BBC Proms 2019 – 12: Vaughan Williams Thomas Tallis Fantasia, Eric Lu, and Proms Encore

Irritating stuff, weird stuff, devastating stuff and a joyous surprise this week, plus some notes on Proms Encore

Let’s get the odd stuff out of the way first. The Lost Words Prom and Orchestre de Paris.

The Lost Words Prom – a mixture of spoken word, looped sound files and music. An interesting idea on paper, no doubt. A sort of Words and Music but on the stage with dancing and live painting. I switched off after about 10 minutes. It didn’t engage me at all. In fact, the sound of Greta’s (?) voice repeated over and over again at the beginning just irritated me (even though I’m pro-Greta, obviously). Maybe you just had to be there.

In my defence I’ve been listening to a lot of Proms whilst I’ve been painting the new decking (I was doing the edges while The OH did the middle bits with the sponge on a long pole). Maybe I was just a bit tired. Irritable. That kind of thing.

Next during the day-long painting frenzy. Orchestra de Paris’ Beethoven 6. By this point in the day the meditative benefits of doing something repetitive like painting had helped with my focus. As a result I had to keep going over bits I’d heard, certain I’d heard a duff note here and there. I’ve had to go over it again this evening. I count two wrong notes in the woodwind in the first movement. I’m fairly certain there are others in the movements that follow.

Casual readers will interpret this observation as evidence of me being a grumpy, mean-spirited arsehole. Fine. Whatever. I’m not here to persuade you. But I will make the point that I don’t mind about split notes amongst the brass (embouchure is a tricky thing and susceptible to nerves). And whilst one wrong note can liven things up and remind us that we’re not listening to a studio recording but an actual live performance powered by fallible human beings, when there’s more than one wrong note I do – I’m sorry if you’re annoyed by this – get a bit irritable.

Point made, the woodwind at the beginning of the second movement of the Beethoven is divine. The clarinet and bassoon pairing has a tangy earthiness to it – enhanced when the cellos join in. The muted upper strings in the section that follows are taut but let down momentarily by misplaced woodwind chords at the ends of phrases. What’s apparent in this movement is that there is the intent of conductor Daniel Harding is pretty clear – he adopts a thorough approach to phrasing (even if the resulting detail is sometimes lacking).

A lot of energy in the third movement. Shaky ensemble in the final sequence of the fifth movement. The OH thinks there’s something lacking from proceedings though isn’t clear (or isn’t sure) what. I conclude it as a confusing listen. I’m left unsure whether Daniel Harding was deliberately going for a pseudo-period performance sound (ala Isabelle Faust playing Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra) or whether they are a period band playing on modern instruments because they’ve all had to leave their proper instruments at Customs on the way in. Strange.

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

For all my bleating about how this year’s Proms has been getting up my nose, this week has seen another reminder of one of the things it excels at: that moment when events. programming, and performance align, after which emotion is released.

The BBC Symphony’s performance with conductor Andrew Davis of Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is a good illustration. It was a breathtaking performance – rich strings and bright heartfelt violin solos saturated the score with a range of colours. Luminescent harmonic progressions abounded.

The performance had an arresting effect on me. There was a sense that the main theme – plaintive, strong, and defiant – unexpectedly drew attention to how fearful I feel right now.

The world is a scary confusing place where the principle of holding power to account has been devalued. Trump, Johnson, Dominic Cummings, all of them. I understand how we’ve probably got here, but the apparent gleefulness of all those parties (actually, let’s fold in Michael Gove and wet-lipped Dominic Raab) makes me feel quite lonely, unrepresented and powerless. If their behaviour is the new norm, what has most of my reasonably well-educated life been about?

The BBC Symphony’s performance of the VW Tallis had the effect of reassuring me at the same time as highlighting why I was in need. A sense of resilience pervaded. Music as a companion in beleaguered times.

I’ve listened to it maybe ten or fifteen times this week. That’s how good it was. That’s how much it had an impact on me. That’s how much its needed right now.

The paradox is moments like this – special unexpected Proms experiences – can’t be planned, predicted, or contrived. These experiences are personal. They rely on active listening. At their heart is perfection of artistic expression. And at the heart of the classical music experience is something entirely counter: that no live performance comes with any guarantees whatsoever.

