Polish saxophonist Łukasz Dyczko wins Eurovision Young Musicians 2016

The EBU’s bi-annual Europe-wide competition for young classical musicians was staged last night in Cologne. Eighteen-year-old Polish saxophonist Łukasz Dyczko won the 10,000 Euro first prize with his performance of André Waignein’s Rhapsody for Alto Sax. He also wins a concert appearance with the WDR Symphony Orchestra.

Waignein’s work is unashamedly light in character with hefty influences from Rachmaninov, Gershwin and even some Richard Rodney-Bennett. Whilst it doesn’t doesn’t go anywhere special musical, the elaborate solo line help Dyzcko demonstrate his mastery of long fluid lines in what was clearly a satisfying short work for the audience.

Dyzcko’s achievement was more than just musical or technical; his choice of music was best suited to the Eurovision Grand Final, the requirements for which always feel geared in favour of the audience rather than the actual soloist. Soloists can play for around 6 minutes which is apparently enough time for the jurors (sat 100 or so metres away from the open-air stage) to decide on the prize-winners.

Outdoor concerts might make for a nice atmosphere for the audience, but they’re not necessarily conducive for classical music. Performers often need amplification. During the final, the delicacies of a Mozart Horn Concerto or Koussevetitzky’s Double Bass Concerto were lost in the setting and, as a result of a poor sound-mix, on those of us watching on TV.

Runner-up Robert Bily’s performance of the third movement of Barber’s Piano Concerto No.2 seemed best suited to the location, lifting proceedings considerably, but there still moments during the quieter sections when the piano line was lost in amongst the orchestral accompaniment.

There were moments where it felt like the programme was struggling to understand what it was trying to be. This may have been down to a change in proceedings for the 18th Eurovision competition: the elimination of semi-finals.

Croatia’s Marko Martinović’s (pictured above) rendition of Massenet’s Meditation felt like light entertainment. Massenet’s piece, overplayed as it is, had been arranged for an instrument the sound of which turned the piece into an even bigger cliche. It also wasn’t helped by performer Marko’s ‘Richard Clayderman’ glances to audience and cameras alike which had, presumably, been considered a good idea by someone during rehearsals.

Similarly, Norway’s Ludvig Gudim playing Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy felt like a compromise for the running order. Ludvig is clearly an able musician with great poise, technique and expression, but playing such a shameless crowd-pleaser left me feeling rather cold.

I think that there is an important responsibility to be taken when featuring children in performance, the priority which is not to cheapen them or their talent. Marvelling at speed or appreciating the accessibility of a piece of music isn’t necessarily doing the performer much good. The competition is for the performer; the audience should be merely witness proceedings.

Roland Attila Jakab from Hungary created an impressive sound, while Malta’s Dmitry Ishkhanov’s playing shone in parts – the physical affectations felt contrived. Eliot Nordqvist playing the first movement of Saint-Saens second piano concerto worked well in the stage setting. His was a competent, measured performance, but there were moments when he looked uncomfortable.

Young musician competitions aren’t staged for us to find perfection. They’re there for us to witness the results of hard work and dedication. There were moments during the Eurovision Grand Final when I felt like we were just gawping at young people who were good at their instrument and being told to think, “They’re amazing!” Of course they’re amazing and we should be encouraging and supportive and empowering. But, the competition isn’t the end goal, it’s part of musical development.

I last watched Eurovision Young Musician back in 1994 when British cellist Natalie Clein won the competition. Then I recall proceedings being a little more stately, with some much-needed reverence. Although open-air, 2006’s competition still displayed a dizzying demonstration of talent (Tine Thing Helseth was a runner-up that year and acted as a juror for this year’s competition). Similarly, 2008’s winner Dionysios Grammenos (above) had a little class about him.

Eurovision Young Musicians has become a little too much about television and not about the performers (there were a handful of occasions when I could have done with seeing less of the judges – especially the ones who knew the camera was on them). Competitions need to demonstrate a wider commitment to musical development, whether that be through funding, ongoing support, or contextualising the performers and the music. Maybe some of the challenge is to do with it only being screened in 10 countries – maybe the real challenge is money.

Shouldn’t it head back into the concert hall? That’s where young inexperienced performers will feel most at ease, where the acoustic can be controlled and the lighting can be refined. There are numerous concert halls across Europe that would fit the bill. What’s the real benefit to the performer of seeing hundreds of people in audience if there far away from where they are on stage?

There is also a need to see a performer complete an entire work. Restricting their performance to 6 minutes or so limits their choice of repertoire, hampers their chances at impact and will, undoubtedly, see them resorting to flashy pieces which don’t show them at their best as performers in development.

