Perfection

I’ve been a little restless today. I haven’t been able to put my finger on why exactly. Not until now.

I’ve wanted to write (since watching last nights Proms gig with the LSO) but couldn’t. So I read instead (about Vaughan Williams and the British perception of music and landscapes). Then I read Gretchen Ruben says about what Rebels can do to meet their inner expectations (spoiler: the secret is self-deception). Then I started work on a database service I’ve wanted to provide musicians for a couple of years. Endless displacement activities. Open book stuff.

At the tail end of all of this I discovered I’d massively cocked up and failed to turn up for a Zoom interview by an hour. And after that I felt I was ‘able’ or at least ‘motivated’ to write.

Back to the LSO’s blistering performance last night. Hearing a concert (or seeing it on TV) is, it seems, only the beginning of the classical music experience for me now. Hearing something when I’m not able to be physically present in the same space means I’m dependent on the moment when the music has the most impact on me – the moment when the musical experience takes me by surprise. And if it has (and it did) then reflecting on how much and why is important. Until that point is reached it seems the concert isn’t ‘over’.

That’s weird. I know.

Or at least it marks a shift. Because up until this year writing about a concert was something that I felt I should do in order to demonstrate my presence at a concert retrospectively. A sort of personal responsibility to advocacy of the genre. Now, a year later, writing about a concert is something I have to do in order to make sense of it to myself. To arrive at a sort of closure.

Rattle and the LSO was one of the most remarkable pieces of television (and radio – I’m listening as I write this in the bath) I’ve seen in a long long time. There was a detail to the sound mix which brought an urgency, relevance and immediacy to say the Elgar Introduction and Allegro that I’d not heard before. Every instrument sang. There was more punch in the overall ensemble. And the content – emotionally – seemed not only to reflect the implicit visual narrative (a space in which us at home were denied access) but also provide a soundtrack for what has happened to the arts over the past six months, but hints at what might be lost if the ridiculousness of this situation is allowed to continue.

That kind of programming isn’t an accident I don’t think. It’s a measure of how COVID has brought about an opportunity to experiment with a different way of bringing concert programmes to life. Look at it this way: if I’d seen Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Adès, Kurtag, and Vaughan Williams fifth symphony I might well have overlooked it.

But when you’ve been starved of something you love (and when an artist has the opportunity to programme works in response to present constraints) then the resulting concert has the potential to respond more immediately. And it did. With devastating effect.

After a gritty and impassioned Elgar, Mitsuko Uchida performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was terrifying. Crushing, even. The pieces by Kurtag created a displaced feel to them. Ades’s Dawn was other worldly. Transcendental – just as perhaps he’d intended.

And the Vaughan Williams. I ended up crying a lot during the third movement. It was though something had been lanced. Someone or a group of people had come along and presented a playlist of music live performing to a perceived audience. They not only entertained, but spoke to us and sought to represent us all at the same time. And in doing so they reinforced precisely the thing that makes this art form so utterly indispensable. And so vital right now. Music as a series of statements that speak to, reflect back, an articulate the mood of a collection of people the players can’t see in the moment.

The eyebrow-raising element for some will be this. After all my crowing and complaining about TV at the Proms last year, it was TV that came good this year. Because without the audience, a boom camera had the most access to the stage – more than ever before. With no audience in the Hall, the audience at home was able to experience a potent narrative made possible by the sight of a vast interior, access to the edge of the stage, and an enviable range of wide angle lenses. The script wasn’t needed to compensate. The music was allowed to speak for itself.

Not every concert can be like this. Nor every concert will be. But if you’re looking for an illustration of why this art form isn’t just relevant but needed, here was an example.

Quite a remarkable evening.

LSO plays Messiaen Éclairs sur l’au-delà

First concert of the new term and the London Symphony Orchestra under Rattles casts a long shadow on the summer with a touching performance of Messiaen’s last work L’Eclair sur l’au dela.

In his pre-performance address from the podium Simon Rattle recounted the first time he’d heard the 1991 work and how he’d begun to cry during the second (or was it the third?) movement after which he sobbed (quietly, presumably) throughout the remaining nine movements of the work.

