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.

Michael Seal and the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra

Review: Corinthian Chamber Orchestra with trumpeter Alan Thomas and Michael Seal

Sometimes the most pleasant surprises are to be found in the most unexpected places

If the UK orchestra’s marketing departments have to frequently scratch their heads to dream up new ways to entice audiences through the doors (the LPO’s recent reward scheme is a great one by the way), then spare a thought for the slew of amateur bands up and down the country. Not only are they trying to persuade people to attend an event with music that maybe unfamiliar, they’re also doing battle with the perception that an amateur performance won’t be up to scratch in terms of quality.

I say that because I know that I think that myself. Amateur music-making just isn’t going to cut it. I’m not going to be moved. I’m going to walk away dissatisfied.

But as with a lot of things just recently, those assumptions are slowly being challenged. Some of them are being eroded too. Where does our obsession with perfection or elite performance come from? Who says that if its not perfect its not worth listening to? Where does that come from?

Maybe that’s a whole set of questions for another blog post. Or a podcast or something. At the very least, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra‘s concert last night at St Martin in the Fields prompted those same questions.

That’s not to say by the way that the CO’s performance was rough around the edges. Quite the opposite. That was the fundamentally surprising thing about the band. Professionals by day, high quality unpaid amateur musicians (my assumption is they’re from conservatoire backgrounds though I’m not entirely sure) by night. Nine hours or so of rehearsal, then a concert. That’s it.

The aspiration was initially most striking. An arresting and captivating arrangement of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path for, essentially, wind and bass strings by conductor Michael Seal, bringing Janacek’s piano cycle closer in concept to Schoenberg’s first symphony.

Programmatically this seemed like an impressively bold aspiration, met with considerable aplomb by the CO’s two clarinettists for whom key movements saw them play centre stage. It was also a bastard of an arrangement for the bassoons. My money’s on arranger Michael Seal a liking for clarinets more than bassoons.

Come Beethoven’s Eroica in the second half, the stamina of the wind section became apparent and another surprise from this concert: the attention to detail both articulation, ensemble and intonation was obvious. A considerable undertaking, excellently executed that maximised the challenges of St Martins in the Field’s generous acoustic.

Soloist Alan Thomas evoked a celebratory air with Haydn’s joyous trumpet concerto – it’s a rare thing I actually sit in an audience and a wide warm smile stretches across my face – and although the large string section sometimes felt a little clunky in places, there was still a skip and a bounce in proceedings to keep things moving in the first and third movements.

The strings shone in the Beethoven. There was a ferociousness to the opening movement, an enthusiasm articulated through dramatic dynamic contrast, and a rich range of colours. With my head down listening attentively, there seemed little evidence that this was anything other than a collection of professional musicians playing a low-key gig in a church.

Personally, I think the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra should just drop the amateur tag in the biography. I like the idea that there could be a brand of music-making powered by musicians who have entirely different day jobs. What a call-to-action that would be for music education.

The Corinthian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal embark on a week-long tour of engagements in Spain next week. Follow their progress on social media with the hashtag #CCOOnTour

Review: Violinist Daniel Pioro plays Beethoven Sonata Op.96, Biber and Lark Ascending at Wigmore Hall

Daniel Pioro is an intriguing performer with a gentle presence on stage. He moves and speaks with intent. His body follows the trajectory of the music he’s playing. And he plays with a delicate kind of sweetness I’ve not heard before.

These characteristics alone made the cool clear air of Wigmore Hall an ideal setting for Pioro’s performance style.

But there was, from the moment he walked on stage, an other-worldliness to Pioro that made this an unusual experience for the listener.

Pioro has a stillness about him that sets a slower pace for the audience member long before he starts to play.

There is no flourish, razzmatazz or affectation when arriving on stage, only natural rhythm. Calmness descends, the bow rises and falls, and the notes sound. The mechanics of the process are left far behind (in the dressing room). What we see is music being drawn in front us.

It’s clear where Pioro most feels at one: long expanding melodic material that expands over a long period of time, supported by an emotional maturity that was solid and unwavering. The adagio of the Beethoven violin sonata in G was a case in point, though his most sonorous sound was reserved for Clare O’Connell’s deft arrangement of Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending for violin, viola, cello and piano. Here Pioro exchanged the bright sweetness he’d deployed in the Beethoven with something richer and rounder.

