BBC Proms 2017 / 5: Sibelius 7 / Rachamninov Piano Concerto No. 2 / Shostakovich 10

I’m reminded of the thought processes which start up whenever I hear a slightly under-par performance.

First, I’m disappointed, sometimes even annoyed. Next, I’m surprised that errors have occurred. After that, I try and speculate why something would have gone wrong. And finally, I usually debate about whether or not I should draw attention to it.

What links all of these states of mind together is the idea of listening attentively. If you’re going to listen to a live performance why wouldn’t you? Merely attending a classical music concert just that you can say that you have attended one seems like a rather hollow experience.

So, I say. Go. Listen attentively. Trust your instinct. Listen out for stuff.

A bum note is fine. Intonation issues forgiveable (so long as the performers don’t make a habit of it), but off-tuning seems like a no-no. If you’re only half-listening to a performance those things may go unnoticed. Pay close attention and you’ll pick up on them. And when you do, you’ll uncover one of the biggest joys in the classical music experience.

That’s not to say I’m one of those judgey, mean-spirited, bitchy classical music know-it-alls who’s driven by a need to make himself look better than everyone else.

I know a few – they’re infuriating and, like some Eurovision fans, give the rest of us a bad name. I’m always conscious about avoid coming across like that too. Others will disagree (I can think of at least two individuals who will fold their arms and pout at the suggestion).

The reason for listening out for flaws in a performance (and in my case to point them out) is to advocate a different kind of listening.

If you’re going to attend a classical music concert you might as well listen attentively, to what’s coming from the stage and what thoughts and feelings its triggering in you at the same time. Once you do that, you’re getting to the next level of classical music appreciation.

We are in an age where people who market concerts think, “If we can just get new people into the concert hall that’s all we need to do to keep the thing alive. We’ll have done our job.”

They’re wrong. That isn’t all there is to it.

Sure, the first steps inside the concert hall may seem a little daunting, perhaps a little like buying your first house or the prospect of anal penetration. But believe me, do it once and it suddenly becomes a known quantity and quite possibly even something to look forward to.

But you need to go further than just crossing the threshold. Go to another and listen attentively and look for the detail. Go to a third concert and listen even more attentively.

Reflect on the range of emotions you experience listening to the music and you’ll get a sense of what the composer intended – assuming you’re not a cold-hearted bastard (I know a few of them who go to concert halls – some of them blog about it too).

Anyway. Lecture over. That’s far more than I was intending to write to advocate attentively listening.

The reason for mentioning all of that was because of last night’s BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert. A much-anticipated event in my planner. And my first partial disappointment of the season.

Sibelius 7 was interesting but didn’t stir me especially. I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve ever Sibelius 7 before and, if I haven’t, I wonder whether its not played that much. And if that the case, I wonder whether the clue is in the work itself.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – a crowd-pleasing ‘workhorse’ in the repertoire – seemed a little wooden. Some tuning issues between the solo piano and orchestra as a whole (most noticeable in the exposed bassoon and piano solo). Rocky ensemble between piano and orchestra in places too. The cheer was loud from the hall (suggesting the acoustic muffles such errors). It was a performance which left me feeling a little ‘meh’ – a word I generally don’t use and, I understand, is one which even the young people don’t use either now.

Shostakovich 10 was an entirely different matter. A dazzling performance combining immense beauty with the kind of tightly-controlled and hugely effective anger that took my breath away. This was the BBC NOW at their best yet again.


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