Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Messiaen’s ‘Poemes pour Mi’ and ‘3 Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine’

Poemes pour Mi is the better of the two performances on Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s latest recording, released on 18 August 2017.

Written originally for piano and soprano and scored for orchestra and voice the following year, Poemes are exuberant and colourful settings of Messiaen’s own poetry exploring marital love, the experience of which was in no doubt informed by his marriage to violinist and composer Claire Delbos in June 1932.

That Delbos would go on to suffer multiple miscarriages and succumb to memory loss and live her life in a mental insitution after an operation, makes Poemes pour Mi a bittersweet listen.

In the Seattle Symphony recording, conductor Ludovic Morlot is efficient with his speeds, taking things at a swift pace from the start of the first song. In this way, Morlot’s work is reminiscent of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Renee Fleming’s interpretation.

Where Morlot’s interpretation differs is the way in which the recording puts voice, wind, and percussion front and centre, casting the strings further back in the mix. This gives Seattle’s resulting spartan sound a hungrier more responsive feel. I think it works too.

In comparison, Boulez’s lusher sound generated by Cleveland Orchestra string section on the Deutsche Grammophon release from 1997, feels a lot heavier – in places a slightly more cumbersome. My preference is for the more agile sound Seattle have come up with.

That strategy pays off to a certain extent in the other work in the release – 3 Petite liturgies de la Presence Divine. There is a shimmering quality to the sound in places which gives this three movement vocal work an eerily alluring feel to it.

At times however there are places where the use of a boys choir over the women’s voices originally scored by Messiaen let’s the recording down a bit. In the high registers, usually at the ends of phrases, the intonation wavers a little.

Download details available via the Seattle Symphony Orchestra website.


The Rattle Effect

I’ve never met conductor Simon Rattle, but I did find myself standing within 2 metres of the great man today on my way into Barbican Music Library.
It was an incredibly exciting moment. My heart raced a bit. I was in danger of going a bit fan-boyish. I didn’t, obviously. I’m not completely unprofessional.
There’s an exhibition of artefacts from his career just inside the Barbican Music Library – part of the ‘This is Rattle’ series at Barbican which starts tomorrow.
In amongst all sorts of knick-knacks, I was amazed to discover he secured his Grade 1 Violin at the age of 11 (this is his ABRSM report sheet below – it was a distinction, inevitably). He debuted at the BBC Proms 11 years later.
Nearly bumping into him today took me by surprise. There is an excitement in the air ahead of his return to the London Symphony Orchestra, and its palpable.
It feels like there’s a tremendous sense of hope pinned on his stewardship, not just for the already brilliant London Symphony Orchestra, but also for classical music in the UK in general. He is an electrifying force to be around. 
I didn’t really expect to feel the way I did when I saw him. As I reflect on it more, I’ve no idea what my sense of hope is based on nor where the need originates from especially. But I can’t deny that the beginning of the ‘This is Rattle’ series tomorrow is an exciting prospect.
That experience of is how I remember the beginning of the Proms season back when I joined the BBC in 2005. And I cannot remember the last time over the past 15 years when I’ve experienced it since. That’s some force Mr Rattle has. 

New virtual reality recording of Beethoven 5 from Philharmonia

I had no idea (until last week) that a recording of Beethoven’s 5th symphony by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer was included on the Voyager 1 ‘Golden Record‘.

The recording is one of a slew of cultural references intended to help ‘spacefarers’ gain an understanding of life on Earth. Let’s hope they have access to a turntable when they discover it.

To mark 40 years since the the launch of Voyager 1, the Philharmonia have worked with Google and NASA to record Beethoven’s 5th symphony in Virtual Reality. Esa Pekka Salonen conducts the VR performance which will be released on Monday 25th September.

I really enjoyed the Philharmonia’s Sibelius VR experience last year – a really emotional experience sitting on the front desk of the strings and hearing the sound of an orchestra in rehearsal all around me. VR is a potent way of illustrating the impact proximity to orchestral music has.

A new, longer-format version of the original Sibelius VR experience, featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, will also be available – for free during the opening weekend of the 2017/18 Classical Season at Southbank Centre.

There will be 10 PlayStation VR headsets available at the Nordic Music Days festival from Thursday 28 September – Sunday 1 October 2017 on Level 2, Festival Hall, London.

Beethoven 5 will be released on VR on Monday 25th September via the Philharmonia’s YouTube Channel.

André de Ridder is new artistic curator for Spitalfields Winter Festival 2017

The Spitalfields Festival is an exciting eye-popping collection of performances rooted in the East End of London.

There are two main events – a festival in the summer, and one in the winter – which seek to integrate music-making into the local community. It’s a vibrant and valuable endeavour that reaches 30,000 local people every year.

Running from 2 – 10 December 2017, this year’s Winter Festival – a rich collection of events that challenges perceptions of the classical music world – is curated by conductor André de Ridder (pictured above). De Ridder and s t a r g a z e were behind the David Bowie Prom last year.

Both Spitalfields events always have the feel of a true festival, occupying unorthodox spaces for challenging and thought-provoking performances.

I’ve got my eye on East End Speed Histories, Hyperchromatic Counterpoint, and the London Contemporary Orchestra’s performance of Anna Thorvaldsottir’s In The Light Of Air.

See the brochure online. General booking opens on Monday 18 September 2017. Tickets will go fast.


BBC Proms 2017: Thoroughly Good Feedback

Imagine if you could email the Director of the BBC Proms to share your thoughts about the ‘world’s greatest classical music festival’?

To give feedback on what you liked, what needs to change, without fear of a line manager breathing down your neck and telling you off?