BBC Proms 2016 / 64: Berlin Philharmonic plays Mahler 7

I rarely look at programmes during a concert – they’ve long since turned into souvenir of special concerts. Programmes are history. Nowadays I find I feel adrift if I haven’t got a notebook on my lap when the conductor walks onto stage. It’s a ritual.

I thought I’d be writing notes as conscientiously as I sipped on the budget wine I had squirrelled away in my bag. I did neither tonight. There was no need.

The Berlin Philharmonic are the hot ticket. They’ve always been the hot ticket. They always will be. There are few guarantees in life; the Berlin Philharmonic is one of them. When they set foot in London, I get a hint of what the capital might have felt like – or was perceived as – during the black and white Sixties. The Berlin Phil are adept, cool, suave, and knowing. They leave their egos at the stage door and deliver on their promise.

The orchestra is one thing, the conductor who joined them tonight is the icing on the cake. Sir Simon Rattle is the real deal. He’s the guy you’re proud to know at the same time as knowing that you’re not in the slightest bit jealous of him. You don’t want to be him in any way. You just want him to carry on being him for as long as he possibly can.

There’s a picture of Rattle on the arena level at the Royal Albert Hall – twenty-something, long tight curls, and full of intensity, promise and steely intent. Seeing him on stage now – white-haired but still leading with an irresistible childlike enthusiasm – it’s difficult to account for the time that has passed.

It’s not that his rise was meteoric, or that we’re wondering where he goes next. It’s that as his time with the Berlin Phil is coming to an end, so his return to the UK feels more urgent. There’s a sense of expectation that we’ll be getting our boy back soon. I cannot wait for that.

Boulez’s Eclat was an unexpectedly accessible creation from the great composer who I’ve always feared. WHen people use the word iconoclast, I normally run a mile. The weight of expectation is immense, made worse as I get older – shouldn’t I have got this before now? What I heard was a man who seemed fascinated by the sounds that were created after the sounds the musicians created themselves.

Mahler’s 7th was the draw. His music is something I understand more and more. He somehow manages depicts life and makes sense of it at the same time. At some point I’ll probably end up examining how he does it. But for now, I’m revelling in the effect he creates. I can’t the recall the detail. I couldn’t point to a particular moment that had to be listened back to in particular, for example. But I know how I felt when I listened to it in the moment. And now I come to reflect on that experience I can’t comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to experience that themselves.

Edinburgh International Festival 2016: Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vanska and Pekka Kuusisto

Edinburgh is a big place. I know that now I visited here for the first time. Soon after I stepped off the train I unwittingly ended up on the Royal Mile. Crowds of people, the majority of whom thrust fliers to comedy shows into the unsuspecting hands of passers-by. I cottoned on quite quickly. I deployed a terrifying scowl whenever I thought anyone was about to pounce. It worked.

That scowl remained with me pretty much throughout the afternoon, during the interviews I did for work, and during extended walks around a city with a jaw-dropping layout. I may possibly have got a little angry with Edinburgh as a whole. I may also have articulated this out loud at various points. Not one person stopped to look around. This obviously isn’t an uncommon sight in Edinburgh.

Set against the uncurated and unwieldy Fringe festival, Edinburgh’s International Festival is a far more sober affair. Concerts start at the advertised time, seating is reserved at the point of sale and the toilets don’t have a vaguely sticky feel underfoot. The Usher Hall is the jewel in the crown of EIF’s venue portfolio; it also has the dubious honour of having hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 45 years ago.

The Minnesota Orchestra under Osma Vanska played a programme of Sibelius and Beethoven. In the warm acoustics of the Usher Hall’s wooden interior, the audience got to hear fluid woodwind legatos, precise pizzicato and deadly pianissimos in the opening work, Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter.

There was another chance to see Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto who had recently wowed the Proms audience with his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and a rip-roaring encore. Tonight he brought us Sibelius’ violin concerto, in all its bright, chilling, and resolute beauty. 

Kuusisto’s sound is measured and sweet. It lacks pretension. His playing is inclusive – it never alienates. He gently moves around the stage like the Pied Piper, but maintains throughout a refreshing authenticity to his sound, interpretation and his presence.

The second movement was much more subdued and introspective than I’ve heard it before, making for something all the more humbling as a result. A heavy raggedy start to the third movement detracted from that achievement. All recovered quickly leaving us to focus on Kussisto’s captivating presence.

In stark contrast, the Beethoven’s fifth symphony lacked the magic we’d experienced before the interval.

This was a punctual performance which often lacked drama in part because there were – put very simply – way too many string players. Eight basses made the already strong cello section sound bottom heavy.

Whilst there were plenty of occasions when dramatic dynamics demonstrated the players tremendous agility it was, on the whole, an overly lush interpretation that lacked the precise articulation we’d heard the band execute in the first half, and which present-day tastes have led us to become accustomed to. In many loud sections the cello line lacked clarity, particularly in the third movement.
Here, I want to hear the precise internal workings of all of the intervening lines. I didn’t this time. 

