Why the CBSO’s Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 with Kazuki Yamada was ‘exquisite’

Sometimes it’s not really enough to say a performance was beautiful, stunning or ravishing. The adjective on its own doesn’t really do the job, even though sometimes I’m the first to admit that in my rush to get something written down the adjective is the only thing that comes to mind.

Sometimes there’s a need to explain why the adjective has been chosen. Case in point with the CBSO’s exquisite performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 last night at the BBC Proms, conducted by their soon to be Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Kazuki Yamada.

Why exquisite? Because it was one of those rare occasions when the music seemed to be allowed the space it needed to live and breathe. It was as though Yamada had found the moment to trigger the emotion and wasn’t in any hurry to leave anyone behind. None more so than in the third movement where the opening vulnerable clarinet solo was by the conclusion, transformed into something more healing, perhaps even defiant.

To be able to hold onto the moment for what felt like just the right amount of time before letting go and heading in a different direction made this an incredibly special listening experience. We were given the chance to be acquaint ourselves with what was going on. We didn’t linger but we weren’t railroaded either.

For a specific example go to 1 hour 43 minutes and 25 seconds (on BBC Sounds – Prom 14) and listen to the upper strings slow right down until the last note that resolves the chord. (The encore – Elgar’s Chanson De Nuit – illustrates the same technique to even greater effect. )

Prom 14: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Chief Conductor Designate Kazuki Yamada in the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 25 July 2022. Photo by Mark Allan/BBC

To see 90+ musicians directed by one conductor, all pull in one direction to create such a delectable moment in itself. To know that an audience experienced it with them – a musical in-breath and out-breath – reinforces why live performance is such a wondrous cultural encounter, and serves to illustrates what makes this art form so remarkable.

That was just being in the hall. The radio broadcast mix combined depth in the basses and detail in the upper strings and woodwind, exposing some of the detail in the work I’d not heard before. In the third movement in particular, the intertwining of solo melodic lines after the false ending was magical stuff.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2022/23 Season gets underway on Friday 16 September.

📸Mark Allan

5 reasons why the First Night was the best Proms opener for a long time

With the caveat that it’s acknowledged that lists are stylistically passé, here’s a list of five reasons why the First Night of the Proms was a bit of a corker.

Detail

My assumption was that from our seat way back in the stalls I wasn’t going to hear much detail. I was wrong. I heard dry strings with distinct articulation. I heard rasping brass. I heard uniform beginnings and endings to phrases too. There was from beginning to end close attention to detail. And that was very very pleasing.

Also. How do two choruses stand and sit as one without making a noise?

Intimacy

Part of what made this a captivating performance was how the internal space added not only to the theatre of the Requiem but also gave the sound a three-dimensional depth. There were moments when it felt like we were in a massive cave. Then there were other moments when – say in the heart-stopping Agnus Dei led by Jennifer Johnston – when we were collectively experiencing something intensely personal. Commanding the space so that you can hold the space (with 6000 other people) is no mean feat.

Theatre

Seeing Verdi’s Requiem fill the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall did much to trigger past memories of similarly special potent memories. To experience this as the first night after a two year hiatus was uplifting.

Poignancy

Years ago I worked with an orchestra that participated in a commemoration of the Dresden bombings. Menuhin was conducting. My memory of this epic trip was of warmth, self-reflection and reconciliation. Last night there was a sense we were remembering those who weren’t present, those who hadn’t survived. And that seemed right and proper in the way that classical music events do best. Like Menuhin did in Dresden in 1995.

Hope

I left the Albert Hall feeling hopeful that things might improve. Don’t confuse this with me hoping for things turning out perfect, only that they might be better. That sense came about by experiencing a live performance in a special place with A Great Many Other People.

The joy of listening live at the BBC Proms

Jon Jacob, writer of the Thoroughly Good Blog and producer of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast explains why the BBC Proms is the best place to start to discover classical music

I first attended a Prom concert in 1991 with friends I’d spent the summer playing music with in the Suffolk Youth Orchestra. Keen to relive our own experience of performing Mozart’s Requiem at Snape Maltings earlier that year, selected wind players, brass players, and string players all honed in on one Prom featuring Mozart’s much-loved work. We queued all day to hear the work we’d all enjoyed playing only months before.