The pathos of the Lark Ascending was brought to the fore inducing a few tears to roll down the cheek. But, it was Biber Passacaglia in G minor that opened the programme that I especially enjoyed. More and more I’m appreciating those musical introductions which transition the audience from outdoor to indoor experience.

Here Pioro thrived, at ease on the stage bringing that trademark stillness to bear at the beginning of the work before making small moves from left to right of stage as he played. This created an unexpected sense of inclusion and intimacy to proceedings. At tones during the Biber there was even the sense that he was accompanying the music on stage rather than playing it. Again, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. A quite moving affair.

That I found Daniel Pioro’s performance intriguing wasn’t entirely down to his rare sense of style (it’s worth flagging that the suit was a nice looking thing too), but the range of music he offered up and one or two biographical details too.

A recent Bedroom Community release entitled Dust sees him play a new work written for him by Edmund Finnis – Elsewhere. (Be sure to listen to the unusual arrangement for Lark Ascending there too.)

He’s also appearing at the Proms this summer with a new work by Jonny Greenwood (it will be interesting to see how that stillness translates to the Royal Albert Hall).

And personally speaking, I recall marvelling at his musicality in an ensemble setting during a stunning SCO concert in Kings Place last year. He also has connections with Manchester Collective. The man can switch between genres and locations with relative ease it seems.

One to watch.

Trombonist Kris Garfitt wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final 2019

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Guildhall School graduate Kris Garfitt secured the coveted Gold Medal (and a £15K prize) at the Royal Overseas League Final last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London with dazzling theatrics, charming modesty, and seemingly effortless musicianship.

His programme includeD pieces by Ropartz, Weber, and an entertaining showpiece by Folke Raba called Basta.

Chief judge (and the only man I know of who looks good in a spotty bow tie) Gavin Henderson led a considerable collection of eminent judges, and made good use of his platform before announcing the winner to draw attention to the ever-increasing demands student musicians face. A bleak future awaits those of us who take for granted the opportunity to peer at new musical talent year after year. The Royal Overseas League competition does much to fill the financial gap for a handful of the most talented.

My money was – no statement on the actual winner – on 22-year-old violinist Roberto Ruisi. Self-assured with a solid tone, out of all of the performers Ruisini took me on a journey throughout his unaccompanied Bartok sonatas. Some slips early on, eclipsed by remarkably focussed playing that come unassuming end left me hanging on a thread.

I enjoyed 24-year-old bass William Thomas thoughtfully put together programme, and in particular the opener, Brahms’ Feldeinsamkeit. Throughout his time on stage Thomas widened eyes and set hearts beating faster with a rich warm sound and precise delicate articulation. Sometimes his voice felt a little under-powered in the QEH acoustic and occasionally vowels sounded like they needed opening out at the top of his range. There warm a gratifying simplicity to his stage presence which made a possible contender for me.

Where Thomas built his programme around his strengths, pianist Joseph Havlat presented a programme which illustrate his personality as an artist. His was an unassuming presence on stage; expectations were subverted by Havlat’s dry humour in Poulenc’s playful Promenades.

The eye-catching performances of the evening were perhaps from those who had already won their categories, those showcasing whilst judges deliberated.

The Miras Trio are super-charged musicians who play with a mature kind of musicianship that belies their age. Electrifying as they were, it was The Hermes Experiment who stole the show. I’ve seen their continued rise on social media – evidence if raw talent, focus and enviable commitment – and assumed that they’ve already secured their position in the industry. I’m hoping that participation in ROSL helps widen their platform. Every performer brings an infectious energy to the stage and, speaking as a lapsed clarinettist, Oliver Pashley’s tone, articulation and all-round Pied Piper-iness is compelling. If you’re at one of their gigs and they’re asking for requests, be sure to ask for Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta. Vocalist Heloise Werner is a marvel performing the Iberian-infused scat.

Overall this was well-produced event too. Speeches were short and punchy, with all but the most important prize winner left for the post-performance presentation.

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Nicola Benedetti and Wynton Marsali

Review: Nicola Benedetti plays Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Cristian Măcelaru

A rip-roaring fusion of musical styles documenting the travels of violinist Nicola Benedetti

Decca’s new release is a glorious recording of Marsalis’ captivating violin concerto, premiered in 2015, paired with his Fiddle Suite. The Fiddle Suite is good. Intense and intimate, hits the spot.

The focus on my attention has, since the first time I heard this recording, been on the concerto. Marsalis’ writing is efficient. Captivating drama abounds in a work brimming with tantalising textures and colours that evoke far-away lands.

