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 – 13: Czech Philharmonic, Jonny Greenwood and Daniel Pioro

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

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

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

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

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

Czech Philharmonic

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

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

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

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

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

So, the things to listen out for.

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

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

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

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

Daniel Pioro & Jonny Greenwood

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

Daniel Pioro (photo Mark Allan)

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

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

Daniel Pioro with Jonny Greenwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Proms 2019 / 4: Proms Encore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Verbier Festival 2019

Highlights, notes, and reflections from a three-day trip to the mountainside music festival, now in its 26th year

Too much music and too little time for painstaking reviews. Instead, some highlights and reflections from three days at the 26th Verbier Festival.

Joshua Bell

Bell’s performance of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto was a chance to see him in the flesh after hearing him at the Proms last weekend.

Interesting to see how Bell communication with various sections during performance – signalling emotional intent, tighter ensemble. Also striking how Bell’s musicianship focuses attention on the material sometimes to the exclusion of everything around him. A truly captivating player giving a magnetic performance. Pinned to my seat throughout.

Beethoven ‘Kreutzer’

There’s a thing about the world I frequent. Content demands stories. The stories usually come from the talent. That means getting close to the talent and getting them to tell stories about their life and work.

I had pitched for a Kavakos interview and very nearly got it (it would be after the performance depending on availability). That’s fine. What was interesting for me was seeing him perform the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata with Evegny Kissin and realising that I wanted to maintain a distance and not interview him.

The performance was intense. Multiple characters from Kavakos, intense playing. Electrifying. Maybe even a little bit terrifying. A sort of white heat all around him – something you had to look at it at the same time as fearing looking at it.

Kavakos is a gentle giant. Tall, perhaps even imposing. His near-shoulder length hair shakes gently as he plays. His body remains isolated from the music. When he plays it is as though he observing himself play and, like us, marvelling at the sound emerging. He is quite something to watch. And his performance of the Kreutzer was every bit as gripping as watching Daniil Trifonov play the Transcendental Etudes back in 2013.

First time seeing Kissin live too. It has a similarly intriguing and strangely beguiling quality about him. Intriguing facial expressions as he plays. Compelling to watch. The most remarkable touch to the keyboard. Three different colours in three successive chords in the second movement. Fascinating to watch the way he looked round and up at Kavakos at various points during performance. Endearing sight.

Quartet Ebene are a remarkable bunch

This was a surprise. The quartet play with a wondrous warm burgundy sound. Noticed right from the first note. There’s clarity in the sound, but also roundness to the tone; like the sanded polished edges of pine furniture. Ravishing. Like being handed a whiskey, drinking it, liking it and then realising now that you’ve been given the right whiskey you’d happily have more. I’ve never been quite so aware of narrative in a string quartet before hearing Quartet Ebene play Mozart.

Similarly, the Tchaikovsky was a bit of a revelation. Player of the concert undoubtedly was QE’s viola player who throughout communicated with audience and colleagues with relish and verve. She works hard to maintain this level of commitment with the players who joined the quartet for the Tchaikovsky. Sometimes I wonder whether they’re less open in their communication with her. If its possible for the sound of an instrument to make me go weak at the knees, then the cellist has the ability to produce it.

Magic moment in the final movement fugue – epic, uncompromising. We’re powering down a runway heading for take off, and then pivoting on a unison note played by everyone – an unexpected and much needed breathing space. Tone matched exquisitely amongst the six players. A joy to be present in the moment.

Schubert 9th is fiendish and hugely entertaining

The Verbier Festival Orchestra’s concert performance wasn’t entirely without error – the opening bars of Schubert 9 a case in point. Otherwise a thrilling performance with some standout moments.

I hadn’t appreciated how much material Schumann had written for the string players (bloody hell they all worked hard). Impressive gear shifts (in characterisation and speed), delicate detail, and warm colours from wind and brass. Delightful elegance in both melody and phrasing in the strings, trnasforming what could have been a dull toe-tapping second movement into something far more fascinating, brimming with detail. A glorious romp followed in the third movement – lots of gratifying string textures and dry articulation from the timpanist. Fourth movement: tour de force.