Well, now that I’ve left the BBC, I can.


We forget what we have

Friends and associates commented on how the season appeared to lack musical ambition. That assessment maybe fair – I’m not entirely sure what the reliable measures of ambition actually are. I know that, I’m relieved the Doctor Who Prom is no more, and that the desperate radio network tie-ins have been replaced.

But, the Proms needs to retain a spirit of discovery. The cries of ‘lack of ambition’ at launch were, I think, more to do with artistic decisions making the season appear as though it lacked boldness.

Being bold means programming more seemingly uncompromising works, challenging assumptions and perceptions about composers, perhaps even introducing more obscure works. My fear is that individual concert programmes could end up being driven by Box Office and audience reach, just at the time when classical music’s reputation could be in the ascendancy (what with Rattle returning to the LSO, for example).

That said, lets not forget what we have. The season did still succeed in introducing me to music I wouldn’t normally have sought out.

The real highlights for me was the music by Sir James MacMillan, the Glass and Shankar Passions album performed live by the Britten Sinfonia, music by Mark Simpson, Freiburg’s Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and John Adams’ breath-taking Naïve and Sentimental Music from the Philharmonia.

What the Proms has successfully (and unexpectedly) done this year is introduce me to new artists and new performance styles. I’ve returned to Spotify, Tidal and Idagio in search of these new groups and artists in the hope of discovering more of their work. So, you know, that’s good.

Download to own

There have been a handful of outstanding performances in this year’s season. Pittsburgh’s Mahler 1, Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s Schumann 2, BBC Philharmonic’s Tchaikovsky 6, LSO’s Gurreleider, and Aurora’s brilliant Beethoven 3, to name a few. Live performance and in particular the unique atmosphere a Proms audience creates means I as a listener want to own that event in high-quality audio.

Make performances available to buy after the event on MP3, WAV, and lossless audio. If you’re making live broadcasts available in lossless audio, then the technology is available to make them available as FLAC files. I’d happily buy that over and above my Licence Fee.

That probably means building agreements into contracts when orchestras and artists are signed up for a season. But that’s just having a difficult conversation with someone, isn’t it? Seems like a no-brainer.

We need to ditch the tagline

I’m not entirely clear how we can describe the BBC Proms as ‘the world’s greatest classical music festival’ anymore. Even when using the broadest terminology, the season isn’t just classical music.

The content doesn’t go deep enough

Broadcasting and digital content doesn’t go deep enough into the subject matter. There is a fear of going into too much detail, built on an assumption that the public just won’t understand the technicalities of music-making, or writing, or the arts in general, and so we should probably avoid over-complicating things and keep it all very light.

It’s all a bit embarrassing really.

I’m tired of hearing knowledgeable and passionate presenters apologetically preface detail and insights with a contextualising phrase, eg “Just to get technical.” Even worse, hearing presenters explain to listeners how long in minutes the Proms commission as though to reassure the audience that ‘it will be over soon’.

Digital fears expertise in the music world, because everyone is essentially terrified of alienating a potential new audience. But the flipside is that everything is superficial, and expertise is either hidden away or apologised for.

And don’t anyone ever refer to the conductor on stage as ‘Maestro’ any more. It’s an archaic and patriarchal term which feels out of place with present-day thinking. It’s also a bit smug.

Some concerts were under-rehearsed

I won’t name those events as that would be a little mean-spirited, but it was possible to tell which of those large-scale events didn’t have enough rehearsal in the run-up to performance day or in the Albert Hall. I could hear the effects in rough performances both in terms of intonation, and ensemble. If there are to be large-scale events then more time needs to be programmed in for rehearsals, especially for more inexperienced groups.

I didn’t listen to the lossless broadcast

The high quality lossless broadcast was advertised incessantly – I imagine the presenters got quite bored of talking about it.

I didn’t listen because it wasn’t especially accessible. I appreciate it was only available on the BBC’s experimental platform ‘Taster’, but I couldn’t play that in my Connected TV’s browser, nor on any of the browsers I had on my phone, iPad or laptop.

Why do we need to keep hearing that ‘BBC Proms is part of BBC Music’?

I understand that BBC Music as a brand is new and is very important to the BBC’s future plans for monetisation.

But the more and more I heard ‘BBC Proms is part of BBC Music’ on-air I started to wonder whether the BBC Proms as a brand was being subsumed into something much-bigger (with a considerably less evocative title).

I’m sure no-one would want the BBC Proms brand to be subsumed into anything else. I’m sure no-one will let that happen. No way.

This is what I really want next year

  • Programme events which are arresting, challenging, and thought-provoking. Be bold.
  • Don’t programme any Rachmaninov – getting a bit bored of him
  • Don’t go to any more external venues than you have already.
  • More avant-garde and minimalism please
  • Make a live audio feed available from every Prom concert online without any kind of presenter track. Include the auditorium ambience during the interval.
  • Commit to monetising individual events with download to own
  • Keep the listings printed on heavy paper in the Proms brochure from now on please

Here’s an idea for nothing

For those events when the TV crew aren’t producing something for broadcast on BBC One, Two or Four, provide a live stream on the BBC iPlayer app.

Install the same camera set-up as say Medici TV or RCM Studios deploy, and produce a very straightforward, basic live TV relay that can be accessed via the BBC iPlayer app every night.

It doesn’t need a presenter track – just relay the stage and the audience. Then monetise access to that portion of the BBC iPlayer app.


Obviously. These are all wild stupid ideas.

Because, what do I know?

But remember, if any of these suggested developments end up in next year’s Proms, then I was the originator. Don’t want the wrong people taking the credit, after all.