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 always new ones who fit the bill and make me clap excitedly.

Dr Hannah French is a leading contender for the Proms Commentator of the Year Crown (a new award initiated just this week). Hannah brings personality to the job but leaves ego behind. She delivers a punchy script with verve, knowledge and objectivity.

I let out a sigh of relief when I heard her introduce Solomon’s Knot’s concert on 14th August. So, when I caught sight of her in the commentary box as I left the Ulster Orchestra Prom, I couldn’t help but do what I normally do in such situations.

“Are you Hannah?” I asked her, leaning across the Radio 3 banner separating stalls from box.

“Aren’t you Jon Jacob?” she replies

“Yes.” I point at her and say, “You are very good at this. Really. I think you’re brilliant.”

Her hands clasp her cheeks. She says thank you. We hug. I say hello to her commentary box ‘plus one’. Thank her again. And then scarper.

Up until this moment I have never hugged an actual Proms commentator in situ at the Royal Albert Hall. An important moment.

The BBC had better sign her up for next year. And for more. And whilst we’re at it, Dr Hannah French needs to be on TV too. Get her to do everything. You might as well.

Proms on TV

Proms Encore (episode 4) has been the best episode of the series, it has to be said.

Lloyd Coleman’s sequence with Martyn Brabbins discussing the role of the conductor was a confident exploration of the art of conducting. As much as I like Rachel Parris (Mash Report), her package spotlighting Queen Victoria’s piano with Stephen Hough was a little disappointing. Using the clip of Rachel swaying around next to Stephen in the ‘menu’ of the programme made me wriggle uncomfortably – contrived and a little unnatural.

Guests Odaline de la Martinez and Peter Edwards were natural and engaging (Odaline especially so). My connection which Robert Ames veered through a range of a emotional reactions based on not knowing who he was, to finding his hair fundamentally annoying, to then wanting to berate the presenter for asking Robert about his hair, and finally screaming at the television to Robert, “If you don’t know what to do with your hair in a concert then get it cut!” If I ever catch myself asking such banal questions during a podcast interview I will cease interviewing anybody ever again.

BBC Proms 2019 – 10: Ulster Orchestra play Clara Schumann Piano Concerto, Beethoven 1, Shostakovich 1 and Sofia Gubaidulina

Some sloppy moments in the first movement of the Beethoven; warm colours and seductive shapes in the second; spirit in the third; slightly underpowered in the fourth. First and second violins don’t work well – cues lack clarity. Firsts particularly undisciplined in places.

Clara Schumann Piano Concerto. Not quite sure whether this was worthy of being programmed. First movement shows the work as juvenilia. Second movement cello solo ravishing. Third movement scrappy. An otherwise dull work.

By far the most interesting work of the evening is from Russian Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931). The work hangs together well. Compelling story about a piece of chalk. Interesting colours. Evocative playing from the pianist. Liked it. Performance made me lean in. Orchestra appears more engaged in performance.

Shostakovich 1 saw the band most at ease. Warm string colours, mostly tight ensemble and a glorious clarinet solo in the first movement. Mercurial opening to the second movement; movement dominated by demanding changes of tempi successfully navigated. Interesting material. Sensitively executed. Especially sensitive playing in the third movement. Payare’s baton technique is a thing to behold – bounce, verve, and grace. Opening of fourth movement taut, woodwind slick. String/brass not together before timp solo. Warm cello solo. Impressive commitment from Payare throughout. Pleasingly convincing.

The Ulster Orchestra have transformed themselves in recent years. There’s more spirit. More joy. That’s largely down to the deft signing of soon to be departing principal conductor Rafael Payare. How the band fare under their next conductor is what will secure its newfound reputation. There is much to play for in the next two years, not least the opportunity to position itself at the heart of the current political clusterfuck. Ignoring the artistic opportunities the political melee presents will see the Ulster Orchestra miss a trick. Riding the melee and even taking a lead could do wonders for it internationally. No pressure. Nerves of steel may well be necessary.

BBC Proms 2019 – 9: Mendelssohn, Elgar, Errollyn Wallen, and Mussorgsky at the Royal Albert Hall

It’s a toss up between finding the ideal spot in the Royal Albert Hall or holding your nose and listening to the live broadcast. After my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall, I think its probably the latter.

I finished off a day of coaching sessions, interviews and meetings with my first trip to the Albert Hall for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ concert last night. And I went in on a promming ticket too – first up in the gallery, and in the arena during the second half.

It was also the first time I’d prommed for (quite possibly) five years meaning the odds were stacked in favour of gaining some useful insights on where the innermost joy to this years Proms season is to be found. In that respect the trip didn’t disappoint.