Player of the concert: number one, fifth desk, first violins. I think his name was Roman Vikulov from Russia. I know its not really on to pick out individuals, but his energy, precision, and style was a thing to behold. So too the look of elation on his face when he turned to the audience after the final note in the Schumann.

Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra woodwind section

One moment in the first concert I attended this year will last (I hope) forever.

Hearing the first woodwind cue in Weber’s Oberon overture. The combination of flute and clarinet (there might have been others in the score, I just haven’t looked yet) was an absolute joy to hear. Ensemble lovingly crafted.

Research the angle not the questions

I’ve long thought I don’t research enough for interviews. In general I think too much research for interviews is a potential minefield. You can’t really gen-up on a subject you don’t know very much about quickly without running the risk of making a mistake and making yourself look like an arse. Better in some instances (especially where arts journalism is concerned) to lead on curiosity and follow your instinct. I’ve also assumed that by using an interview style that relies on instinct, too much research will result in some questions being overlooked.

This trip I made the error of preparing for one interview by writing down questions, almost as though I was scripting the interview based on what I wanted to hear. It wasn’t a disaster, it just didn’t feel right. The next interview I just identified the angle, thought about the overriding question I wanted to answer for myself, and trusted my instinct I’d get there in the space of 45 minutes. “Had I known you were such a good journalist,” said Martin Engstroem after his interview, “I’d have given you an hour.” We had in fact spoken for 51 minutes.

Those with vision lead; those without manage

The question in my mind for Martin’s interview was about leadership. This is partly because I’m working on a workshop for some arts administrators in the autumn. But it’s also because I realise (now, heading back to London) that for a long time I’ve aspired to go further in my chosen field (25 years ago in the arts, most recently in the media) but reached a bit of a brick wall. I’ve always assumed it was down to me not being the right kind of individual to go to the next level. A sort of failing.

The interview with Engstroem uncovered something I hadn’t appreciated. Leaders aren’t anointed leaders by others. They are leaders because they have a vision they need to get realised. And realising that vision requires other to follow you.

Leadership needs vision to kickstart it. If you don’t have vision then you’ve nothing for people to follow. Everything else is merely the mechanics of leadership.

Detach the production of the sound from the emotion of the music

This one’s a slightly more difficult thought to articulate. It stems from a similarly fascinating conversation with Alexander Sitkovetsky.

A comment he made during the interview recalled Menuhin suggesting he was unaware when playing what exactly his arms and fingers were doing during performance. It was as though the music was existing in its own right.

This got me thinking about the division between the mechanics of music production and the emotion. And specifically what we the listener or commentator project onto the experience of listening in order to make sense of what we’ve heard and the impact it has on us. Something for another blog post, I think. After I’ve read a little around the subject.

Imposter no more

I don’t want to show off. There are so many journalists who do that. It’s a bit tiresome. No. It’s nauseating. But …

A handful of people I know in the arts world will have heard me say to them in the past 18 months that often I feel as though I’m on the periphery of the arts world. They have expressed surprise about this. One visibly so. I realised this week that this statement was … shock horror .. a manifestation of imposter syndrome. Just like any presenting issue in a coaching session, this has gone under the radar for a long time.

But no longer it seems. Not on this trip. This has to do with a realisation about what seems to be happening more and more: people sending me stuff, people rocking up for podcasts, and feeling more and more comfortable saying what I do and for whom. The insight?

It’s also to do with the day-to-day process I’ve become more aware of on this trip. Me and my content creating peers – eg Fran Wilson, Andrew Morris, or Adrian Specs to name three of many – do this kind of stuff everyday. Podcasts require scripts. Scripts require writing. Reading your copy out loud on a frequent basis is what writing demands: being in a constant state of self-assessment with a view to correcting, improving and developing. Regardless of who pays me (or not), I do this stuff every single day.

And the insight that links these two things? Reminding myself that imposter syndrome subsides (nb it’s never overcome) when you start seeing yourself from a different perspective – how others see you.

Lina

Last note about the lovely Lina.

I worked with a pianist last year, doing some marketing and PR work, and getting him airplay on Radio 3. I had two meetings with him and various others, of whom Lina was one person present, quite by chance.