The day was hot and long and, by the time the front of house staff let is in, the interior of the Royal Albert Hall was magical. Our dedication starting to queue early in the day had paid off too: me, Tim, Chris, Gig, and Ali, had managed to secure a second row position in the Arena, a handful of metres away from the edge of the stage. We stood within reach of proper grown ups playing music we knew inside out. It was almost as though we were playing the music ourselves.

Spurred on by the experience, two days later I attended another Prom. This time it was the National Youth Orchestra playing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. I still have the programme from the day.

Looking through the programme now I’m amazed at some of the names I recognise. In the violins (in addition to the school friend Rebecca Livermore who I’d gone to see play who now plays in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) names include Katherine Hunka, Hannah Perowne, Matthew Truscott, Veronica Freeman, and Maxine Kwok (now of LSO fame). I remember the concert being a high-octane affair executed by a crowd of musicians on stage. The atmosphere looking at the stage from the Arena was electrifying.

Get as close to the stage as possible

Proximity in live music is everything for the audience. The closer you are to the action the more visceral the experience is going to be. Detail promises excitement; proximity guarantees detail. Get as close to the stage as you possibly can.

It’s not always been the case. Sometimes proximity can result in an experience so overwhelming as to be very nearly uncomfortable. This was certainly the case at the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Messiaen at the Roundhouse a few years back. If ever there was a concert that absolutely should have been put on at the Royal Albert Hall that was one of them. Music that commands it be played the loudest it possibly can needs a big space and a distant view to create a theatrical experience.

Other similarly vivid memories include the feel of the cold stone on my bare legs as me, Hannah, Richard and Simon sat in the gallery high up above the action listening to the technicolour excitement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Or listening to a pal playing a Mahler symphony in an international orchestra and as the applause broke out all around turning to his wife sat next to me and hugging her, both of us with tears in our eyes.

Our unexpected emotion wasn’t something only experienced at the Proms. Classical music has the power, assuming all the conditions are right in the moment, to do just this. To move. Your most lasting memories stand a good chance of being created at the Royal Albert Hall and specifically at a Prom concert.

This is one of the absolute (and consistent) joys of the BBC Proms. Its home – the Royal Albert Hall – is a grand theatrical space that plays host to various differently scaled performances. It feeds off grand symphonic works, almost daring orchestras to cram as many players onto its stage. It also welcomes the solo performer, promising epic drama with an empty stage and a single spotlight. The Royal Albert Hall does drama well. 

The physical space plays a significant part in the experience of any classical music performance at the BBC Proms. That’s why being there is integral and why there is on Thoroughly Good a selection of must-attend concerts and recommended seating for each event. The basic rule of thumb is simple: get as close to the action as you possibly can. If that means logging on on the day of the concert in order to get in the digital queue for an arena ticket and promming, then so be it. 

When you see from close range a bow on a string and feel the sound that emanates you’ll get the thrill. Recorded music tries hard, but it really doesn’t cut it in comparison. Something magical happens when you see, hear and feel at the same time.   

There were a number of years when I didn’t return to the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. It wasn’t until I ended up working at the BBC and witnessed how colleagues put the season together (and then worked on it) that I came to appreciate it on a different level. Here was a mammoth broadcast event – 70-odd concerts spanning the summer, every one broadcast live on Radio 3, and an entire season trying to offer something for everyone whilst introducing something new to someone. It was often in the firing line for criticism for not being what the critic thought the Proms should be – a metaphor for public service broadcasting. 

That dissonance still exists today. Amid the culture wars, the Proms are often used as a handy stick to beat both the classical music industry and the BBC with. But it remains a valuable shop front for the UK and international classical music industry. The BBC Proms is an opportunity to look in on the classical music world. It’s not exhaustive nor necessarily comprehensive. Perhaps in some respects, it’s a starting point. All it asks of you the audience member is a sense of curiosity and excitement. Come with an open mind.