Come the fourth movement, Vanska had pushed the band as far as he could. For all the leaping around and gesturing on stage, there was no more fortissimo to be had. What resulted felt rather tired. It never really took off, though it tried terribly hard to get airborne.

BBC Proms 2016 / 47: Ulster Orchestra plays Haydn’s Cello Concerto, Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5

The Ulster Orchestra is a plucky bunch. They returned to the Royal Albert Hall this afternoon still no surer as to their financial future but eager, hungry and defiant. This was a high profile gig for them, played to a near capacity audience with a conductor whose passion is reflected in his love of the art form and his gleeful attention to detail. I can think of no other concert this season I’ve enjoyed more.

This may have something to do with what else has been going on in the world today. Team GB is celebrating a second place in the Olympics medal table. BBC News headlines with the ‘Great Britain beats China’. The world is, thanks to the Olympics, standing up and taking notice of us (at least that’s what we think). What the vast majority of people are overlooking is the extent to which that success is as a result of considerable commercial investment.

I don’t deny us that. I’m not a completely cold-hearted bastard. Of course I recognise that Olympic achievement comes from hard work, dedication, passion and talent. But don’t overlook the fact that it also needs money. And don’t forget that, where some Olympic athletes and sportsmen and women are concerned, these people are now celebrities for their skill and accomplishment. We are basking in their achievement. In some cases we have assumed some of that triumph as though it is our own. It isn’t at all. All we’ve done is watched from  the other side of the world.

What the Olympics has done this year, I think, is highlight what can be achieved when considerable sums are invested in the development of individuals. At the same time it underlines those areas where investment is lacking. And where it is, in the case of the arts in general, and classical music in particular, the question asked then is, why?

We don’t value our orchestras in this country. At least, I don’t think we value them enough. Orchestra concerts don’t carry with them a tangible benefit of the kind that Olympic gold medals do. Funding gets cut. Education policies get down-graded. Generations miss out. I may sound a little whiny and boring, but that is how it is. And the more we celebrate the celebrity of sporting achievement, the more the chasm between the investment necessary to get to that point and that which is sadly lacking in the arts begins to show.

The Ulster Orchestra has had its local detractors. Local government there haven’t been terribly forthcoming in their support (although I understand that this might be changing). Their management has gone through some dramatic changes too. The hard work showed in their concert this afternoon at the BBC Proms. The Ulster Orchestra shone in a way I’ve never seen before.

Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow – a BBC commission and world premiere deployed a fragmented compositional style to great effect. This was a hugely entertaining new work that conjured with exciting, inventive and immersive textures, particularly at the beginning of the second movement. Wild Flow had clearly been orchestrated with passion. The work was full of drama. I really connected with it.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan’s cello concerto by Haydn was a revelation. The cellist combined elegance and simplicity with a rare and enticing kind of vulnerability. The second movement in particular had a touching humility about it. Taut playing in both strings and the solo line helped maintain a breakneck third movement. There was urgency in the final bars. An enthralling performance.

The band’s numbers swelled for the symphony. Tchaikovsky 5 may have seemed to some under-powered, but this was a resourceful interpretation, with distinctive twists – notably the horn solo at the beginning of the second movement. Here conductor Rafael Payare seemed to draw something special out of the orchestra. The wind ensemble work at the end of the second movement was stunning.

In the third movement Payare showed great panache; in the fourth he showed his cards. This was an impressive combination of grace and defiance with enviable boldness, making this a distinctive performance.

We need to stop thinking of orchestras and the works they perform as miracles or some kind of historical curiosity. It’s about time we recognised that they are the product of hard work and lifelong passions. They sustain communities and livelihoods. They aren’t better or worse than sport, they are part of our culture. They deserve more respect than they currently receive. And we might start by all of us making a conscious effort not to take them for granted.

The Ulster Orchestra’s 2016 BBC Proms concert was a tangible demonstration as to why that’s important. Under Payare they appear transformed. Hearing them play today, I’m reminded about how they – the only professional orchestra in Northern Ireland – deserve more than one Sunday afternoon gig at the Proms every year. They represent an important part of the UK.  We should hear from them more.

BBC Proms 2016 / 43: Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich

This may be a career limiting move, but I’m prepared to admit that I didn’t on the whole enjoy Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich’s Prom last night. I imagine you won’t read that kind of statement anywhere else on the internet.

I know of a handful of people who were very excited at the prospect of the much-anticipated double bill finally appearing at the Proms (Argerich has a reputation of not so much cancelling engagements as not committing to them in the first place, at least not in the orthodox sense – at least she was in 2001). Barenboim wows audiences wherever he appears too – of course he does. Teaming up with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra was bound to be a brilliant concert.