Volunteers Lina (L) and Nadine at Verbier Festival 2019

We met on other occasion (she thinks it was two, but she’s wrong) at the Royal Albert Hall.

I walked out of the VFCO concert first half, out onto the terrace and observed a woman I vaguely recognised pointing at me emphatically. It was Lina. She was volunteering on the festival.

Much laughter. Much nattering about this and that. We met up for a drink before my taxi took me back to the train station. Never has the company of one person I hardly know made a music festival mean so much more.

That makes Verbier my kind of Glastonbury I think.

Many thanks to Rebecca, Giorgia, Lucille and Sarah for their sterling work making this trip happen. Also, the Hotel Bristol, Verbier. They even have their own hotel dog. Beers/wine/gin all round (not for the dog, obviously).

The Verbier Festival runs until 3 August 2019

Review: Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra play Weber Oberon Overture, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, and Mendelssohn ‘Scottish’

It’s all about the detail.

The first thing I note down as I listen to the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra play Weber’s Oberon Overture, is the detail.

The string sound is warm; the opening woodwind cue exquisite – there is a warbling quality to the overall texture which is irresistible. Sweetness follows in the uppers strings, and a delectable precision in the ensemble playing as a whole. This isn’t like anything I’ve heard in a long long time.

And perhaps with good reason. The Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra membership consists of Verbier Academy alumni all of whom now play in professional orchestras across the world.

Conductor Lahav Shani works the band hard, demanding all manner of intricate details and extreme dynamic contrasts. He coaxes and stirs in an understated way. At one point an almost imperceptible trumpet takes me by surprise. My pen goes down. I lean in.

Vadim Repin’s Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 is a remarkable marathon building to a cacophonous conclusion. There were moments in the first movement when it felt as though the ensemble was out ever so slightly with the soloist – the most marked example when horns and cello exchange phrases in the third movement.

That said, the range of string textures throughout was a thing to behold, so too the precision closing of phrases with beautifully placed chords. Balletic. As though we were gently laying our heads on a feather pillow.

The second movement has porcelain delicacy in the solo line, and a music box quality in the accompaniment. Repin’s honeyed vibrato hints at anguish in the vulnerability of the movement. The return of the opening subject towards the end triggers an emotional rush I wasn’t prepared for. Here too it’s obvious where the core strength in this woodwind section lays: in the rapport between flutes and clarinets – some gorgeous textures emerge from their dovetailed tones.

Lahav Shani

The thrills and spills of the first half realised by the VFCO’s dexterity and musicianship come to the fore in Shani’s thrilling direction of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

Dramatic dynamic contrast in the first movement exposed some melodic lines I’d not heard before. The virtuosic clarinet solo that opens the second movement was an obvious highlight, followed by blistering articulation in the horns and double basses later in the movement. A noble celli solo was made more of by reducing the dynamic range of the string players that usually engulf it. With these simple elements brought front and centre, the VFCO made this an enlightening interpretation.

The detail-oriented Shani transitioned from an operatic opening at the beginning of the third movement into something wholly balletic in a few short bars, deploying demonstrative hand gestures to create gentle ebbs and flows in the strings.

Waterperry Opera Festival: talent, energy and rapport in a beautiful Oxfordshire setting

Waterperry Opera has a valuable USP and deserves to go from strength to strength

Waterperry Opera Festival is underway this weekend. The four-day event based in and around the Regency grandeur of Waterperry House and Gardens in rural Oxfordshire, has built on its highly successful inaugural season in 2018 and has returned hoping its bigger festival with more works, more spaces and more days will increase its 2018 inaugural figures of just over 1000 visitors.

The site at Waterperry is no stranger to creative endeavours. The near 200 year-old mansion on the the 17th century site was from the 1930s home to Beatrice Havergal’s School of Horticulture for Ladies, and between 1971 and 2016 was home to has a history of playing host to creative endeavours.

