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.

It’s getting nearer

Looking ahead to the beginning of the BBC Proms 2008

Like the rumble of a distant timpani roll, the BBC Proms season nears its start.

I ended up trotting up to Prince Consort Road this evening to drop off the passport pictures for my season ticket, using the opportunity to time exactly how long it takes to go from High Street Kensington tube station to the Royal Albert Hall.

It felt like it was a considerably shorter route, although the journey home via South Kensington confirmed that there’s really nothing in it at all.

It’s ridiculous. The more I look at it in the cold light of day – to be a part of the media industry it seems one has to look at things at objectively as one possibly can – all I am really getting excited by is a great long series of concerts which stretch out over the summer. They’re mostly from the same venue too. There must be countless concerts in the capital and up and down the country throughout the rest of the year too, and yet this particular concert series always sets my heart racing. It’s like Christmas all over again and a completely different Christmas from the Eurovision-related hysteria I always succeed in getting myself succombing to.

This year sees me purchasing a season ticket for the first time. I’d always sworn blind I was a radio and tv consumer, preferring to imagine the interior of the Royal Albert Hall over actually being there. Now I feel as though I want to be a part of it and, it seems, a season ticket is the best way to subscribe.

Roll on Friday and the First Night.