BBC Proms Diary 2018: Per Nørgård, Sibelius, Bartok, Brahms, Mozart and Bernstein

I feel like I’ve done a lot of writing this week. Blogs about Eurovision Young Musician. A lengthy Proms blog covering last week. And the prospect of another about a Sistema Europe concert at Southbank later on today.

This Proms diary needs to be kept to a minimum. So, this week’s highlights first. Easy.

‘Bonkers’ Per Nørgård

Per Nørgård’s third symphony from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Monday. Brilliant, ordered, fantastical and sometimes terrifying cacophony. It’s as though the composer has shut himself away from the world, refused to be swayed by what other people are doing, and given himself permission to hit, strike, pluck, or have blown anything and everything he so desires. It’s another one of those compositions which isn’t so much a musical escape, but the artistic equivalent of grouting – filling in the gaps left behind by an often incomprehensible world.

An odd thing about broadcasters, commentators and writers who reflect on Per Nørgård and other creatives like him. There is a tendency for some to align themselves with the composer, directly or indirectly.

Peter Maxwell Davies is a good example – broadcasters referring to him as ‘Max’. That may well be what Maxwell Davies introduced himself as ( we never met), but the pally-ness that exudes from the informal references suddenly transforms what the person speaking is saying, making it less about the subject (the composer or his/her work) and suddenly about the broadcaster and their relationship to the person they think admires them.

There’s been a similar thing going on with Per Nørgård this week both online and on-air, and the apparent need to refer to the man’s work as ‘bonkers’.

It’s not that they’re saying he’s actually bonkers, I get that. Rather, its shorthand for “This stuff is crazy-shit, and that makes me equally fascinating because I love crazy-shit.” Or there are those who signal a superiority over everyone else around them by broadcasting a deeper understanding of the work, its meaning or the composer’s intent. (I suppose that’s what I’m doing in a way just by articulating my irritation at both types of people – always worth flagging.) What matters to me more about Per Nørgård’s music was the way that I was hooked after only 60 seconds or so of the live broadcast. There’s something about the music that ‘fits’ for me.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Budapest Festival Orchestra visit was much-anticipated. I flagged them in my season preview; they rather delightfully retweeted a link to the blog ahead of their London visit. That stuff means a lot. It’s recognition – a form of appreciation. Unsolicited.

So I should be massively appreciative of their contribution to this year’s Proms season without question. No? On the whole, yes. And it won’t be much effort either. The Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has a kind of menace to the music which altogether darker and more threatening than a lot of that we assume to be so of Shostakovich’s music. There was a smooth and matter-of-fact kind of professionalism to the BFO’s performance too. 

One night later on Thursday 23, Brahms 1 from the same orchestra. This is only one of a handful of Proms I’ve watched on TV.

Surprisingly engaging especially given that the opening subject in the first movement felt a little sluggish. I always assume I need it to be prompt and insistent so that when the angst really kicks in during the development, the tussles are painfully unsettling. I’d assumed that the sluggish opening would result in the rest of the symphony being similarly unsatisfying. But the beginning of the second movement provided clarity and drove things forward.

The first movement has historically always been my favourite – musically speaking it’s always spoken with more immediacy. But in this performance, there was a hint of resilience in the solitude of the second movement that was so touching and possibly even restorative as to downgrade the personal significance of the first movement.

Benjamin Grosvenor and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21

I’ve long been a fan of Grosvenor’s playing. I think part of that maybe because of superficial reasons. I remember interviewing him for a Proms launch one year. A few months after that he called out my name in Broadcasting House reception when he and I were passing in opposite directions. From that moment his ‘Good Sort Status’ was confirmed (if they say acknowledge on a separate occasion when the microphone is off then they’re good’uns). His involvement (completely unplanned) in a 2011 video was quite special too. 

But more than that, his piano playing transports me. I heard him play Liszt at the Proms once – 2009 maybe? Fluidity was what I remember thinking at the time. Mentioned the word again when I heard him play Mozart 27 with the Britten Sinfonia a couple of years back too. That, I think, is his trademark style. I like musicians having a trademark style (just so long as it doesn’t interfere with the actual music). 

Similarly in his Mozart 21. A performance that made me focus in on the mastery of the writing. Concise. Efficient. Like unwrapping a box within a box. A magical creation that cycles through endless modulations. None of it flabby. An intense release after two days of surprisingly demanding work. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the radio, completely transfixed.

It’s perfectly OK to have a negative opinion

One of the many benefits of the Proms season is the regularity and exposure given to classical music. That keeps the conversation such as it is relatively alive. That’s a good thing.

But it does at the same time highlight an oddness in the style of conversation we’re prepared to tolerate about live performance.It’s a subjective experience – being present in the Hall, listening on the radio or watching on the TV.

For some it’s the style of the music which entertains, for others it’s the way it touches or unearths emotions. Equally there are going to be occasions when it does neither of things on a personal level.

I’ve noticed again this week that if I express what might be perceived by some as a negative view about a performance or work, I first experience a mild pang of guilt as though I’ve been ‘bad’ to do so. I’ve done this three times this week on Twitter – the most recent about On The Town – what I consider to be a distinctly underwhelming creation.

If someone expresses an opposing view then I end up feeling an overwhelming need to clarify my position because I’m assuming that their opposing view seeks to alter mine or correct a prevailing view.

A lot of this is, of course, my shit to deal with. But, it makes me wonder whether we’ve lost the ease (assuming we had it in the first place) to comfortably express our opinion about the art form. Nobody quibbles about expressing an opinion about Steps, ABBA, the Beatles, or passing comment on the merits of a film. Express an opinion about the way a piece of music or a performance speaks to you (which is exactly the point of the live performance) and people start wriggling around uncomfortably. That strikes me as counter-productive. 

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