Review: Florian Mitrea at St Johns Smith Square

Some thoughts that arose during 2018 Royal Overseas League Keyboard Final winner Florian Mitrea’s St Johns Smith Square recital this evening.

1. Mitrea is an assertive player, with a love of drama articulated with an assertive touch, a brilliantly bright white tone, and some breathtaking dynamic contrasts.

2. Those moments when he holds silence before delicately placing a pianissimo chord command terrifying moments of self-reflection.

3. He has tremendous facility – taut, bright and crisp – especially in his right hand.

4. Mitrea loves grand pianistic flourishes. He’s embraces those points in the score that demand the fingers glide right across the keyboard.

5. He is a lovable showman with an excited smile and bright twinkling eyes. He is captivating presence on stage who works hard to make everyone feel welcome and included.

6. He is undoubtedly most at home with the music of the relatively unheard of Contastinescu. In both of these works, Mitrea appeared and sounded his most self-assured. Mitrea natural exuberance was more focussed and powerful.

7. For all that exuberance, there’s a compelling unfussiness about Mitrea’s style. This makes for a greater sense of inclusion. In the quieter sections there’s a heightened sense of intimacy that contradicts the scale of the interior.

8. It must be possible to describe artistry with positive regard, maintain a sense of objectivity, and shake the hand of the artist afterwards.

9. Musicians do an odd thing bestowing credence on the words of a critic. I think critics paid or not paid should build their own audience based on the quality of their judgment, the sincerity of the way they articulate it, and the close distance they hold between themselves and the audience. Yes we hold artists to account when reporting on their performance, but we’re also there to celebrate and advocate the art form.

10. I went backstage to meet the artist for the first time in my concert-going life. I was invited. It felt like a massive intrusion at first. But once I realised others were doing the same it seemed rather lovely to show appreciation and say ‘thank you’.

About that April Fools thing

It’s funny how a leg-pull on April 1, conjured up during morning ablutions can not only fool people so swiftly in the digital space, but also unexpectedly shine a light on some personal thoughts and feelings.

And, in the case of this blog post, help bring together three or four formerly disparate lines of thinking into one walloping piece – the last of my posts inspired during my trip to the Monte Carlo Festival this year,

First off, if you haven’t already realised, I’m not one of the new presenters (assuming there are any more than one – Jess Gilliam) for this years Proms season.

An alarming number of people fell for the prank, many of them journalists, many more of them arts managers, and a surprising number of them classical music PRs. A lesson for us all there I think.

That people did fall for it made it seem quite funny to me at first. It appeared surprisingly easy to dupe people. There is warped enjoyment to be had duping people too.

But then it became a little bit alarming. How easy is it in the digital world for us to pass something off as true and fior others to bite? The referendum campaign hasn’t taught us anything.

Once I’d moved from the toilet to the bath, another thought cane to mind.

April Fools Day is the one day when pulling somebody’s leg is allowed: we (I, just like you) have the permission to do so. And in order for it to work, that leg-pulling needs to have a shred of plausibility to it.

In that way, April Fools Day is the only time of the year when I can dare (because of the permission the date offers) to explain what I’d really like to be doing, where I’d like to be, and why I’m doing what I’m doing now.

The only reason I thought it was plausible to dupe people into thinking that I was a member of the presenting team is because, implicitly that is what I aspire to do.

That’s why I work on the podcast. It’s a loss-leader. It generates no income. But, it’s a calling card. What you need in this game is a calling card.

I knew it for years at the BBC but always apologised for even thinking I might be suitable. I made a joke out of it.

When I did broach it with a couple of producers I was given not so much short shrift, but passive aggressive shrift. Why would we go with you? You haven’t got a following we’d be interested in. Get back in your box.

I’d long consolidated that feedback as a statement on my overly-high expectations, that I needed to know my place, I needed to respect that TV and radio producers knew far better than me by virtue of them being older, wearing sandals or, as in some cases, because they smelt of old hymn books.

I assumed the problem was me. It might still be. I could terrible in a studio. I might be unmanageable. I may infuriate listeners like some presenters on Scala, Classic and Radio 3 do me.

But what bothers me is that others I know who display similar energy, passion and vision in their chosen field within classical music as I think I have tapped into over the years, experience a similar kind of cynicism when they seek feedback on their aspirations.

