Thoroughly Good on Bachtrack: Attentive listening at altitude

I’ve been ‘moonlighting’ on Bachtrack, taking some time to reflect on my recent trip to Verbier.

There’s an element of reminiscence about the piece, I should confess. London teems with distractions the way Verbier insisted they were discarded at the bottom of the mountain. My return prompted me to wonder what strategies we need to employ to optimise our listening in the urban environment.

Read the article on Bachtrack.

Reviews, even more reflections and a podcast interview with the Verbier Festival Academy boss Christian Thompson is available here.

King’s Cross and PRS Foundation announce Dame Evelyn Glennie, as its musician in residence

King’s Cross, the 67-acre development in the heart of London and PRS for Music Foundation, have joined forces to select a musician in residence for the neighbourhood, for twelve months.

Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, will be the new Kings Cross Musician in Residence and will spend the year exploring, writing and performing new music. She’ll work with local communities of King’s Cross, talking to the companies, educational institutions and people living and working in the area, to create new music that will involve and resonate with them, culminating in a final performance at the end of the residency.

It a project looks like an interesting proposition. I really like the idea and am looking forward to seeing the results. Something to definitely keep an eye on. There’ll be a performance at the end of the residency which starts in January 2017.

Watch Evelyn Glennie talk about her idea for the residency below.

Picture credit: Philipp Rathmer

BBC Proms 2016 / 33: Elgar Symphony No. 1

Returning home from an interview early this morning, I sat on the platform waiting for the next overdue service to Catford. I had a thought about my waistline. I was reminded me of the double chin which presents itself whenever I get my picture taken. The spectre of exercise reared itself soon after. Yes, I might have a sore elbow which prevents me from riding my bike, but I should probably make more of an effort to get moving.

Beside me on the platform bench, I glanced a picture of Rio 2016 Olympic Bronze medallist Tom Daley’s torso, skimpy swimming trunks perched on an unfairly lean frame. Irritating white teeth glinted in the sunlight. Damn you and your stupid thumbs-up to the crowd, Daley. I don’t need you to remind me how I really ought to be pushing myself a little harder.

By pushing myself, I really mean squeezing at least some exercise into my day. The thing is that I can’t even lift a pillow without feeling a twinge up my arm. It’s the latest in a long line of stupid middle-age ailments which have afflicted me this year. Everyone is bored of hearing about them. The daily pill-popping is equally tiresome.

The 22-day push-up challenge was a non-starter. Maybe I should run instead.

The fact is that I hate running. Running is the only pastime guaranteed to test my stamina which will nearly always be found to be lacking when I’m sweating, puffing and generally looking like a twat. Fortunately, the NHS recommends walking before running anyway, and suggests a good beginner’s target for getting the 8required exercise is 10K steps a day. I follow up with an email to a colleague – a poster girl for dramatic walk-induced weight loss – asking her how many steps she advocates a day. “I’m asking for a friend,” I say. She recommends between 11K and 15K.

I make a private bid to walk to tonight’s Prom, but am unexpectedly diverted by peer pressure. A colleague has unexpectedly announced her departure. She doesn’t realise it at the time, but my world momentarily shuddered, I was so unprepared for it. Shall we all follow up with a drink, she proposes? Everyone is agreement. Yes, we would meet in the Green Man.

It would have taken 45 minutes to walk to the Royal Albert Hall. I could have left at 6.30pm but – schoolboy error – I end up staying for another half. I stare at myself in the mirror of the gents and promise myself I’ll never wear the chinos and denim combination again. It does nothing for me, not least because the colour of the shirt fails to cast a much-needed shadow under my chin.

A timely Uber gets me deep into Hyde Park, somewhere near the Serpentine Gallery. “What time do you need to be where you’re going?” asks the driver. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself trotting to the concert hall, only minutes to get to my seat.

I explain all of this because I think the detail rules. In addition, in stark contrast to other recent concert experiences, I want to illustrate the kind of banality can get in the way of moments of great artistry.