I’d been inside the hall earlier in the day to interview the conductor for last night’s concert Elim Chan. She and I walked and talked as we moved from backstage to podium (the first time I’d done the walk from the bullrun to stage since 2011), and by the time we’d made it to the empty auditorium, I was reminded of the scale of the place.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast – 54 – Elim Chan at the BBC Proms

The stage appeared as just a fairly banal area (as opposed to the elevated space it normally appears to punters like me during a concert). Out beyond the rail, one breathtaking view: long sweeping lines; opulent but not ornate or fussy; graceful movement throughout; warmth. All of this contributed to an unexpected sense of inclusion. It sounds slightly self-obsessed to say, but for a moment the Proms felt like home again.

Up in the gallery during the first half there was a similar atmosphere. The disordered presence of other human beings standing, sitting or lying around, some of them peering over shoulders to see the action way down below, creates a sense of both relaxation and urgency at the same

Wafting around is the order of the day up in the gallery. At the same time there’s a fear of missing out. Heads crane to get a better view in between shoulders, pillars and railings. In this way we’re all contributing to the live experience.

Here I felt part of the event. There was no one contextualising it, marketing it, or trying to turn it into something it wasn’t. It was just me and the live experience. Standing, leaning, and focusing. A meditative experience almost – Church-like – transporting me back to the early Promming experiences I’d had. It appears I had reconnected.

There was a surprising diversity amongst the crowd too. My friend Miya (her first Prom concert experience) said the same herself looking around the gallery. A range of ages from under 10s to over sixties. I can’t remember television ever commenting or showing that. I don’t recall any magazine, radio programme or indeed the Proms brochure itself talking about the audience other than in general terms. But a look around the gallery in a popular concert like this and much of the perceived problems classical music has marketing to different audience groups aren’t immediately obvious to me. Sure, maybe those who are looking at their mobile phones during the Elgar are distracted, but they’re here for some kind of experience. The fact that they felt motivated to come in the first place is surely what’s important.

As anchoring as this experience was, there were some drawbacks. The sound from the gallery lacked the detail I’m accustomed to and found myself getting frustrated. The Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture (and certain sections of the Elgar Sea Pictures after it) suffered from a lack of power.

Down in the arena was the best place to move to for Errolyn Wallen’s premiere This Frame Is Part Of The Painting. Rich colours, strong vocal and instrumental lines were evident combined with unexpected splashes of orthodox harmonic and melodic language that sought to exploit the acoustic. The addition of the organ from time to time gave things a more three-dimensional quality making for a more immersive experience.

Whilst hearing the detail from the arena was more satisfying, there were times in the Mussorgsky Pictures when that detail revealed weak spots in the ensemble.

The ambulatory opening accompanied by a wavering trumpet solo didn’t provide the silvery fearsome opening I’d expected from the opening of Pictures. Some sections dominated in tutti sequences – percussion and brass from time to time. And in The Old Castle out of kilter woodwind ensemble slightly detracted from the otherwise warm atmosphere conjured up by saxophone solo and lilting strings. There was a similar problem in the fourth Promenade.

A taut Battle of the Unhatched Chicks marked a turning point in the performance however, consolidated by The Market with renewed spirit, tighter ensemble, and more a compelling characterisation. Unexpectedly prominent trombones in the grand theme were arresting (the effect sounded like an accidental fog-horn on a bright sunny day. That said, on playback the idea behind bringing out that part of the score provided a fresh insight into the sequence.

BBC Proms 2019 / 8: Stop banging on

Give the listening audience the chance to reflect on what they’ve just heard and what it means to them, instead of resorting to hype, sycophancy, or post-performance reviews

My BBC Proms odyssey this year (entirely broadcast experiences) was intended to help me identify at what point my enthusiasm increased and why.

After seven posts and well over half the season through, my feelings appear to have lurched in entirely the opposite direction.

Listening and watching the Proms has now elevated the summer-long festival to the equivalent of the wayward upper fifth on the back seat of the school bus sneering at everyone else in front of him while everyone else is trying their best to ignore him and his cronies.

Or, if you want a more present-day analogy, the BBC Proms on radio and TV is the noisy office colleague whose banter isn’t as scintillating or demanding of attention as they think it is.

Everyone collectively wants to tell both irritants to shut up. Instead they purse their lips, and swallow the bile, their irritation increasing exponentially.

These analogies may be a little purple if taken too literally. But they do help identify my general spikiness towards the festival this year – far from waning, it’s actually increased as the weeks have gone on. And a lot of that is down to broadcasts.

Nauseating syncophancy coupled with a seemingly insatiable appetite to review every concert on-air seconds after its conclusion effectively forces the listener out of the collective experience. It’s pretty much everyone too, except for the more seasoned commentators. There is also an increasing sense of self-satisfaction evident in the delivery. If it was a party host doing the same thing the moment I’d stepped across the threshold, I’d say my goodbyes and leave.

Style of presentation may not seem like an important point to get so worked up on given that the focus of the concert is in fact the music, but done badly it can turn out to act as nothing more than a distraction. Listening back to various concerts over the past seven days yesterday I was either skipping the radio introductions and back announcements or increasingly shouting at the speaker, “Shut Up!”