Bought in 1830 and home to the Henley family, then by Magdalen College in 1925, it was taken over in 1932 by Beatrix Havergal who established the Waterperry School of Horticulture for Ladies, hence the considerable acreage of blooms, shrubs and tree that adorn the gardens surrounding the house. When the School closed in 1971, arts and crafts took hold in the form of the Art in Action Festival which at its height attracted 28,000 visitors, finally coming to an end in 2016.

Waterperry Gardens on the hottest day of the year in 2019

It would be all too easy to regard the Opera Festival as just another rural summer arts event. There’s more to it than that. It has a USP which I think is quite unusual in the arts world: an air of sincerity. What’s particularly special about WOF is its energy and dynamism. That comes from the people involved in it.

I’ve been really impressed with the speed at which WOF at the hands of directors Rebecca Meltzer, Guy Withers and Bertie Baigent, has got off the ground (the original idea came about in 2017 with the inaugural festival in 2018).

Similarly, the obvious commitment to a longer-range strategy, built into an energetic plan for year-on-year development. This year has already grown from three days to four. An audience space has been erected in the grounds called ‘The Hub’, offering catering, talks, and a swiftly re-configurable performance space. The amphitheatre and ballroom are in use again this year. A range of spaces means different events. And that means more reason to stay throughout the day. That’s opera making a venue a destination for more reasons than just opera or picnicking. And with top price tickets at £40, their events are good value for money too.

What’s also clear to see spending a day there again this year is how the Festival is not only rooted in the local community, but also how its talent are eager to make their mark for the sake of the Festival too. This is a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of team effort.

The company for this years productions – Fairy Queen, Magic Flute, Mansfield Park – plus the volunteers and production bring the total on site at around 200 meaning there’s a buzzing atmosphere before things even get underway. And with performers already professionally engaged in events across the world, the quality is high. Performances in small-scale locations make sold-out performances a near certainty; the flip side for the audience is that we see the performers up close, and that means no detail can be allowed to slip.

And close proximity to a performance means something else emerges. The energy that Waterperry’s company exudes isn’t only down to the performers individual talents but also rapport. That’s no accident. Auditionees for the company are known by the well-connected team of Festival managers and production directors who have the added benefit of being one and another’s peers and contemporaries. In the orchestral world right now there’s a move to help develop musicians artistic management aspirations to change the ‘them and us’ relationship between players and administrative staff. Part of Waterperry’s success is down to a generation of artists blurring those boundaries from the start. A festival led by practitioners already making a headway in their chosen fields. A more resilient organisation model not hindered by the usual constraints, successful now.

Lunch for the Waterperry company: hearty, generous and meat-free

There are other slight quirks about experiencing Waterperry behind the scenes too. The welcome by the blue clad volunteers and staff is universally and noticeably warm even on the hottest day of the year. There is a sense of genuine engagement in the experience of visitors to the site whether they’re journalists or ticket-holders. In comparison to other endeavours I experience, the difference is striking. I ended my second trip to the Festival feeling as though I was a part of it. That’s a rare trick they’ve pulled off there.

And there’s an Enid Blyton feel to the industry going on in and around the house. Staffed by an army of festival volunteers back stage and front of house, free of the usual pretentions Waterperry has an honesty about it that focuses audience attentions on the core content: the performances. There’s that heady atmosphere that comes from endeavours brought about by recent graduates with a simple unfussy kind of professionalism that makes the visitor experience more immediate and direct too. And the lunch for company and production was, on the day I visited, a generous meat-free feast.

‘Dream’ in The Hub at Waterperry

I saw two performances in dress rehearsal on my visit. Caitlin Goreing and Harry Jacques voices made for an exquisite and intense combination in the realisation of Britten’s second canticle Abraham and Isaac up in the ballroom. The other Young Artists Programme performance was ‘Dream’ in The Hub – a piece devised from various Shakespeare texts pages of which were hung up on a washing line above the performance space and resourcefully used in parts to illustrate the story being told by the four performers.

Laura Attridge, Magic Flute director at Waterperry, explains what she’s been working on since her work on Trinity Laban’s Rape of Lucretia in 2018, including workshopping primary school children’s reactions to operatic material.