Dutilleux is, without doubt, my new most favourite composer. The man loved sound, and revelled in creating all sorts of exotic and evocative soundscapes. The opening of what amounts to his cello concerto was tense. At the same time, the opening sequence deftly illustrated the melodic and textural range of the instrument. Within minutes I was convinced: this was far more engaging than Elgar’s rather staid concerto. Taut harmonies followed in the second movement over which a strung out melody hovered high above. It was a combination that shimmered as miraculously as the filament in an electric fire from the 1970s. The third contained sparkling woodwind sequences combined with more evidence of the extent to which Dutilleux loves the cello and its range. The fourth movement was a blissful escape – tortured but cathartic at the same time. There was a fifth movement, but to be honest, I didn’t write any notes about that.

It was the Elgar symphony in the second half I’d really come for. The opening theme remains both enigmatic and somehow the most potent piece of melodic writing Elgar ever penned. It is arresting. Captivating. It will always remain, as Tom Service said a few years ago live on BBC Four, “proper Elgar”.

The slow movement – the third – transported me. This was the moment the BBC Philharmonic created something miraculous and much-needed. If magical moments are characterised by people stopping in their tracks and collectively holding their breath, the third movement adagio was it.

I closed my eyes. Tears rolled down my face. It wasn’t all to do with the music, of course. Some of it was enabled by the lager I’d consumed earlier in the evening. Regardless of who or what ultimately takes the credit, it was an incredibly special moment. There was a release.

The symphony finished ahead of time. I hit South Kensington tube three minutes to ten. I’ll complete the long 54-minute walk from the Royal Albert Hall to Charing Cross Station another time.

BBC Proms 2016 / 31: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite & Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev’s relatively unknown Scythian Suite is a fun four movement tale scored with the composer’s trademark sounds and textures.

The first movement blazes with technicolour peril before leading into something far more evocative, shimmering with mystery, intrigue and the distant threat of something very ugly carrying something very sharp in its hand. The high-octane second movement contains a gripping string sequence with terrifying counter-melodies in the violas and cellos and terrifying militaristic brass fanfares. The third movement, in stark contrast, extols a pleasing eastern mysticism threatened on occasion by swirling strings and bassoon. Something is overcome during the fourth movement by a benign force of some kind, after which something awe-inspiring and almost certainly naturalistic sweeps across our consciousness and makes everything better.

Musically, there’s a strong narrative underpinning the whole thing. The joy of the work on a first listen is that even without knowing what that narrative is. The music constructs such a potent image throughout. This is a work which can stoke anyone’s imagination. I immediately fall in love with it for that reason alone.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 is the original version, that intended and written down by the composer himself. It’s the version that pianists suggested he adapt it to the one we now recognise instantly as Tchaik 1 today. The most obvious difference (there are many – far too many to go into) is in the opening bars of the piano solo. Gone are the ponderous chords full of Russian portent. In the original version, the chords are given a gentler ‘spread’ treatment, making for a far more accommodating opening. As we start from a less domineering place, the musical development that follows seems more natural, less contrived.

I’m thinking this (and noting those thoughts down in my notebook) on my late-running train into work this morning. I realise quickly that I have nothing to really compare it with. I know of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto (the revised version) but I don’t know it so well that I can pick out the differences immediately. I half-know these things, nowhere near as in-depth as I’d like to think I do.

There are moments when I feel as though the material is wandering a bit and end up yearning for the more tightly-written chamber works last weekend in Verbier. And maybe not immediately warming to a sometimes rambling composition is in itself an illustration of what I do know and what I don’t. If I knew it better, I wouldn’t be dismissing bits as ‘musical flummery’.

My mind wanders a lot on the train. It takes a lot to focus.

What I end up thinking about is the tyranny of knowledge in the classical music world. On the one hand, the industry I feel most at home in is also the industry which I suspect would laugh at my apparent inability to recall basic facts about compositional style, composer’s dates, harmonic progressions, and star’s names. I’ve certainly found myself in conversations with contemporaries and associates and discovered how unable I feel I am to spit out detail on command.

I should probably try harder. Or maybe, as in the last post, I should have tried harder to remember this stuff years ago. But it isn’t the detail which interests me, or rather, demonstrating I know the detail isn’t what is important to me. What’s vital is feeling it when you hear it, and then communicating what you felt after the occasion. Explaining why you felt takes all of the joy out of proceedings and, in turn, makes you look like a self-important self-aggrandising arsehole.

