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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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
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.
Tuesday’s performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra highlights a newly adopted habit: a new way of listening.
I’ve listened to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Tuesday night performance of Shostakovich four times since I’ve got back from Verbier. I concur with Times arts wonk Neil Fisher – though I give him the credit through gritted teeth. The BRSO gave a quite remarkable performance.
The magic starts at the beginning of the first movement, in the upper strings. Strong. Whisper thin. They creep in and out. There’s a warmth too, underpinned with a low resonant bass. There’s a hint of approaching menace far beyond the simple beauty of the pure sweet melody.
Much of this is down to the BRSO. The sound they produce is quite something. And its consistent throughout the concert, evident in the concert encore. Sweet resonant upper strings, a strong bass, warm woodwind, delicate decoration from the percussion instruments, understated but vital accents from the brass. If it was a car it would be a sophisticated design with a plush leather interior. The engine would be almost inaudible. That kind of ride.
I can get lost in the sound world. A myriad of objects, colours, and people occupy a three-dimensional world evoked by Shostakovich’s writing and constructed by my own memories.
The emotional narrative of the work hasn’t changed over the years, but the way in which I occupy its world has. Listening to the fifth symphony is no longer only a matter of reminiscing. I listen this afternoon on the train back from Milton Abbey trying to identify what the emotions are I experience, what it is in the music that stirs them, and more and more nowadays what it is about the quality of the sound that has the power on my senses it does.
What I return to time and time again is the three-dimensional aspect of the sound. That’s not only about the quality of the broadcast sound, but the way in which the individual colours in this performance especially appear in front of me in the present, in a three-dimensional way. Whisper-thin strings pulled taut high above the score, deep basses rumbling underneath, distant trumpet calls piercing the haze with a bright light. It’s all about the detail. Delicate, beautifully crafted detail. We cannot half listen to this kind of music-making. To half-listen is to miss out on some of the joy.
Maybe its mindful listening – that process of focussing attention on what is going on in the ears whilst noticing what is going on in the rest of the body. Maybe that’s what is going on more and more now for me.
As it happens, I don’t actively resist reminiscing as I listen either. To not recall the first time I heard Shostakovich 5th would be to disrespect a great many people who contributed to my most treasured musical experience.
Suffolk Youth Orchestra. 1989. A residential course at my school (the only time when my school felt like somewhere I wanted to go to). The first time I get to sit in the middle of a full-scale symphony orchestra and feel the power a group of 100 reasonably good musicians can muster in rehearsals. If you’ve never sat in an orchestra before and experienced the impact music has all around you then you’re only getting half the experience when you listen to a concert. It is a truly magical and highly emotional experience.
As I write, listening to the aching simplicity of the stripped back third movement orchestration, I’m recalling those emotions from 1989 now. Sitting in amongst a small army of people my age, hearing sounds I didn’t think people my age were able to produce. The emotions are there in the throat, ready to burst out. Tears. But tears that don’t stand up to any kind of rational explanation. They are tears in response to exquisite beauty.
I can see what’s going on here. I’m listening to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in their Tuesday night performance. Their playing is triggering an emotional reaction in me which I’m then projecting on a memory from thirty years ago. I don’t kid myself thinking that we sounded anything like the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra. Only that what they’re doing to me now, reminds me of what the other members of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra did to me thirty years ago.
I’ve written before about Suffolk Youth Orchestra, about its conductor Philip Shaw who retired a few years ago, about the friends I made when I was a member of it, and the way it along with my university music-making helped save me. Shostakovich 5 was the first significant work we played and the first significant work I got under the bonnet of.
That’s the thing about great art. This stuff demands more than a one-time listen and ‘Yeah, that was nice.’ It’s stuff which invites further listens. By repeat listens we discover new things and, in turn, deepen our understanding of it and strengthen our connection with it. It is as though each performance is me giving that work a big hug. Each successive hug gets tighter and longer. We are now inseparable.
From time to time I hear from the friends I met in Suffolk Youth. Rebecca, Gig, Tim, Caroline, Hannah, Ali. Just recently Mel – principle oboe – who’s a keen knitter now. Bassoonists Ellie (who used to use the same train station in South East London) and Tim (now a composer). Nikki on timps. Chris (a solicitor) and his wife Judith (published author) whose first born is about to embark on three years at Cambridge. And there’s never a year that goes by when a Philharmonia Prom concert doesn’t trigger the thought of floppy-haired horn player Olly who frequently messed up his cues in SYO, but went on to great things and secured a seat in the Philharmonia before dying way too young in the mid-2000s.
It is in the performances of Shostakovich 5 in the summer of 1989 that these people (and countless others) stepped onto the stage to perform what seemed then like an epic undertaking for a group of teenagers. I remember looking at familiar faces during these concerts and not quite comprehending that they were the ones producing what I thought at the time was such a professional sound. Such is the power of music making, and being in the thick of it.
In the audience at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday night was a friend I went to school with. Ruth was in the year above me at school. We sang in the school chapel choir together. But she never played in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. I read on Twitter that she arrived late to the Beethoven in the first half, she was there ensconced for the second during which she heard Shostakovich 5 for the first time (and loved it). She’s got some catching up to do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Nicolas Hodges appears at the BBC Proms 2019 in a performance of Messiaen’s Des Canyon aux étoiles.
Here he discusses the different ways birdsong sounds across the world, how eight weeks when he was a teenager made contemporary music inescapable, and what happens in the moment between the final note of a piece of music and the applause beginning.