I didn’t cry, but the sheer scale of the orchestration (approximately 131 plays squeezed on to the Barbican stage) made it both a visual spectacle and, in the case of the enlarged flute and clarinet section, made it a treat for the ears. A work that sometimes felt like it was written for wind orchestra accompanied by a string section in places. Massed legatos created in the wind and brass ensemble created a delectable ultra-smooth polished steel effect throughout. Birdsong transcriptions especially in the penultimate movement were a thing to behold. The sixth movement (tutti strings) was a serene creation – the point in proceedings where I was completely hooked.

I can think of no concert in recent memory when listening to a work for the first time has had such a massive impact on me. Riveting.

This concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 16 September 2019.

BBC Proms 2019 – 11: Sheku’s Elgar Cello Concerto and Dieter Amman’s Piano Concerto

The crazy perfection of Dieter Ammann’s piano concerto, Sheku’s much-heralded performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a double dose of dodgy TV presentation

I’ve been on holiday this week, escaping from work by holing myself up in a hotel with a book. So my listening has been limited to a handful of concerts. There’s a greater bias towards broadcast presentation in this post, but that’s only because there have been moments when my heart rate has, disappointingly, reached scary new heights.

Jonathan Dove / Dieter Ammann (Prom 43)

High point of my week’s worth of Proms listening was undoubtedly the double bill premieres of Jonathan Dove’s We Are One Fire and Dieter Ammann enthralling Piano Concerto.

Dove’s work for the BBC Symphony Chorus secures the composer and his output as my new favourite thing from this year and, looking ahead, a back catalogue I want to explore further. We Are One Fire illustrates the composer’s love of storytelling, his desire to connect with the audience and the enthusiasm he has writing for voice. There was some joyous celebrations in this work – a present-day musical evocation of the universal themes expressed in Schiller’s Ode to Joy – that had an infectious inclusive feel even on catch-up. Loved hearing it. Haven’t stopped listening to it all week.

In a similar way, German composer Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto (a co-commission with a variety of orchestras and venues in addition to the BBC) was a miraculous thing on a first listen. Driving rhythms, enthralling textures, and arresting sound worlds made this a dazzling work with a fascinating narrative.

CBSO and Sheku Kanneh Mason (Prom 46)

I listen with interest to Sheku’s performances. I’ve written before about how I think he is (like a couple of other recent Decca signings) heavily- perhaps even over-marketed at a point in time when he is still in the early stages of his musical development. His exposure is important for the sector and for music education, of course. At the same time, I think its important to pay close attention to performance as with any other professional musician.

If I was coaching a client who was saying this to me, I’d be reminding them about the old adage that we see what we’re looking for. In other words, if I am approaching a performance from a cynical perspective I’m almost certainly going to find fault with something. So I feel as though I have to (in case of the rare chance that he or a member of his family actually reads this) work hard to keep my usual curmudgeonly-ness in check.

The Elgar comes with baggage undoubtedly. Jacqueline du Pre’s landmark recording casts a shadow across the work for surely any cellist long before they’ve reached for the manuscript, let alone lifted the bow to the strings. And whilst I know that this is described by Sheku as his favourite recording of the work, I wonder whether it would have been better to avoid discussing it before the live performance. Certainly, hearing Andrew McGregor say in the pre-recorded interview, “I have to ask you about .. ” means that minutes before we hear Sheku play Elgar’s iconic work, we are as listeners even if we don’t mean to, comparing Sheku’s interpretation with our memory (perceived or otherwise) of du Pre’s.

The third movement was undoubtedly the most rounded section of the work, with warm tones, tender phrases and an aching autumnal heart to it. But intonation slips in the faster solo phrases of the first and second movements distracted attention from the emotional intent of the solo line. The main subject in the allegro of the fourth movement lacked the gravitas I’ve come to expect from the work (though this is not to say it’s what is required). Similar intonation slips in some of the exposed lines of the fourth movement increased the pressure in what sometimes felt like a rushed movement.

The Elgar on BBC Four

I’ve listened a few times to the catch-up recording on iPlayer Radio, and complimented that with the TV broadcast, partly to make sure I haven’t misheard but also to see what the overall story the BBC has told ‘in vision’.