Logistical work-related challenges prevented from staying the whole day for Laura Attridge’s Magic Flute in the amphitheatre, but the opportunity to see a revival of Rebecca Meltzer’s production of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield was too good to miss. Dove’s music (and the libretto too) moves the action on in this comic piece at a fair rate, with some motoring rhythms, delicious syncopations, and hummable tunes. In ensemble numbers the music soars, pinned to the optimum range of each voice, the harmony shifts instinctively enveloping the listener in a warm blanket of sound.

The ensemble cast all but two of whom were reunited commit to the performance with verve, relishing every cue, and feeding off one another’s energy. A lot of this is down to the direction which begins with characters inviting the audience up into the performance space in the ballroom where the ensemble is already gathered indulging in conversation, song, misunderstanding and japes. By the time the action starts, we’re already invested. The cast doesn’t have to work that much harder to engage us.

Mansfield Park Director and Waterperry Opera Director Rebecca Meltzer talks about the revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera at Waterperry, and give notes on my unexpected participation in it.

Special mention to new boy in the cast Australian tenor Damian Arnold who gave us a handsome Henry Crawford with brooding menace underpinned by a strong jawline, marker-pen eyebrows and a chilling stare. A big hand as well for British Youth Opera alumni (and soon to be Cambridge PHD student in psychology) Milo Harries as Edmund Bertram, whose burgundy voice can, will, and did melt hearts.

Waterperry Opera Festival runs until Sunday 28 July 2019. Next year’s festival is in August 2020. For more information visit www.waterperryoperafestival.co.uk.

James Ehnes at the BBC Proms playing Britten's Violin Concerto

BBC Proms 2019 / 3 – Dvorak on TV, Ehnes’ Britten on the radio, and the burning sensation of shame

I’m journalling my Proms season this year. Not necessarily day to day. More documenting my experience of it and the thoughts that arise from it. The numbering I use in the titles refers to the posts rather than a direct reference to the Prom number.

Ehnes plays Britten

I remember seeing Ehnes play something or other in Verbier Church a few years back. What I loved about his solo performance was his unpretentiousness – a charming, effortlessly calm and direct style of communication that made me go slightly weak at the knees.

(By way of comparison Finn Pekka Kuusisto achieves a similarly unequivocal level of ‘hotness’ when I’ve seen him play.)

That I was reminded of Ehnes’ on-stage charisma when I listened to Britten’s Violin Concerto points to the fine indeterminate details of a musicians expression that have the power to trigger memories. Defining indescribable characteristics that have the potential to momentarily paralyse the listener in near-ecstasy.

Well, maybe near-ecstasy is gilding the lily somewhat. But bloody hell the Britten was brilliant. Meaty, solid, anguished and, above all else, an evocative trigger of ‘home’ on the east coast of Suffolk. On a second listen I hear a romantic approach to the candenza which I rather like. The strings of the orchestra also sounded pretty good too – especially in the Shostakovich-esque Passacaglia. Very strong Royal Academy of Music and Julliard School. Nice work.

Listening to the concert on the radio (in the kitchen, on the oil-spattered digital radio) I had my first pang of ‘I really ought to be there’ of the season. This wasn’t so much ‘fear of missing out’, as ‘fear of missing the point of the season’. A sudden realisation dawned. I seem to spend so much of my time pedalling around, talking to people, writing about stuff in order to generate work, that I don’t actually set aside time to experience the thing that I write about. And that means I miss out on the thing I love. I need to build some time in.

Another tweet (mine this time)

Eagle-eyed individuals will recall I tweeted about the BBC Symphony’s principal oboist using a shot of the considerable impact his embouchure has on his cheek muscles. This appeared at first to have been received well by nearly all. One or two responded with ‘he played so well though,’ leading to me to conclude that some thought I was ridiculing the chap. I clarified in typical Jon Jacob fashion. Things escalated when another oboist, revealing her connection with the subject of the image (his partner), commenting on how she hoped Twitter could be a nicer place, confirming in my mind that yes, it has been interpreted as me having a dig. Phoned a friend for context, held an executive board meeting with myself then deleted the tweet.

Some thoughts arise.

