BBC Proms 2020 season unveiled – live performances late summer plus a treasure trove of archive delights

I have line of sight of the BBC Proms season for 2020. And you know what, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be quite happy: archive broadcasts on radio, and BBC iPlayer, plus a cut-down selection of live performances towards the end of the season.

The BBC Proms press release doesn’t reveal too much in writing. No great surprises because .. jeeze .. look what everyone’s grappling with right now. But some stops have been pulled out and in a strange kind of way that makes the summer seem less of a barren landscape than sometimes it does when I try and think beyond today, and tentatively into next week.

For the avoidance of doubt on the part of anyone at the BBC Proms: I’m saying thank you here. I appreciate your efforts.

Live concerts, pending Government direction (don’t hold your breath – that direction hasn’t been great to date), will start up for the end part of the season, including what is billed as a ‘poignant’ Last Night of the Proms to conclude proceedings. Marvellous.

Up until then, the Proms truly is a broadcast festival starting on Friday 17 July, and running until Saturday 12 September. The ‘First Night’ will include a commission by Iain Farrington for a BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

And given the news from the Southbank earlier this week, the Proms may well serve another more pressing need: to reiterate to the naysayers or those who don’t especially care about live music that it remains a critical force in our cultural life and the country’s economy.

It won’t be quite what we’re used to, but it will remind those who need it spelled out, that this cultural experience is not something we can afford to throw away.

Which, now I come to read the press release, is actually what David Pickard, Proms Director thinks too. Great minds think alike.

“These are challenging times for our nation and the rest of the world, but they show that we need music and the creative industries more than ever. This year it is not going to be the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them. We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”

BBC Proms 2020 runs from Friday 17 July until Saturday 12 September.

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

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

Proms Encore Episode 2

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

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

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

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

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

Shostakovich 11

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

Mahler on TV

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

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

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

BBC National Orchestra do Mozart’s Requiem

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

Huw Watkins’ The Moon

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

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

John Wilson. Still adorable.

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

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

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

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

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

The National Youth Orchestra

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

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

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

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

The flipside of the NYO (and other mean thoughts)

In the bath, some dark thoughts emerged.

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

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

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

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

Leif and Britten

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

Leif. Lovely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schumann vs. Sibelius

Pekka Kussisto with conductor Thomas Daussgard

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

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

The Sibelius Violin Concerto from Pekka Kussisto helps reset me.

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

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

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

More on that in future posts.

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BBC Proms 2019 / 5: Shostakovich 5 from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

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.

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.

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.

BBC Proms 2019: The curse of the enthusiast

Am I the kind of classical music fan that is at the heart of classical music’s problem?

A number of unexpected things occlude my usual unbridled enthusiasm at the start of this year’s Proms season.

Back at the press launch in April I’d already concluded this wasn’t looking to be a great year for the Proms. This was partly because I had already identified a question I wanted to answer : how do my feelings about the Proms change between season launch and the First Night? Does the brochure still have the impact it once did? Would I still pore over it? How would my feelings change come the First Night?

That’s the angle for me this year: is there a critical point in time in the season when the cynicism wanes and joy steps in to take its place?

I’ll get back to you on that. It’s not happened yet.

Changing things for the better … kind of

The classical music world is going through a significant change it seems to me.

That’s not altogether a bad thing, of course. Those with clout (usually big budgets) are bringing a commercial mindset to the sector. Marketing and PR is getting classical music talked about more by a wider group of people.

But there is a flipsidee.

The redefinition of the classical music genre by the commercial sector to include more musical styles (there’s a parallel with the Proms season as a whole this year) isn’t for me about social mobility, diversity or accessibility. It’s purely to do with increasing sales which is made more possible by widening the scope of the content.

If it can be monetised and it has an orchestral instrument in it somewhere, then we can call it classical. No one will care because no one will notice. We’ll drown out the detractors. They’re just enthusiasts.

The closer connection between record industry and BBC Proms is coming more into focus for me this year too.

This is more of an assumption on my part (which I’ll happily flag in advance) which will no doubt underpin my enjoyment or otherwise of the season as a whole. I see a closer connection between Decca and the BBC – seen in the BBC Young Musician signings post-competition, and various on-screen ‘practitioners’ meteoric rise despite them only being at the beginning of their musical development. The knowledge and experience they bring to mediating a concert seems quite low. This doesn’t matter it seems.

This isn’t envy on my part (though I get that some people might think that). I just see some of the presenting talent this year as being record industry ‘property’ first and foremost, and that their appearance on-air is as much about increasing visibility for the record label as it is about supposedly reaching out to a young audience for the BBC.