At the same time, the industry demands that kind of knowledge. In some cases, if you can’t prove your encyclopaedic knowledge then you’re judged as ignorant. But, articulate that knowledge and you’re at risk of putting people off. You can’t win in classical music.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto starts as a blissful lullaby, its main theme played in the wind and then subsequently the piano, is the most miraculous of creations. It’s a melodic idea that lulls without being too saccharin, and built into it’s very DNA is the hint that there may need to be a key change every time we reach the end of it. Sometimes I’m sure we’ve moved to a different key. Other times I’m not so sure. And I like that playfulness, that teasing quality to Tchaikovsky’s writing in this concerto. It’s a far more rewarding work than say some, if not all, of his symphonies.

The final movement bathes me in the musical equivalent of an end-of-day glow London offers every summer. A rousing conclusion to a mammoth wander through all sorts of surprisingly blissful states. This is the moment when I want the summer to go on forever. This is when the Proms presents itself its meaning to me: a daily opportunity to reflect on what I’m listening to. A summer-long workout of musical discovery.


BBC Proms 2016: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

I ended up taking an alternative route into work this morning: Hither Green to Canon Street; District Line to Embankment; Bakerloo Line to Oxford Circus.

It always surprises me when I discover routes into work I’ve previously overlooked. Canon Street – a destination I always regard as the last chance saloon if I’m running late for work – isn’t that much more inconvenient that my usual route. I don’t know why I don’t use that route more often.

It’s a different travel experience. There’s a highly-prized space to be savoured when I arrive at Canon Street concourse after the early morning City rush. The District Line is quieter too. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an air-conditioned train. A change is (nearly) as good as the rest I had in Verbier at the weekend.

The journey helps me focus on last night’s Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. And as I do so I remember there was a time when I quite liked it. I thought it was a dead cert of a work. Pleasant. Slightly exotic-sounding. I’d gone to St Alban’s cathedral to hear my then girlfriend play it in a college orchestra concert. I thought it was true love. A few weeks late r- on Valentine’s Day as I recall – she called to say she was with someone else now and things probably couldn’t really continue.

She didn’t ruin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at all. But after Beethoven’s Op.130 at the weekend, and the opening of Brahms’ first piano quartet, I’ve become a bit more demanding. Dvorak, with his slavish devotion to folk tunes and instance that any half-decent idea should be repeated at least once, makes me feel like the whole thing is a bit of an exercise now.

The concerto isn’t as presenter Clemency Burton-Hill keenly points out, for me at least, all sadness and sentimentality. That’s too simplistic a description, perhaps even trite.

I’m the first one to respond (surprisingly positively) to a bit of melancholy. I’m also partial to sentimentality, so long as I’m indulging in it in my own company.

For me, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto has an overriding air of resignation about it. It remains pleasant to listen to, but predictable. Dvorak doesn’t really take me on a journey from one place to another. He’s only ever transported me to a place and then left me there. It’s as though Dvorak and I go on a picnic somewhere undeniably pretty but for some reason he never really explains, he leaves early to go someplace else. I’m left with the dirty plates, and the journey home to embark upon on my own.

Musically speaking, he moans and whines in the cello concerto. He keeps going on about the same point over and over again. I get the point he’s making early on in the first movement. Come the last movement, with the incessant repetitions built into Dvorak’s compositional structure, I’m irritated by his love of repetition to underline the point. Quit whining boyo. Get over whatever it is you’re obsessing about and take action.

I suspect that’s the reason I only really find the final section – the bit where it feels like we’re skidding towards the end – of interest. At that point Dvorak has taken action. He’s moved beyond the self-indulgent resignation that has gone before and said goodbye. The final few bars are a farewell, with a defiant promise of something different to follow.

In TV drama terms this is the end of a series with a promise from the continuity announcer that the programme “will return next year” as the final credits roll.

When I leave the BBC it will be those final few bars of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto I’ll listen to as I walk away from the revolving doors. To be clear, neither me nor the BBC have got there quite yet.