The opening Rhapsody sees Marsalis combine a hint of English post-war pastoral style with Gershwin and a whiff of Copland, before easing the orchestra into a Bernstein homage replete with spidery solo line from the violin. A seemingly never-ending series of beautiful vignettes follows in a short space of time. Listening to this there are moments when I feel like I’m watching an MGM on a rainy Sunday afternoon. An cacophonous urban soundscape follows before we’re returned to something altogether more serene. A blissful harmonic indulgence nearly concludes the movement save for a whimsical jig squeezed into the final bars.

The second movement aptly-named Rondo Burlesque commands attention from the off with material which passes quickly through what feels like a subject, development and recapitulation all in the space of a few minutes. The candenza that follows – a dialogue between solo line and rhythm percussion is a gripping demonstration of Benedetti’s artistic commitment, and the ease at which she switches from one musical style to another. A tour de force performance of a gripping score. I’m sure I hear some rock reference in there somewhere towards the end.

Blues is a steaming theatrical number complete with vocal performances from the band and trombone imitations that concludes in what Marsalis describes as abject loneliness, but I prefer to look on as an introverts paradise.

And the last movement. A tub-thumping hootenanny that casts a shadow (albeit respectfully) on Copland’s Rodeo.

It amazes me the BBC Proms hasn’t snapped up this work yet. It must surely make an appearance in the next few years.

The concerto isn’t only a compositional triumph for Marsalis or another solid performance in the Bennedetti canon, but also something of a marketing win for Decca. In their 90th anniversary year I’ve struggled with the Decca narrative. They’re keen to celebrate their eclecticism, and seemingly desperate to emphasise their youth credentials. Some of the messaging around promoting Jess Gillam and Sheku Kanneh Mason has seemed a little obvious, for example; the content itself deliberately curated for mass appeal.

But this release feels like more of what I’d expect from the Decca brand: an exciting collaboration between two exciting creatives, aligning the work of a present-day jazz legend who knows how to create appealing new material with our most prized present-day UK classical musicians.

Nicola Benedetti’s recording of Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru is released on Decca on 12 July.

Proms 2009: Prom 51 – Brahms Violin Concerto Joshua Bell BBC Symphony Orchestra

After Friday night’s Proms experience, I was more than happy to remain at home for this particular Prom. Unlike those who insist the only decent listening experience is in the Royal Albert Hall, ten minutes into the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Haydn’s Clock Symphony, I was reminded why listening at home is theoretically a nicer experience.

There are no crowds, air temperatures can be maintained at an optimum level and the sound mix on the radio is perfect. This is a live performance optimised for a radio broadcast. Consequently, assuming the performers are tip-top then the complete package will be perfect too. Perfection added to by the ambience provided by nearly 6000 people who have trekked across London in the searing heat and occupied their little bit of territory in South Kensington. I sprawled out on the sofa and turned the levels up high.

My personal bookmark for Prom 51 was Joshua Bell’s performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. I’d looked forward to it all day. After Isabelle Faust’s Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the daring (some still reckon foolhardy) execution of Tchaikovsky’s fiddle concerto, how would Joshua Bell deliver the Brahms? And would he make it alive from the auditorium if he did anything other that what the audience expected from this popular work.

Of course, I can’t be sure on the latter. I wasn’t there. But what I heard seemed clear enough.

Ask someone to give cast iron reasons why they’re in love with someone else and watch as they falter, stumbling as they offer joyless justifications for the emotional connection they hold dear to with the most important person in their life.

It’s the same with a brilliant performance. Listen to Joshua Bell’s rendition. Sure, I could list things like: the intonation was spot on; the way he phrased the theme in the first movement was exquisite; the ensemble playing was totally reliable. This would all be cold, uninteresting and pointless self-aggrandising babble. Flagging up anything negativity would achieve the same goal. It’s best not to say anything (which given that this posting amounts to approximately 500 words is stretching things a bit).

Instead, be content with the assessment that Joshua Bell’s Brahms Violin Concerto will definitely deliver – even to those who have never heard it before.

So good, in fact, it leaves me wondering just what mood Bell can be found in when he has an off day or worse, is caught playing one duff note. I’d like to see that – live in HD TV. I’d stay at home to watch it and I’d probably burn it to Blu-Ray too just so I have it for posterity.

After all, perfection isn’t everything unless accompanied by a smidgen of vulnerability, is it? I’m in no doubt Bell copes with off-days admirably. At least that’s the impression I get listening to him on the radio.