There are no guarantees – that’s the joy of live

Not every concert will delight. Even if you think it might or someone tells you it will be excellent there are no guarantees to live unamplified performance. That’s not a failing of classical music, that is part of the joy of it. There are so many variables that risk the live experience. That is what makes live music so utterly addictive an experience.

Many who fear stepping into the concert hall have very high expectations, shaped in part by the on-demand lives we all live. Any concert demands the audience takes the risk of ending up disappointed, or (if you’re more of a glass half full kind of person) diving in in pursuit of creating a lasting memory. Take the risk. Take the plunge.

On the Thoroughly Good Proms homepage you’ll find recommendations of concerts to attend, concerts to listen to, and even concerts to watch on TV.

I’ve selected these largely because of their potential for spectacle. It’s my belief that being in a large space surrounded by other audience members looking on at the detail going on on stage is possibly the best way to get the bug like I have. So, inevitably, the choice of repertoire is biased to what I’ve been drawn to – big symphonic works.

I’ve also included a list of concerts to listen to on the radio. Listening live isn’t the cop-out some regular Prommers led me to believe it was when I secured my first season ticket back in 2007. The sound mix broadcast live from the Albert Hall consistently conveys something of the excitement in the space – perhaps, even more – in a way that triggers my emotion. It is, long before we get on to the music, old-school radio where the pictures are better than real life.

Jon Jacob writes the Thoroughly Good Blog and produces Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast

Discover concerts in the Thoroughly Good Guide to the BBC Proms

Balance between risk and reward

Professor Linda Bauld (Bruce and John Usher Chair of Public Health in The Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh) talks to Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell on Broadcasting House on Sunday 5 September 2021 about research into the spread of COVID at large-scale events

Off the back of a short package previewing the Proms Festival Orchestra appearance later this week at the Royal Albert Hall, Broadcasting House presenter Paddy O’Connell spoke to Professor Linda Bauld about early research published by the Events Research Programme which has been investigating the risk of COVID at mass gatherings and live events.

The news is broadly good with the spike in cases recorded at the Euros this year explained by the unique characteristics about the footballing tournament where fans congregated in pubs, homes, and stadia. In one case a total of 9000 cases were reported in the run up to and two days after one event. No surprise perhaps.

“It’s a balance between risk and reward, isn’t it?” asked Paddy O’Connell.

“Governments don’t want to locker down again, ” replied Professor Bauld. “We don’t want these musicians not to work again. Let’s say if you’ve got very high levels of covid in a particular place that has to be taken into account. You can see that from the Programme. Many of these events happened when there were very low levels of COVID in the community. When its much higher you have more infected people attended and the risks are not zero and an event could add to infections rising in a location.”

Manchester Collective at the BBC Proms 2021

An epic night. Wild rhythms and visceral textures from the Manchester Collective – their debut at the BBC Proms – and Mahan Esfahani. Listening to the broadcast felt like earwigging a textbook Proms gig, the kind where excitement and anticipation spill out from stage and auditorium, evident too online.

That excitement is in no small part down to the sincerity of the offer Manchester Collective consistently brings – a reflection of founders Adam Szabo and Raki Singh vision evident right from the start of their creative endeavour. There is integrity and authenticity to their work which results in them creating concert experiences that are fascinating and compelling. There was a sense that those I knew in attendance in the hall were there to witness a significant milestone in the group’s five years of existence.

Three standout performances in this Prom picked out below with illustrative clips.

Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto

There was a rock-gig feel to Mahan Esfahani’s keyboard work in Gorecki’s Harpischord Concerto, the music of which holds absolutely no prisoners with a driving incessant rhythm. The rust-like feel in the combined textures of harpischord and strings gave proceedings a creepy edge. The frenzied cacophony had a tinge of madness about it that was magnetic and repellant. Music that brings about strong contradictory emotions. Efficient writing. Electrifying playing.