My intent was sound, respectful and fun. That other professional musicians (high voluting ones too) ‘liked’ the tweet confirmed that most others recognised the intent.

The sense of shame that has arisen since deleting the tweet burns. This I consider a good thing to an extent. It demonstrates that I’m not a cold-hearted bastard and, given that I’m talking about here, a reminder for me that valuable thinking and actions emerge from confronting things which others might feel embarrassed about.

Why the sense of shame? The timing was interesting, hot on the heels of the Phase Eight thing last week, you’d think I’d have foreseen all reactions and thought twice. The orchestral world is small than a bands scale on stage might lead you to believe. And whilst I don’t derive much if any revenue from the classical music world, the idea that me (self-proclaimed advocate) ends up pissing off the world I seek to champion seemed (and still does seem) uncomfortably possible.

But it got me thinking, had the picture been of a brass player would the reaction have been unequivocally different. If it had been a percussionist displaying a similar feat of technical agility, might some have seen it as a dig?

Dvorak Violin Concerto on TV

One of the big ‘innovations’ this year as trumpeted (boom) by the BBC press team has been the inclusion of Jess Gillam as a new presenter in the Proms TV lineup. I’m not entirely sure this is an innovation driven by independent TV production company Livewire or whether its something Jess’ record label Decca have been keen to see happen (see earlier post for an explanation).

Certainly, Jess being called out as ‘the youngest presenter on Radio 3’ by Controller Alan Davey when she took on This Classical Life, makes her inclusion at the Proms less innovative and more of an inevitable consequence of a strategy designed to make classical music more appealing to a young(ish) audience.

As it’s her first appearance, it made sense that Katie Derham held onto the reins, introducing the newcomer to the regular(ish) audience. But there were times when the presence of two hosts made things feel a little cumbersome – in the same way that two news anchors swapping delivery sentence and sentence makes for a disjointed viewer experience. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of on-screen rapport between them (note – on-screen rapport is different from how they might be off-camera, so I’m not being a bitch here in case anyone screams) and the mismatch of styles of delivery (inevitable given Jess’s significant lack of experience) highlighted the presence of the script. Two hosts speaking to one interviewee looked a little strange, it has to be said. A sledgehammer to crack a nut, if you will.

There are some nice touches. I do really like the presenter-less talent-led introductions, this evening given by Joshua Bell. They’re natural, straight-forward and pleasingly authentic.

The introductions to works given by the pundit – a spoken programme note – are useful though their success depends solely on limiting the information and maximising the delivery. Not an easy ask at all, but for me worth sticking with. It needs a consummate broadcaster able to deliver a rich script by combining warmth and knowledge.

The opening sequence to the broadcast is marvellous. It does a great deal in an extremely short space of time to settle my nerves and set the tone.

BBC Proms 2019 / 2 – Dvorak Violin Concerto

Prom 2 and its worth stating the three things that usually take me by surprise at this point in the season.

One. The Proms live broadcasts give me the permission to stake my claim over the household sound system. As a result, its a moment in the year when me and the OH actively listen to classical music together.

Two. People read this blog more around this time of year.

Obviously that’s a great thing. But it always surprises me that anyone cares that much what I have to say about it. The life script that plays out in my head whenever I’m writing a tweet or a blog post is something along the lines of ‘what on earth do you have to say that is interesting what with you being a massive curmudgeonly pain in the arse?’

I probably need to find a coach to unpack some of that stuff.

But it is that people do keep coming back to read the blog (even in its new location the traffic is consistently high) highlights for me one unexpected consequence of the returning Proms season: increased leadership hooks me into the season, even if the season itself doesn’t.

Three. The official First Night isn’t necessarily my First Night. Sometimes the right combination of factors collide to create something that sounds like that hazy summer evening experience I’ve come to associate with a live Proms broadcast. Maybe the prism I look at the Proms through is so niche (classical music broadcasting) as to make the readership numbers even more of a miracle than they strike me. But, the Bamberg Symphony with a first half of Dvorak Violin Concerto played by Joshua Bell is just the broadcasting concoction I needed in order to kickstart me into the Proms this year.