Running concurrently in my head is a conversation I had with a classical music exec who presented an interesting perspective that caught my attention: amid a time when it feels as though classical music is getting represented more and more, its important for the backbiting to stop, for a united front to be presented, and for everyone within the classical music world to support one another.

The valuable conversation stemmed from a discussion about composer Einaudi. But, whilst I’m listening to the Proms and shouting at the speaker as I do so, I’m also pondering whether I’m falling into the trap of being a curmudgeonly old bastard who hates change. Am I the problem? Am I irritated by it all because deep down I’m jealous of what they do (its possible – I’m open to that and will hold my hands up to it)? Am I in fact deflecting my post-BBC bitterness onto its most potent brand? By getting more and more irritated by it, am I in fact damaging the potential for new relationships across the classical music industry just by voicing a feeling few others feel comfortable expressing?

All of this before we get to the actual music. Little wonder the Proms feels like a spikey experience when each broadcast is accompanied by all of this internal dialogue.

I don’t resist change. The thing is that I’ve grown up with this art form in my ears with the conventions of its contextualisation baked in. It is because of those conventions – resisting hype and maintaining an objectivity so that the audience can make their own minds up – that the bond between me as a punter and the art-form has grown stronger throughout my adult life.

I’m not saying don’t fiddle with it or strive to improve things. I’m asking you to remember that presenters play an integral part in making the audience (even those at home ‘listening in’) feel part of the performance. Commentating is an art in itself which I’ve always thought could be boiled down to ‘less is more’. The audience is part of proceedings.

Take a deep breath. Speak fewer words per minute. Limit the range of your intonation. And for crying out loud, give us a moment to think about how we feel about what we’ve just heard, before you start describing what we’ve just heard to us.

Ticket for Glyndebourne Magic Flute 2019

Magic Flute at Glyndebourne

A rich score, strong vocal lines and scintillating conversation at Glyndebourne at a performance of Barbe and Doucet’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute

Yesterday was only my second trip to Glyndebourne. Last time it was Rape of Lucretia (2013). This time, Glyndebourne’s first production of Mozart’s Magic Flute in ten years.

Some travel challenges presented themselves early on. Pro tip: the London train to Lewes leaves from London Victoria not Waterloo, and it will take you twelve minutes to get from one station to the next using the Tube. Also, be sure to take account of the gradients in Sussex (the height is in grey on Google Maps so not immediately obvious). Some of those hills are a bastard to climb. I managed arrive an hour before the performance began with bike grease on my trousers. Also, I am fairly certain I was one of only two people there who flouted the assumed dress code. No dinner jacket for me. Just loose slacks, a flowery shirt, and deck shoes.

Glyndebourne 2019 production of Magic Flute by Barbe and Doucet was a feast for the eyes. The set design was playful. Costume design – Sarastro and the Priests, and Papageno – had a delightful whiff of Alice in Wonderland about it.

The strong vocal lines made this an unexpectedly immersive experience exploring what was a surprisingly rich complex score. Queen of the Night solo was a remarkable feat deserving of the rapturous and extended applause soprano Caroline Wettergreen received. Magic moment of the entire performance: when Pamina and Tamino sang their duet – the opening octave sung by Pamina pierced my heart and tickled the tear glands.

What made this a special experience was the conversation. I ended up going because a friend of mine from yesteryear had a ticket going spare. We met up beforehand for the obligatory picnic, only to discover that a couple of others we knew from the classical music world were also present. Easy conversation – a mix of giggling, commenting, and discussion – flowed. The time raced by.

“We’ve not had a bike before,” said the cloakroom attendant when I left my Brompton

The social aspect of classical music and opera experiences represents a new development for me. For a long time I’ve seen my attendance at events as something for me or the blog or podcast – a wholly singular experience. I’ve seen people at those events but usually assumed that my presence on proceedings would be an imposition on their plans – a mild kind of imposter syndrome I suppose.

Meeting people at events and (importantly) having sufficient time to engage with them without having to rush makes the experience as a whole all the richer. Feeling able to discuss a subject I have a huge amount of background information about (I know little about Mozart’s operas about from Marriage of Figaro) without judgment is a special thing too and throws into start contrast my experience of similar exchanges on Twitter which in recent months have felt rather spikey. That some of the people I was there having those discussions with were people I had known for 25 years made it all the more heartwarming.

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

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

Proms Encore Episode 2

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

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

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

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

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

Shostakovich 11

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

Mahler on TV

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

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

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

BBC National Orchestra do Mozart’s Requiem

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

Huw Watkins’ The Moon

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

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

John Wilson. Still adorable.

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

Prom12_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_ (3)

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

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

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

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

The National Youth Orchestra

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

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

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

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

The flipside of the NYO (and other mean thoughts)

In the bath, some dark thoughts emerged.

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

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

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

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

Leif and Britten

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

Leif. Lovely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schumann vs. Sibelius

Pekka Kussisto with conductor Thomas Daussgard

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

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

The Sibelius Violin Concerto from Pekka Kussisto helps reset me.

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

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

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

More on that in future posts.