Joseph Horovitz’s Jazz Concerto

I studied Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for Clarinet when I was a student and loved his playfully light combination of classical and jazz. The same approach is evident in his Jazz Concerto for Harpishord and Strings, only this work has all of those trademark elements of Horovitz’s musical language really ramped up. None more so than in the final movement (opening clipped above) when the harpsichord lets rip, fingers crawling up and down the keyboard with all sorts of unexpected chromatic notes that theoretically shouldn’t be there but fit the bill for those who see a cranky miraculous world only just hanging together.

Kilar’s Orawa

Especially captivating in Manchester Collective’s encore Orawa by Polish composer Kilar was the extreme textural contrasts, heard in this clip at 7 seconds in.

I adored the dry sequences that seemed to favour a percussive textural effect over any discernible pitch, a texture I wanted to carry on indefinitely even though I knew it couldn’t – the musical equivalent of wanting to devour an entire family bag of your crisps after you’ve taken just one bite.

Be sure to watch the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s equally compelling lockdown recording of the piece (below) published last year.

Listen to the Manchester Collective Prom via BBC Sounds

Incredible

Not the greatest day. MPs reconvene in the House of Commons to debate the complete balls-up in Afghanistan, seemingly happy to overlook mask-wearing and social-distancing, whilst UK orchestras still have to be distanced in concert venues.

It appears that orchestral musicians are more of a risk to the health and safety of society than politicians.

Víkingur Ólafsson Mozart 24 with the Philharmonia at the BBC Proms 2021

Víkingur Ólafsson’s sizzling performance of Mozart Piano Concerto No.24 needs a quick noting down in the journal.

The detail in Víkingur Ólafsson’s playing itself I enjoyed most was most evident in the first movement where the piano part wasn’t always the dominant voice. That meant we got to hear alternative or ‘lesser-heard’ voices given more attention. There were many times when the piano, in particular the right-hand upper notes, were reduced in volume by Ólafsson, giving more prominence to the flute in some places.

And in one sequence clipped below it was being able to hear a melodic line in the ‘middle’ of the piano that really took me (pleasantly) by surprise, almost as though Olafsson had lifted the bonnet of the car he was driving and was pointing excitedly at the fuel injector.

Ólafsson and the Philharmonia with Järvi play Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24

There’s a directness or firmness to Ólafsson’s tone too which I’ve not heard in a performance of this concerto. And I rather like that too. The Guardian’s Andrew Clements didn’t agree who described the performance as ‘bizarrely anachronistic’.

Tthe listening path is worth documenting too. I watched first on TV. Josie D’Arby is by far the best Proms presenter on TV (sorry Katie, Tom and Jess), achieving that rare balance of authority, accessibility, sincerity and warmth. The audio felt as though it battled for my attention with the visuals so I didn’t really pick up on the detail in the playing (it was the Stradal arrangement of a Bach Organ Sonata that worked best on TV). It was only later listening to the radio broadcast I got to the detail in the sound production.

It’s the second time in a week that actively ‘leaning in’ to the detail in a live broadcast has brought me out of a motivation-less fug. It is by listening for detail that my mood is transformed, resulting in renewed impetus (hence the post about Thoroughly Good in a Nutshell). That merely listening in a focused way can have this transformative effect is another reminder of how I draw so much value from this genre.

Listen to Víkingur Ólafsson with the Philharmonia and Paavo Järvi playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor via BBC Sounds.

What matters most

As I write I’m listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven 6.

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard this work, but this feels fresh. Particularly the second movement.

So much character is created in the different textures in the strings, right from the beginning when the gossamer lines, undulating movement, and gentle industry make me feel as though someone’s pushed a boat out onto a lake.

In the basses in particular there’s depth, bounce, and lift created by resonant plucked notes. After a gentle take-off at the beginning of the movement, it is as if we’re gliding high above an idyllic pastoral scene.

BBC Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins, Friday 13 August 2021 at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms

It is the detail in the playing that matters to me most.