The Bamberg immediately fill the hall with a much rounder, much deeper sound. There’s a powerful emotional effect to hearing it. A sense of relief perhaps? The strings are rich, solid and strong right across their range. There’s a depth to the overall mix too. I feel like I’m listening to a broadcast of a symphony orchestra rather than one given by a radio orchestra (there is a subtle difference).

Dvorak’s Violin Concerto is a much-better work compared to the Golden Spinning Wheel the night before. It has a little more to hook into compared to the comparatively more programmatic work the from the first night. More demanding music: more melodic and harmonic development. The work combined with the band playing it immediately lifts my mood. Soloist Joshua Bell still very much has it too. A scintillating performance. The same commitment to his performance I noted in 2009.

I may have had my fill of Dvorak however. I notice I can’t take too much of his musical brand of sentimentality before I start feeling like I’m a character in a period drama. Precision crafting, of course. Just way too much sugar.

So, Bell’s performance with the Bamberg Symphony lulls me into thinking that maybe this year’s Proms won’t be quite such an ordeal as I wrote a few days ago. Then I see pictures from the TV recording (see above). A tightening of the chest follows. Maybe I spoke too soon. The next test for the 2019 season? Will the newest member of the Proms presenter line-up cut the mustard?

Karina Canellakis at the First Night of the BBC Proms 2019

BBC Proms 2019 / 1 – First Night

A deceptive concert programme more compelling on radio than TV.

On-screen presentation had a gratifyingly retrospective feel with some satsifying innovations and an engaging live feel.

What was the First Night like? Not bad, is the short answer.

I watched the TV broadcast – usually a good barometer for awkwardness – and appreciated the efficiency of the introduction, the live exchanges between pundits and presenter, and the fresh approach taken to first person anecdotes and introductions given straight to camera. I was expecting to be annoyed by it.

I was expecting there to be endless young people in shot. There wasn’t. It left me wondering why on earth the BBC had led its PR campaign on the representation of young people in its presentation. I could have saved myself quite a lot of gnashing of teeth if they’d just explained exactly what we could expect from the opening night.

The Pundits

Kathryn Night, Rob Adediran from London Music Matters, and Greg Beardsall -were worked very hard and were as far as I could see operating on considerably more adrenaline than perhaps they were comfortable with.

They also seemed to have to talk for a long time without any interruption or challenge. I did wonder whether that contributed to their comparative dis-ease with proceedings. A bit more conversation to break up the monologues will improve things immensely.

All that said, I appreciated seeing the pundits having their moment to reveal interesting insights about the works. We must all agree above all else however that Greg Beardsell must never stand up and demonstrate flossing ever again, even if it’s an analogy.

The greatest element of the TV presentation was a return to live coverage. This gave things quite a buzz which was rather refreshing. So much of what the BBC does nowadays is pre-recorded or deferred that sometimes the spirit of the moment is lost. The live ‘feel’ was infectious and reminded me of Proms broadcasts from 15 or so years ago.

And I adored The Derham’s self-deprecation too. Very Emily Maitlis.

The music

The concert programme wasn’t especially scintillating. I found my attention waned a little during Zosha Di Castri’s Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory a problem where TV tends to amplify those moments where there’s a lack of compelling content. On radio, Di Castri’s piece worked better, though listening back on radio I wonder whether there might have been an opening flourish included at the top of the concert programme, that helped meet my expectations for a season opener.

I don’t especially get what the appeal of Dvorak’s The Golden Spinning Wheel is musically speaking. Pleasant melodies evoking dreamy pastoral locations and all that, but a work that failed to stir the emotions for me.

It was a little more difficult to maintain attention during Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass on TV, where the radio broadcast was a considerably more satisfying experience. Listening back this morning, The brass of the BBC Symphony Orchestra stirred the heart with a range of burnished chords. Some of the upper strings felt thin and ‘splashy’ at the top end, although this shifted to something more pleasingly rounded in the mid and lower ranges and faster sequences. Tenor Ladislav Elgr has the most remarkable voice (every note committed to with considerable energy) and striking presence that suits Janacek’s melodic language. And I’m sure there’s one chorus cue that reminds me of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Overall

It wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t feel as distanced from it as I thought I might. So much so that I might possibly entertain the idea of heading to the Hall on Monday night. Programmatically I wanted it to be a bit more ambitious.