In short, I remain unconvinced that putting A Young Person in front of a camera with a microphone is really all that’s required to get young people interested.

Even before the Proms has started this year, it is the way we’re packaging up the classical music world to make it ‘appealing’ that makes me assume that I’m going to feel distant from this year’s season – that I’m not the target audience.

The Proms is an epic battle

There’s more. I’m sorry. There’s more.

I see a fractious classical music world at the beginning of this year’s Proms season too, one distinctly unable to hold disparate views about the way it works now and the way it could work in the future. A classical music world coalescing around big names, backing entertainment rather than artistic endeavour, all of it part of a grand if hollow call to arms to make genre more ‘accessible’.

People with big budgets and only a little expert knowledge, dismissive of knowledge, convinced that the audience will be put off by any mention of knowledge, or what it takes to be an elite performer, for example.

And a classical music world where anyone who challenges anything that doesn’t quite sit right for them being accused of being the cause of that stuffy problematic world the great and the good are trying to deal with once and for all.

So, I see this year’s Proms as an epic battle. And I fear I am going to get to the end of it and conclude that it is because I’m passionate advocate of it, that I am seen as part of classical music’s present-day problem.

That Phase Eight Thing (and other stories)

Some may interpret this rather odd stance to what happened yesterday – the Phase Eight thing (see below).

In actual fact, it’s not the cause of this post, but yesterday’s nonsense does rather encapsulate everything I’ve been thinking for a while now.

Phase Eight’s digital content plan included one Tweet aligning the brand with the BBC Proms. “If you’ve got tickets for the Proms you’ll need a dress.” Or words to that effect.

It was a spectacularly odd and for me after an evening out with a pal during which I had one or two sherries, massively idiotic message to put out. One tweet that illustrated the assumptions people outside the classical music world make. A tweet that sought to raise awareness of the brand (laudable) and succeeded in the wrong way, for them and only sought to reinforce misrepresentation. Fodder for people like me.

Enthusiasts are the problem

What I noticed yesterday was something fairly predictable I suppose for our day and age, but also rather saddening.

After the initial guffawing had died down, the opposing view was inserted into the discussion about how it was good that a brand was talking about classical music, and we should stop before slagging people off because there’s a person behind the account, etc etc. And then after that the back-biting.

One tweet in particular shifted the attention to somewhere entirely different.

“Nothing says ‘classical music is welcoming and non-elitist’ like mocking a simple misunderstanding … if classical music dies it will be the enthusiasts that kill it.”

Alexandra Coghlan, 18 July 2019, 3.12pm

I see the perspective. I appreciate seeing this from Alexandra’s perspective. Indeed, this one tweet alone prompted me to reflect on whether I had something to pedal back from late last night. The outcome of that particular executive board meeting prompted me to conclude that on balance, I don’t because we all of us have different views and that the classical music world should be robust enough to play host to those different views.

But it also reminded me of the division which is laid bare – perhaps not because of the Proms, but more to do with social media and the age that we live in. It is now common for the ‘originating issue’ to quickly morph into tribal spats. As the discussion progresses or breaks down (you decide which it is) so we move further away from the thing that actually unites us all. I used to think that classical music provided an escape from the hideousness of the rest of the world. Now I can see its been just as susceptible as every other avenue of pleasure I’ve naively skipped down.

Enthusiasts rock

Enthusiasts are vital for this art form.

It is because you’re an enthusiast for a subject that you picked up and progressed with an instrument in the first place. It’s probably what propelled you through the education you received and perhaps what motivated you to study more in depth in higher education. Being an enthusiast is what drives many adults to return to music-making later in life – something that has resulted in a university friend of mine becoming a highly successful professional musician since graduation. And importantly for me, it is because of enthusiasts that we have passionate debate, that shifts in how the thing we profess to care about are challenged or celebrated.

Enthusiasts care about the thing they’re enthusiastic about. In other areas of entertainment, say for example the Eurovision Song Contest, enthusiasts have been at the heart of a brand’s revival. That the Eurovision is the commercial operation it is today (and a potent brand for the European Broadcasting Union) is testament to the positive sheen an enthusiast can bring to something. It wasn’t always so.

There was a time – not so long ago – when the Prommers in the arena were the focus of the criticism about classical music world. They were the lightning rod the societal discussion about everything that was wrong (and right) with the Proms and the classical music world. As marketers widen classical music’s appeal and reach, so the arena for discussion and the subjects fought over in it widen to include all sorts of different people.

Maybe that means that classical music appreciation has just grown up a bit, finding itself in the big wide world with all aspects of it vying for attention just like anything else right now. If that’s the case, that makes the Proms this year feel like a potential ordeal. Probably best just to listen on the radio in that case.

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.