The BBC Proms have made another announcement about Rule Britannia. That thing they weren’t going to do, they are now going to do. Those who cried ‘Foul play!’ and ‘Down with the wokes!’ and ‘This is political correctedness gone mad again!’, are now jumping up and down and claiming victory. The words of Rule Britannia are now going to be sung by the BBC Singers.
First, it seems incredible to me on one level that a concert I don’t especially care about is once again the subject of a blog post. Second and perhaps more importantly, I can’t believe the BBC has done such a complete U-Turn on something which so fundamentally insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
That a new DG has taken up the reins this past fortnight during which time there’s been a change of mind about how to go about things can’t be a coincidence. Seems like someone somewhere has had a word in someone else’s ear.
It’s all just a bit embarrassing really. What it really means is that the anachronism that is the Last Night of the Proms is here for another generation at least. At that’s a bit of a crying shame.
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.
I can’t take credit for the title – that was a line from Stephen Fry during last night’s touching first live Prom concert in the 2020 season. A fitting evening with poignant music choices and a satisfyingly pared-back presentation style too.
Radio deftly highlighted the impact that the COVID measures were having on live performance with an explicit reference from conductor Sakari Oramo and a delightful implicit one from the orchestra when, in between movements of the Beethoven symphony, silence exposing the sound of players turning the pages of their music.
On TV there was a solid pace, natural to and fro, and some much-appreciated advocacy from Stephen Fry. The simplicity of content meant the core implicit messages were clearer to make out: when something (live music in its broadest sense) is under threat, its value to us as individuals needs to be emphasised.
Ironically, there was a sense that the Prom concert denied a physical audience dramatically improved proceedings, possibly because it was a far more controlled environment. There was, as a result, a sense of occasion about the first live Prom concert, our eyes falling on the unoccupied spaces marked out by lines of lights. We had a sense of the distance that still needs to be travelled yet.
The central point illustrated both by Fry on TV and in the programming was the way in which a classical music programme can speak to a shared experience, or prompt thoughts around that experience. In this case: a new work inspired by questions around identity, by composer Hannah Kennedy, a piece about sleep, music that evokes memories or perceptions of lockdown (Copland’s A Quiet City), and Beethoven’s Eroica – a work I’ve always seen as a powerful statement of hope for the future.
It all got a little too much during the Copland. A Quiet City seemed like an apt choice, and as Stephen Fry later pointed out, made for a more heightened experience because of the thoughts and feelings those of us watching and listening brought to the experience. Not everyone, obviously. How could we all be thinking and feeling the same thing? How would we ever know? But this was a music choice that was perhaps helped bring people together in a shared, albeit it remote, experience. Something to coalesce around. Trumpeter Phil Cobb’s vibrato gave things a unsettling sense of vulnerability; Cor Anglais player Alison Teale’s rich warm tone added strength and a sense of hope.
What went before the Copland – the BBC Singers performing Eric Whitacre’s Sleep (on the day his news work ‘The Sacred Veil ‘ was released on Signum Classics) was a bit of a tear-jerker. Familiar faces spaced two and a half metres apart in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall. The sight – like that of a chamber orchestra on stage for the Beethoven later in the concert – seemed a little too much bear. Forgive the pun, there was a dissonance – a jolt with how we expect a group of people to stand. Challenging no doubt, but done anyway so that the music can live because determination insists upon it.
The Beethoven was a fascinating listen. It was apparent from the beginning that distance between players themselves and conductor Sakari Oramo was probably going to dictate a cautious approach to speeds and dynamic contrasts (though its worth qualifying here that I’ve been listening to Les Concerts Des Nations brilliantly gritty and rip-roaringly fast recording of Beethoven 3 over the past few weeks). During the first movement I wasn’t sure whether this sense of cautiousness worked. But the same cautiousness seemed to help expose the intricacies and complexities in the work, highlighting one aspect of the symphony’s revolutionary status.
Three quarters of the way through the second movement where the march pivots on rocking chords in the upper strings that appear to slow to a near-stop, I was bought-in. This was a gentle conclusion. A pause. But not an end.
It could have been exuberant from here until the end, but somehow it not being so seemed right given the moment. Live performance might be partially back, but its at a point when the fragility of the ecosystem needs to be highlighted. There needs to be determination and strength, but it doesn’t feel right to celebrate, not yet. Not by any means.
At the end of the concert unexpected applause broke out from the orchestra themselves – applause for soloists Alison Teale and Phil Cobb and, presumably for one another. Deserved undoubtedly, but also a moment that broke the tension of the night. And on radio we learned how having arrived on stage two-by-two, the BBC Symphony Orchestra would now leave two-by-two. “It’s going to be some time before the stage is empty,” explained presenter Petroc Trelawny.
It’s not a bad way of getting a discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme I suppose.
Get the conductor of an event (Dalia Stasevska) to say something provocative about the content of a much-loved institution; make sure it taps into the public conversation; invite on a couple of contributors with opposing views; be sure to make one of them an out-dated representative of the industry.
Result? A bit of PR for the approaching fortnight of live Proms concerts. Job done. Little wonder Martha Kearney trumpeted (boom, etc) the introduction to the ‘debate’ with “There’s always a row about the BBC Proms” to which Norman Lebrecht responded, “Well it’s the only way the Proms can get the attention it needs.” Such nonsense.