A rather awkward pre-title introduction featuring Tom Service, with Sheku and his sister Isata introducing one another. Post-titles up in the gallery, anchors Tom and Isata looked rather uncomfortable talking with one another, Isata’s lack of TV presenting experience evident in some dry pieces to camera and lack-lustre questioning with pundit Kathryn Knight. This is not Isata’s fault by any means – she is a musician not a presenter. Her presence seemed rather odd because she was the soloist’s sibling – any objectivity we might have hoped for from the presenters about the work and the performance after it was complete were dashed.

If its annoying when a radio presenter shares their opinion of the work we’ve just heard, then its pointless to hear glowing remarks come from a family member as their sibling soloist takes their bow. That’s a conflict of interest.

If promming at the BBC NOW concert a couple of weeks ago reconnected me with the BBC Proms, the TV coverage with Tom and Isata distanced me. I saw this as a commissioning decision rather than a directing/producing error. The programme served the needs of a record label (for whom it was imperative to promote both Isata and Sheku in the same programme) rather than the audience. And that must have been knowingly entered into – it couldn’t have been an accident. And I can’t believe that experienced TV people wouldn’t have at some stage in proceedings paused and thought, isn’t this going to look a little odd?

If its annoying when a radio presenter shares their opinion of the work we’ve just heard, then its pointless to hear glowing remarks come from a family member as their sibling soloist takes their bow. That’s a conflict of interest.

For casual readers (or those unaware of the way I’ve approached these Proms blogs this year), this experience is important for me. The Proms (and perhaps even classical music?) relies to a great extent on advocacy by its fans. This was an episode where I as an advocate felt alienated. Until someone says otherwise (given that a considerable number of the independent production TV company behind the coverage were those who up until a couple of years ago had worked inside the BBC producing the same coverage), the only thing I can conclude is that this is a deliberate move. Maybe people like me are more of a pain in the arse than I had realised. Certainly what I feel at the moment is that in pursuit of doing something different (in the belief that this will attract a different audience) the thing I love is being trampled on spectacularly.

Meeting Hannah French

For every gushing Proms presenter that brings me out in hives, there are always new ones who fit the bill and make me clap excitedly.

Dr Hannah French is a leading contender for the Proms Commentator of the Year Crown (a new award initiated just this week). Hannah brings personality to the job but leaves ego behind. She delivers a punchy script with verve, knowledge and objectivity.

I let out a sigh of relief when I heard her introduce Solomon’s Knot’s concert on 14th August. So, when I caught sight of her in the commentary box as I left the Ulster Orchestra Prom, I couldn’t help but do what I normally do in such situations.

“Are you Hannah?” I asked her, leaning across the Radio 3 banner separating stalls from box.

“Aren’t you Jon Jacob?” she replies

“Yes.” I point at her and say, “You are very good at this. Really. I think you’re brilliant.”

Her hands clasp her cheeks. She says thank you. We hug. I say hello to her commentary box ‘plus one’. Thank her again. And then scarper.

Up until this moment I have never hugged an actual Proms commentator in situ at the Royal Albert Hall. An important moment.

The BBC had better sign her up for next year. And for more. And whilst we’re at it, Dr Hannah French needs to be on TV too. Get her to do everything. You might as well.

Proms on TV

Proms Encore (episode 4) has been the best episode of the series, it has to be said.

Lloyd Coleman’s sequence with Martyn Brabbins discussing the role of the conductor was a confident exploration of the art of conducting. As much as I like Rachel Parris (Mash Report), her package spotlighting Queen Victoria’s piano with Stephen Hough was a little disappointing. Using the clip of Rachel swaying around next to Stephen in the ‘menu’ of the programme made me wriggle uncomfortably – contrived and a little unnatural.

Guests Odaline de la Martinez and Peter Edwards were natural and engaging (Odaline especially so). My connection which Robert Ames veered through a range of a emotional reactions based on not knowing who he was, to finding his hair fundamentally annoying, to then wanting to berate the presenter for asking Robert about his hair, and finally screaming at the television to Robert, “If you don’t know what to do with your hair in a concert then get it cut!” If I ever catch myself asking such banal questions during a podcast interview I will cease interviewing anybody ever again.

More buzz please

LSO’s performance of Gruppen at the Turbine Hall demonstrates a rare thing in the classical music world we need more of: buzz

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in.