BBC Proms Diary 2018: Brahms, Bernstein, Beethoven, Elgar, Pärt, and Grieg

I’ve struggled to keep up momentum over the past few days.

Anxiety has kicked in. Mild. Manageable. Nothing too onerous. Just enough for me to be aware of deep-seated emotions having found a short-cut to the surface. 

What’s surprised me most is the way in which in these moments of intense anxiety I hear the music in an entirely different, possibly even darker, kind of way. It’s not that the music triggers the emotions. It’s that the music doesn’t trigger anything. I end up ‘observing’ the music through cold eyes. Is this how critics experience concerts, I wonder?

I’ve listened to last week’s Brahms German Requiem from the BBC Symphony and heard raggedy intonation in the voices. It’s so incredibly disappointing to hear voices strain for the top voices, even more so to read people waxing lyrical on social media about how wonderful a performance it was. The line between marketing and virtue-signalling is faint it seems. I get that it’s live. I embrace the fact that not everything will be perfect. But let’s all try and listen as critically as we can – especially those writing for platforms who are heralded by festivals and orchestras as being of marketing value. 

The Philharmonia delivered (as I always assume they will) with a blistering performance of the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th, and in the first act performance of Die Walkure a reminder of an the as yet unexplored music of Wagner. Yes, of course, Wagner was a shit, but I want to immerse myself in his output more. I’m ready to do that. I wasn’t ready when I was a teenager, but I am now.

Beethoven 4 from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was OK though nothing special. The Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No.3 not something I’ve heard before nor anything I especially want to hear again. And the intonation in the woodwind during the opening Midsummer Night’s Dream enough to make me screw up my face and raise my voice at the Bluetooth speaker. There were errors throughout the concert – things I wouldn’t have anticipated a band like ASMF to make – and it wasn’t an especially warm evening either.

I ended up – unfairly I suspect – feeling shortchanged. That’s when I started thinking: has the Proms let me down a bit this year? Musically, I haven’t been pushed towards new repertoire; I’ve been reminded of stuff I’d forgotten. That isn’t enough for me. I want to be challenged more. But is that down to me being more accustomed? Is my potential dissatisfaction with the Proms a measure of its past successes? I’m not sure. 

The dissatisfaction goes further though. I may be at risk of projecting or clouding things. This season I’m tired of presenters using the tone of their voice to signal what I should be thinking and feeling about an event I’m about to listen to. The announcement from Broadcasting House of two such presenters often informs whether I speed through their gleeful introductory monologue; one of them consistently sounds as though they’re introducing a cooking programme for the under thirties, strapped for cash but eager to create their own shabby-chic mid-summer outdoor dining experience. 

A dangerous mix of enthusiasm and self-satisfaction has been allowed to permeate what had previously been a necessarily neutral space – an opportunity to prepare for active or mindful listening. Now we’re being led to believe that a concert will be amazing just because the presenter’s delivery says it will be so. I lost count of the number of times I’ve turned down the speaker pleading the presenter to ‘Shut. Up.’

I don’t want to be told, directly or indirectly, what I should be thinking or feeling before I listen to a piece of music. Stop making it about you. Let the music speak for itself. It’s possible to do that and talk about it. Everyone else did before you.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Elgar Cello Concerto with Jean-Guihean Queyras didn’t do much to improve things. Rocky in places. Disappointing. 

I wonder sometimes whether there I’m doing that classic BBC thing: loving working there; leaving; pissing and moaning about the place like Bill Rogers does.

I make a point of checking myself. I do. But as I listen more, write more, and try and make connections with people in a world I want to feel a part of, I end up feeling disconnected from it.

A lot of that may well be down to me and my own thoughts and feelings. I accept that. It may well also be a symptom of me expressing a strong (as today) negative view. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy or is there something real in it?

Right now, I’m just not especially sure what to do next. It’s as though I’m pushing at one of those swing doors you find in a restaurant, only there’s a waiter with a massive tray of used crockery and cutlery trying to pass through from the other side.

The thing to do would, I suppose, be to just step aside and wait for an opportune moment during the rush. 

The bottom line is this. It seems to me now writing this that classical music wants and needs people talking about it, but they won’t pay for it. They’re only happy if it’s all rainbows, unicorns and exclamation marks. Fuck me. That’s a lonely place to be.

This past week one PR invited me to produce a podcast for a festival in London this week. When I offered to make content for that festival so that I could get some money back from the time spent and they could get some longer-term value out of their endeavours, the response was that the client wasn’t really interested in the podcast idea. Why exactly did you suggest it in the first place? 

Arvo Pärt Symphony No.3 helped. Different. Unusual. The timpani solo made me cower. And the opening movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto has held my attention. The second movement may just have the necessary amount of pathos. 

There’s also West Side Story to look forward to tomorrow. Maybe John Wilson can save the day. 

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