I digress. The focus of the ‘debate’ was the issue over whether or not the Last Night of the Proms should ditch Rule Britannia, the words of which celebrate slavery.
Norman disagrees of course, saying that the words are ‘innocuous’ and the song unifies people. Wasfi Kani from Grange Opera suggests replacing the song with Jerusalem and the Beatles classic ‘All You Need Is Love’.
According to Norman who can’t help but have the final word, Jerusalem will cause people to fall asleep. He’s obviously overlooked the fact that Jerusalem has featured in the Last Night for decades already.
It’s probably not seriously being considered anyway
What’s important here is that – as far as I can decipher from the statements in the broadcast and what I’ve seen online – this isn’t an official decision being made, soon to be made, or made already by the BBC Proms team.
The prepared statement read out by Kearney during the feature was from the Head of BBC Music (commissioning – does Kearney mean Jan Younghusband?) dodging the question with a response that the BBC is currently trying to figure out what musicians they’re able to have for the audience-free live broadcast anyway. Meaning, that the decision maybe down to the musicians allowed on stage due to COVID regulations rather than an editorial decision.
In other words, no one is seriously thinking editorially about whether or not to include or not include the song, and nobody wants to comment on that either. It’s bluster – sort of dog-whistle journalism – inviting those with a view to join the debate. Hence the Express – that bastion of journalism – wading in with a headline and an online poll.
Rule Britannia should be ditched though
Our willingness to cling on to an outdated and unrepresentative piece of music in order to celebrate an anachronistic view of identity is embarrassing. That we would be debating it in light of George Floyd’s murder and the protests which resulted seems blinkered, bloated, and self-satisfied.
It is right that attention is drawn to the way that something like Rule Britannia is dissonant with present-day discourse. And now that it has been there is, regardless of any campaign mounted by a newspaper, only one course of action which is to bin the song entirely. To keep it in would only provoke even more ire.
Time to change the Last Night of the Proms completely
But there’s another perspective to bear in mind here. The endless sniping that is made about the BBC Proms by those who have never attended, watched or listened to them, is based on a perception formed by the most visible concert in the entire season, the Last Night. Those who dismiss classical music do so because they assume that all classical music experiences are like that seen on TV during the Last Night.
The Last Night isn’t representative of the Proms season. Arguably it does more damage projecting an incongruant image of the classical music industry by continuing in the format that it is.
The Proms season, this year more than any other, is a shop window for the industry. It is the starting point for orchestras, ensembles and artists appearances activities scheduled for the forthcoming season (though this year those seasons are understandably going to look very different from previous years).
It is therefore time for the Last Night to be treated less like a concert made for television, and regarded more like a concert at which television cameras are present. Create a concert programme that is more aligned to the Proms season as a whole.
When we achieve that kind of transformation then some of the assumptions held about the classical music world in the UK can be overcome for good.
Earlier this week I cycled over to nearby Syndenham to collect the Ray Bans I left at my friend Vicky’s following a haircut.
During my revisit I exchanged with a pal who was staying with Vicky whose words about how concert venues like theatre would adjust in response to social distancing had caused me some consternation. I explained about the challenge classical music and opera venues face as articluated by Guardian journo and Thoroughly Good Podcastee Charlotte Higgins.
What my exchange with Adrian last weekend reminded me of was that there are aspects of our respective worlds and systems we don’t instinctively understand. What commands the focus of his attention isn’t the same as what commands mine.
Later in the week I posed a question on Facebook about whether having COVID19 antibodies I could or could not be contagious. Most respondents commented on whether or not antibodies meant one was immune from the ill-effects of the virus. No-one was able to articulate or respond to the specific question I was asking; many seemed confused on what the dividend having antibodies actually was. To be clear: I don’t have any COVID19 antibodies.
We are living through a period of confusion and misinformation. Few of us are singing from the same hymn sheet. Not only that, there are insufficient copies of the hymn sheet.
Admidst this I’m reminded of the pull of the writing, especially during what for me is the perfect diary-inducing period: the Proms.
Not everyone is in agreement. Contacts in my circle see plundering the Proms broadcast archive as evidence of a lack of innovative thinking. That’s a shame because I’ve reveled in unexpected musical excursions. Such broadcasts have been re-affirming. A sort of anchor.
Rigorous detail too. Listen to the second subject in the second movement, in particular to cascading bit in the upper strings – locked on to the beat but pushing the edges of musical hesitation. I listen to that detail repeated in the woodwind equivalent when the same material comes back before the end of the movement and wonder how on earth a conductor communicates the vision and ensures a consistent realisation of it.
Similarly the rip-roaring final movement complete with horn cues sounding like elephants running riot in amongst the band. And the cheer from the crowd after the final chord too. Such performances from both performers and the audience bring a tear to the eye.
Such moments – this one from 16 years ago – give me a second chance at hearing something special for the first time. I don’t remember attending the concert nor listening to it on the radio. I listen to it now and think how utterly amazing it is. I’ve listened to it six times in the past three days. That kind of listening experience doesn’t present itself that often.
And listening to it back for a seventh time as I write it feels like we’re clinging on to classical, celebrating the thing we hold dear, holding on tight in a storm. They are broadcast moments – so far – that remind me of the only thing which appears to make sense to me right now: someone’s musical intent articulated by a team of musicians who themselves create a spectacle that moves not only me but a whole crowd of other people I don’t know.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.