The paradox is that it was a brilliant concert. The band – established as a youth orchestra twelve years ago, now the players have grown up so the orchestra has matured too – played with a remarkable warmth. It was like nothing else I had heard before. As an ensemble they outstrip nearly every other ensemble and a lot of that is to do with the relationship between players and conductor.

The creation was somehow miraculous, but it wasn’t something I wanted to hear more of. It was almost too perfect. It was as though someone had told me to try on a really expensive piece of designer clothing because they wanted me to experience that moment. I did so, appreciated it for what it was, but realised at the same time how the experience left me feeling a little cold.

Part of my problem (and really, it’s my problem – not the orchestra or the soloist or the conductor) is the sense of expectation which accompanies any Barenboim or Argerich appearance. There is an assumption that if Barenboim is on the podium it will just be brilliant, no question. That he could perhaps only step onto the podium and do nothing else and we’d all be incredibly appreciative he was even there.

I exaggerate a little to illustrate the point. But, whenever I sense that assumption about any kind of event, there’s a bit of me that rather hopes that there will be a chink in the armour. That there will be something in the perfect performance which takes me by surprise; that the armour won’t shine quite as brightly as everyone assumed it would. I don’t look out for errors – that would make a vile harridan – but I don’t want to assume it will be brilliant. What would be the point in even attending the concert in the first place if I knew for certain it would be brilliant?

Those assumptions and expectations bring out the worst in others, in particular some members of the cognoscenti. Words like ‘maestro’ are bandied around quite a lot, as though musical greatness demands we refer to people with an outdated and an archaic title – an ego-massaging or self-aggrandising exercise. Such unquestioning deference feels borderline sycophancy.

There are no assumptions with live music, that’s part of its appeal. There are certain requirements which need to be met for the likelihood of a moving performance to connect with the audience, but no-one can predict that something will be amazing before it actually happens. People I know do that before some concerts (not just Barenboim’s). And when they do, they instantly ruin the prospect.

Implicit in this expectation is the promise of perfection. Perfection was present during the West Eastern Divan Orchestra Prom. I don’t want perfection. I want there to be some jeopardy in a live performance. Jeopardy demands investment on the part of the listener – a commitment to see this thing out and make an assessment after. If I go into a performance with no expectations then everything else that follows is a surprise. Assure me it will be brilliant, then what follows will almost certainly be a disappointment.

There was another thing I was (probably) projecting onto proceedings. Argerich’s reputation/style/tendency/distinctiveness around commitment to gigs infuriates me. Obviously, she is an amazing musician. An international exponent of her art. Artists at that level can pick and choose what they want to do, of course. But I’m a traditionalist, I think. If you’re going to do a gig, you should do the gig, unless you’re physically unable to play. Eccentricity is interesting, but at the same time it’s annoying. And when you do commit to that gig, then I start feeling condescended by your appearance on the platform.

The encore somehow provoked me even more. Conductor and pianist – lifelong friends, both of them prodigies – sit down at the piano and play a duet. Their musicianship was incredible, the energy between them remarkable. A joy to listen to. But simmering somewhere underneath was a nagging sense that the stars on the stage were bestowing on us a great gift, taking advantage of this great moment and giving the audience a chance to see something they’re probably unlikely to see in London any time soon or indeed ever again. There were even moments in the encore when it all felt a little bit self-indulgent.

Don’t read this as an unequivocal fact. It’s opinion. More importantly, this is all a me thing. It’s about how I react to the artist, not necessarily about the artist themselves. The artist is allowed to do whatever he or she wants. Of course. How I’m reacting to it says far more about me, than it does about them, so the saying goes.

But why is it important? What do I conclude from what might seem mean-spirited?

I’ve already mentioned perfection. I think I just have an aversion to absolute perfection. If it’s utterly perfect or perceived to be then somehow it’s inauthentic. That’s such an odd thing to say when the sound is undeniably beautiful and exquisitely and instinctively executed, I know. I just need a sense that what I’m listening to is real.

But more than that there’s this sense that Barenboim and Argerich are from an entirely different classical music era, a time when instrumentalists were in the ascendancy, pursued by television producers and documentary filmmakers. A time when classical music was incredibly glamorous. Read any Jacqueline du Pre or Barenboim biographies and the glamour oozes off the page. They are both, Barenboim especially, from that age.

That way of being for instrumentalists from that era is still visible when you see them on stage. It’s not wrong. It’s not irrelevant. It’s other-worldly. It distances me from them. It makes them a member of the elite – the untouchables. And the present day is demanding that the gap between artists and audience is reduced not widened. It is a symptom of their brilliance and their genius that they are put on that pedestal. But I think I feel it more keenly now.

Their playing was spell-binding, their presence thought-provoking. But I think I’m probably more interested in musicians I can connect with as an audience member. I just can’t relate to them.