Eric Lu’s Mozart 23

I am big old Eric Lu fanboy ever since seeing him in the semi-finals at the Leeds Piano Competition last autumn. His playing had an immediate impact on me. Since then I’ve often doubted the accuracy of what I recall, wondering for example whether its the passage of time which has elevated my memory of the experience.

It wasn’t so when Lu performed a solo recital at St Lukes earlier this year. And it wasn’t in this morning Prom. It’s worth documenting here how his playing impacts me as a listener.

First, its the discipline of the moment – most evident in the opening movement. Next is the grace in the long decorative phrases. Disciplined yes, but also flexible enough to accommodate the smallest of rubatos at the ends of phrases. A sophisticated kind of expression.

Second is Lu’s ability to create stillness. The opening of the second movement a case in point. After the opening chord the audience settled. I was transfixed. Everything that followed was utterly devastating in its apparent simplicity.

Ensemble was a little raggedy in places which detracted from Lu’s precision and focus. Most notably in the run-up to the first movement cadenza, and the final section of the third movement – minor slips where woodwind and strings were a little out of sync.

At other times the Shanghai Symphony – say the first tutti entry in the second movement – showed stunning sensitivity and precision, mirroring Lu’s phrasing in the piano to great effect. And whilst Lu’s expressiveness still shone in the final bars of a painfully tragic movement, intonation in the woodwind combined with slightly misplaced flute and clarinet chords made the conclusion a little raggedy.

Shanghai Symphony’s Encore

I’m going to revisit Shanghai’s Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances in the next few days. But in the meantime, a few words on their encore which, if you are not already aware, was a little unorthodox.

There’s nothing wrong with unorthodox of course, it’s just that even listening back the effect is quite quite remarkable.

An encore made up of two parts. Something from China. An orchestral setting of ‘Jasmine Flower’. Segue into an awkward mid-tempo march-rhythm introduced by a drum kit, a vaguely familiar sounding piano riff, followed by a saxophone solo completing the musical jigsaw – an orchestral arrangement of ‘Hey Jude’.

To go from Rachmaninov to China to ‘Hey Jude’ in such a short space of time felt at first like too much of a musical gearshift. But the solo trumpet descant reassured and the subsequent truck driver’s modulation galvanised.

People clapped. I have never seen music take people so much by surprise to the extent they’re on their feet in the space of four minutes. A delightful thing to experience and to listen back to.

One doesn’t want to come across as ungrateful or cynical or anything, but I think the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra want to come back to the BBC Proms.

Proms on TV

The best thing in Proms Encore this week was undoubtedly Dr Hannah French’s appearance on the bench in the gazebo, previewing the Henry Wood Prom she was presenting for BBC Four.

During Proms Encore, viewers were ‘treated’ to a heavily edited two-hander with Yolanda Brown – less of an interview, more of a missed opportunity. Every time an insight or archive treat about Henry Wood was introduced by the Dr, the line was cut short and we moved onto something else. What could have been an interesting exploration into one of the men behind the Proms, was cut to allow time for …

Three Henry Woods visit the Proms for the first time. An interesting idea with a bit of playfulness powering it. Three people from outside London – Henry Wood’s namesakes – attend a classical music concert for the first time and share their insights. Only, they didn’t really. Comments abounded about how the sound of the organ really shook the building during the conclusion of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. And the inevitable, it wasn’t like anything I was expecting. Why spend the money or the time filming both pieces when neither really unearthed anything of any consequence or really provided any emotional content?

Do one, not both. Dare to spend a bit more time one or thing. Have the courage of your convictions. Please.

Can there be anything as decidedly uninviting as the prospect of being told that ‘In our final episode we’ll look forward to what you can expect in the Last Night of the Proms”? Does the Last Night need to be previewed? Should it, in its present format, even be broadcast anymore?

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in Summer Air Festival: there are other worlds out there

One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject

At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.

Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..

And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.

I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.

It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.

At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.

What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.

For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.

What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?

The NY Phil and the BBC Symphony aren’t the first of course. Far from it. The LSO went to China last year (albeit with a considerable array of developmental partners, suggesting that a tour of China is far from a cash cow). So too the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Halle. The London Philharmonic was the first to visit China in 1973.

These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.

Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.

Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.

The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.

My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.

Music in Summer Air runs from 2nd – 15th July 2019 in Shanghai, China