The way a high bassoon playing a short solo with the upper strings creates the most exquisite textural combination. Or elsewhere, the way chords ’emerge’ when flutes join clarinets. Or the sweet warm oboe intertwined with a melodic line in the flutes. Or the utterly divine clarinet solo slap bang in the middle of the movement, packed full of heart that the rest of the orchestra supports instinctively as one.

It’s the detail that is so easy to overlook in the familiarity of the music. I don’t especially love Beethoven 6. I would never pick it out to listen to it. Not really. Not like I would with pop music. But when I listen attentively to something that has detail I’ll hear it, see it or even think I can touch that detail. That’s when it comes alive.

Just like any Beach Boys album, when you ‘lean in’ and pay closer attention to the constituent parts somehow there’s even more joy to discover. It is the listening equivalent of stopping to take your time consuming a plate full of carefully selected cheeses.

It is perfection, especially in the final few chords that end the movement – gentle insistent musical ‘staples’ exquisitely placed by multiple players simultaneously playing as one. Miraculously uplifting stuff.

This is the magic at the heart of classical music I often feel goes overlooked, misunderstood as ‘knowledge’ about the genre when it is only evidence of attentive listening in the moment. This is where joy emanates from. This is our starting point.

This is the listening experience that grounds me. Listening attentively, with awareness and curiosity is all that is required in order to surface the power of this art form. Listening experiences like these are what ground, restore, and sustain me. It is these kinds of experiences I care most about that I want to others to see, feel and touch.

This is where the joy that comes from discovery is to be found. Anything else is a bolt-on. A distraction.

All this is in stark contrast to how was I feeling (and what I was thinking) before I began listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven 6. That feeling of wretchedness and the negative thinking that spirals as a result of fatigue, worry and stress (the details of which don’t need to be outlined here) seem like a distant land. I am reminded that energy levels bring about negative thinking. It’s not the other way around.

I’m reminded too of one other pertinent insight. It isn’t the music itself that transforms mood or thinking or indeed energy levels. It is the practice of listening that engages the brain. It is the detail that brings the joy. Listening releases the much-sought-after serotonin.

Listening is what matters most.

Yet one question lingers. Who wants this? What organisation values this? Who is prepared to sit with exactly what all of us knows about this uplifting art form and put their money where their mouth is to sell the music in the way it moves us individually and personally?

There are so many who assume such detail is anathema to the art form and its appreciation. People associate listening with expertise. Expertise is expected of those on stage, but seen as a problem amongst those who appreciate the art form.

Listening is what matters most. And we all need to get a little more comfortable about celebrating that, I think.

A Rookie Error

It appears that I have been rather foolish.

Not only have I fallen into the trap of being an incensed middle-aged white male barking online about a performer’s concert attire, but I’ve managed to pitch myself deftly and efficiently as a classical music fan who is part of the very problem classical music is trying to rid itself of.

And I’ve achieved this in a short series of Tweets posted shortly after I left the Albert Hall last night, before I reached South Kensington tube station (which was closed, by the way).

Last night’s Aurora Orchestra was something I was looking forward to following rave reviews of the band’s Saffron Hall ‘sister concert’.

What took me a little by surprise and subsequently drew my eye throughout the first work was Pavel Kolesnikov’s bright orange Nike trainers. Rarely has concert attire drawn my eye quite so much, triggered so much thought and reflection, and in so doing distracted me from the sole purpose of the event I was attending in the first place.

Pavel’s footwear was, I understand from incoming correspondence, a clear sign to reach out to younger audiences to make classical music appear more approachable. From my seat in the stalls it feld oddly contrived and a bit arch. It was a distraction.

Even writing that now … in.an.actual.blog.post … gives me the fear a bit. I can hear the shouts across the internet heading my way. I can see whatever reputation it is I have disappearing down a plug hole.

Maybe one of those correspondents was right when she asked whether I might consider deleting my Tweets.

But then again. Maybe she wasn’t. My comment wasn’t rude. It wasn’t offensive. I was hardly spreading misinformation about COVID or vaccines. I was just expressing an opinion in the moment. I think that’s still OK. We should all of us be able to do that.

