with inspiration for content. Now it is a world I feel most at home in. In recent years – especially since completing my coaching training – classical music has been a way for me to self-identify where my thoughts and feelings are at any given moment in time. Classical music as an emotional barometer. A trusted pal.

It could have easily been a different music genre. I know that others have derived the same benefits from rock, pop, punk, electronica, dance. But I remain indebted to a long-standing trusted pal – classical music – that continues to sustain my mental health, stimulate my thinking and, importantly, create lasting valued friendships.

I couldn’t do without it.

Inclusive, celebratory and touching

Coalesce around a subject or an event and, if there’s a sense of loss attached to it, the classical music community has the power to celebrate and advocate in an inclusive and respectful way.

Unlike a lot of what I saw on various digital platforms yesterday, I wasn’t especially touched, broken, devastated or bereft by the news of soprano Jessye Norman’s death.

I was aware of her career of course, but her work had passed me by. I know. That sounds incredible given the love and respect rightfully bestowed in her lifetime and in the event of her death by many. That lack of awareness is perhaps even embarrassing.

A defence.

My musical focus has always been on orchestral repertoire. I recognise I always have to make an active choice to listen to vocal repertoire (and always have done) in the same way I have to force myself to watch action movies with my husband. Odd, I know.

The news and people’s reactions to the 74 year old’s death highlighted one of my musical blind spots.

But what really cut through amid the outpouring of sorrow, regret, recollections and executive posturing, were messages that struck a good balance of paying homage but avoiding self-indulgence – messages that effectively introduced ‘newcomers’ to Norman’s landmark recordings.

The Ulster Orchestra’s tweet in particular hit the mark for me – a low-key acknolwedgement of the passing of a great singer, an implicit statement on how staff were reflecting on it, and a knowledge-driven signpost to a must-listen recording.

I listened to her recording Strauss’ Four Last Songs repeatedly all day as a result, marvelling at the texture and power of her voice. A new discovery made.

Similarly, @morrisonkenny’s recollection of the impact hearing the soprano’s voice for the first time had on him.

Kenny’s anecdote prompted me to reflect on the way in which I was introduced to classical music (through school), the limited repertoire we had on record at home (none), and how studies even at University were surprisingly limited. My listening development really kicked off when I started working in the arts. But still, my natural ‘home’ was orchestral music. I almost envied Kenny’s experience, now I come to think of it.

In this way (and the way that others shared their favourite recordings) the classical music world – the fans – unexpectedly felt inclusive. An unexpected event had triggered other people’s experiences which, once you filtered out some of the emotional hyperbole, actually achieved more in opening up to a newcomer a newcomer hitherto hidden away.

There is something rather touching about that. A beautiful kind of simplicity. A straightforward kind of advocacy that has opened a door to something new fronted by talent who in death provides a potent reminder of the political challenges we still face, long after she first triumphed in the industry.

All that from an unexpected death and a couple of tweets.

There is a blueprint to be drawn from this. Coalesce around a subject or an event and, if there’s a sense of loss attached to it, the classical music community has the power to celebrate and advocate in an inclusive and respectful way.

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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.

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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.