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 – 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.