There is for me a good reason why everyone on stage by and large wears all one colour (a uniform if you like) or a pallet of colours. It’s to reduce distraction. I’m not advocating penguin suits or dinner jackets, nor evening dresses (these always strike me as distinctly uncomfortable to wear at a point in time when performers need to be ‘freed-up’). But against a neutral backdrop of players on stage at a venue like the Royal Albert Hall say, it’s hardly surprising that the introduction of a bright pair of trainers is going to draw the eye – to the feet rather than the keyboard.

I can now see producers rubbing their hands together with glee, others rolling their eyes with derision. Those with a proven track record in passive aggression will also be looking at this and no doubt thinking, “Well we had to wait a long time but it paid off – he’s finally made an idiot of himself saying this. He really is part of the problem.”

What Aurora’s concert has highlighted to me is that I’m surprisingly and comfortably conventional and orthodox. I’m attuned to contrivance. And I’m reminded that I’m less inclined to think that appealing to a younger audience is best done through fashion choices.

I still hold that the music should speak for itself. It’s just music. Listening is all that’s required. That and a properly funded music education system that introduces music at primary school level. That would help a great deal.

Beethoven 4 from the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms 2021

A high point of the BBC Philharmonic’s first outing at the BBC Proms this year was the orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. Packed full of detailed, precise and clear articulation, the dry whispering strings, warm wind and brass, and punchy timpani-line really exploited the cavernous interior of the Royal Albert Hall. This felt like a theatrical performance, with an occasional spotlight on highly complex musical lines like the terrifying bassoon solos in the last movement. The performance had a youthful and uplifting feel too, in a way I hadn’t really noticed in Beethoven’s fourth symphony before. An odd thing to admit to I know: I’ve heard this work many times before – it’s not like the musical material itself had changed, so what instead was different about this performance?

Proximity to the stage no doubt played a big part. With the stage extended to accommodate a distanced orchestra, The ‘H’ section in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall is, bar a handful of seats to my left, basically like being on stage with the musicians, making the listening experience feel more immersive than any Promming experience in the past ten years.

There’s also the empty space in the Royal Albert Hall which adds to the atmosphere. The auditorium seating wraps around a large central space extending from floor to mushroomed-ceiling. Sound reverberates off the hard surfaces and rests in that space, giving the music a sense of depth I often forget about after an extended period away from the hall. Usually that period away amounts to say 9 months. This time it was a 18-month hiatus. Little wonder the senses were enlivened on this visit.

But perhaps more potent was things that were ever so slightly different from normal.

The top-level circle near to the arena – usually full for something like a Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn programme – was entirely empty all around the hall. Some heads popped up in the boxes; up in the gallery above, I counted three or four people. In the Arena (no TV so the equipment was gone and the Prommers were able to extend to their full-ish space) there was maybe a maximum of 100 people, with considerable gaps in between each line.

I explained to my partner how these seemingly insignificant observations actually made me feel unsettled. Put very simply, “It’s like when you see someone who’s dyed their hair just that wrong shade of brown for the colour of their skin and your brain can’t quite work out what’s wrong and also can’t stop staring whilst it tries to work it out.”

There was a sense that things weren’t quite right yet. We’ve got access. We’ve got our live musicians and the musicians have got some of their audience. But without the tourists, and the people dropping in for a concert after work, or the students, or the retirees, and the fundraisers shouting out their running total for Help Musicians UK, we’re missing a few pieces in the jigsaw. There was a party on but not all of the invitees felt able to attend. And I missed them. Everyone in the auditorium is as important to me as those on the stage.

Physical space, ambience, and the absence of others created a theatrical backdrop for the BBC Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. There was poignancy in the background and youthful exuberance in the foreground. And whilst it was utterly fantastic to be back wandering the corridors of the Royal Albert Hall, without more people present some of the buzz is lacking at the moment. It’s like Tim Woodall – former Marketing Director at the Philharmonia – tweeted on the First Night, “Got to be patient.”