That I’m being that picky suggests that the hype around the Proms now is building expectations higher and higher. On the plus side there wasn’t really anything (apart from the flossing demo) that riled. So you know, surprisingly, it all went better than expected.

Related Podcast

Listen to Jan Younghusband, BBC Music Commissioning Editor discuss TV coverage for the BBC Proms 2019. Podcast available on Spotify and Audioboom.

Daniel Elms and the Manchester Collective at Peckham's CLF Art Theatre

Review: Manchester Collective premieres Daniel Elms’ new work at Peckham CLF Art Cafe

Manchester Collective has found it’s London home with Daniel Elms’ capitivating Islandia

Manchester Collective created a Fringe vibe with an added sense of urgency about it in one of CLF Aft Theatre’s warehouse spaces last Tuesday.

Some people sat, some people mingled at the bar, others stood at the back and the sides pint glasses in hand. The musicians of Manchester Collective took their seats and, as though they were preparing to perform an operation, carefully fiddled with screws and dials, positioned themselves in their seats and checked their instruments. Respectful nods and smiles exchanged, a reverential pause, and a new sound world – to be found on composer Daniel Elms’ new album Islandia also released last week – emerged.

Such productions are tricky things to pull off, as I pointed out to an industry chap a couple of days afterwards.

Putting classical music in unusual venues is in itself a bit old hat now. Endless organisations issue proclamations revelling in their supposed innovative approach to making audiences feel less intimidated at the concert hall (the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is doing a run of concerts with ‘light displays’ later in the year) believing that transplanting their usual programmes into a different venue is all they need to do.

The trick is to make the music fit the venue. There’s no real dark art to this. Use instinct. Exploit neuro-linguistic cues: some repertoire works (usually chamber or solo and almost certainly Baroque, early classical or contemporary), other repertoire doesn’t. The more intimate the venue and the more pared back the score, the better the two will combine.

But it’s also about understanding the audience you want to appeal to, and anticipating the experience they want.

And that’s where I think Manchester Collective do successfully achieve the perfect mix. The vibe is right for the crowd. A re-purposed warehouse in South East London’s version of Shoreditch (minus the hipsters), a few theatrical lights, and the right music. Not only new music from Daniel Elms and Singh/Gainsborough, but Bach as well. Nothing felt too forced. Nothing stuck out like a sore thumb particularly.

The overall effect had a strange effect on my memories.

My teenage years (and those in higher education) were awkward and confused. I was a massive square, and didn’t really do cool, curious, or unorthodox. The kind of places my contemporaries were frequenting on Friday and Saturday nights didn’t interest. In fact, they scared me. To fit in would have necessitated completely changing my personality. I avoided most of them.

But there are times nowadays – like Tuesday evening in Peckham – when the vibe prompts me to recall those few experiences I did participate in with a warm glow, as though adulthood has helped me understand what the appeal of such experiences are and finally, at the age of 46, made me ready and possibly even hungry for them. It all seemed so alienating in the early 1990s when I was supposed to run towards it. Twenty-five years later its my kind of thing by virtue of the fact it makes me feel a little edgy.

Daniel Elms’ work played a key role in establishing the vibe. It’s a compelling collection of pieces running to 40 minutes with flashes of Reich, Glass and, part way through a ravishing trumpet solo – a musical oasis of bittersweet calm. Unusual sounds you never thought you wanted to hear that draw you into a world fuelled by your own imagination. I found it engrossing, absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining.

This was the first of a string of tour dates in which Elms’s new work appears and with a beatifully poetic piece of scheduling, the studio recording of Islandia has come out this week too. Hear it live, listen to it back on your preferred streaming service (or even buy it).

I was less enthralled by Singh/Gainsborough’s Paradise Lost. Lengthy and often intense, it did have a similar to MC’s gig at King’s Place recently where I felt it pushed me to the edge of my emotions, an achievement which might paradoxically be the sign of good art.

Daniel Elms Islandia is available via Bandcamp and Spotify.