When I hear some of that feedback reported it sounds as though some of the arts administrators and the producers and the commissioners all say ‘Yes. Absolutely we need to shake things up. We need to open up the windows and let the fresh air. But really, we’re not really sure you’re the right kind of fresh air we’re looking for. You don’t fit the world us and our imaginary target audience exist in.’

I’ve been reminded of part of the problem this weekend in Monte Carlo. One person in the press ‘corps’ was here, like me, on the grace and favour of the festival.

That’s the deal: you come, we’ll pay your travel and accommodation, you write about our concerts. It’s something I really value. I’ve worked hard to build up a community that enables me to get invitations like this.

But when I pitched articles and reviews to the same website a few years back for another festival I was treated first to an ad-hoc telephone interview with the editor (and then his boss) both of whom wanted to check that I wasn’t likely to sully the independence of their ‘journalism’ because I was on an all expenses paid trip.

On another occasion I was told they didn’t take ad-hoc reviews, next they told me they’d done international festivals to death. This despite the fact they sent their own editor to cover the very same festival the year I attended.

When I then discovered they didn’t pay their contributors and insisted on holding copyright, I figured they weren’t worth pursuing. It all seemed a bit grimey to me. Not so much weighted in favour of the art or the writer, more in favour of the platform owner who wanted to drive traffic and increase advertising revenue.

And I mention this because just last week, the Herald’s classical music correspondent Kate Molleson announced the publication cutting classical music journalism. Cue everyone bemoaning arts journalism’s continued demise.

It made me reflect on the website I referred to in the previous paragraph and the work I do on this blog. Paradoxically, I and others like me, are contributing to the demise of paid journalism. Our independent work on free platforms which we produce in order to demonstrate our skills and employability, is read by people who don’t read and pay content. By trying to get work, people like me are inadvertently damaging the workplace.

And yet the irony is that those individuals with a turnover (or at least a semblance of a model) actively resist advances by people like me. The reason why has taken me a long time to fathom out, but I think I’ve arrived at a hunch.

There is a clique of perceived expertise in the arts world. A music degree doesn’t cut it; you need a masters or a PhD. You’re not a performer; you’re not experienced enough; you’re not rated by your peers; which university did you attend – Oxford or Cambridge?

My hunch is this: if the location of your university training remains as important in the sector as I still notice it does, then how on earth can that bias not permeate into the minds of decision makers in all aspects of their work? Is it possibly the case that a judgment is made on your suitably to advocate (or perform) the classical music genre based on the perceived quality of your degree?

Art music will become more inclusive when the gatekeepers shake off the various unconscious biases they still resolutely cling to. Until then, classical music will always have a problem with its reputation.

This observation is hardly earth shattering. It’s slightly embarrassing in a way it’s taken me this long to work it out. But if there is an unconscious (or worse, conscious) bias, whether it’s the way decision-makers instinctively fear the young disrupters with energy and drive, or the commissioners who assume the way to secure a young audience is to think in two dimensional terms about how to appeal to that younger audience, then all are complicit in betraying the art form we all hold so dear.

That people assumed I was telling the truth in my April Fools today is of course flattering. It legitimises an aspiration I’ve long held but never really dared to say out loud. But people’s responses all hint that it wasn’t such a ridiculous idea in the first place. Which inevitably makes me ponder who or what is getting in the way for me and others like me.

But as I concluded in my presentation to the BPI classical music committee last week, as enjoyable, as thorough and as valuable this work is (and that by other classical music advocates), at some point there’s going to have to be a very difficult executive board meeting during which the question will need to be answered: why do this if it can’t pay the bills and no one’s prepared to bite?

Review: Capucon Quartet playing Beethoven String Quartets Opus 132 and 135 and the Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo 2019

The Capucon Quartet are rock stars. That is all that needs to be said.

The Capucon Quartet’s concert was another must-attend for me (in part because of the chance to see Verbier Academy alumni and Thoroughly Good interviewee from a few years back, cellist Edgar Moreau) , making this Monte Carlo visit the trip where I binged on four Beethoven lates in 24 hours. Not for the faint-hearted by any means.

The second of the two concerts was in the finer acoustic and even in amongst the ostentatious chocolate box interior of the Opera Garnier in Monte Carlo. Two blistering performances of Beethoven string quartets (12 and 16), prefaced by a compelling performance of Kagel’s storytelling for accordion Pandorasbox from 1960 brilliantly performed by Jean-Etienne Sotty (below). Never before has a performer been so evidently commanded by the instrument he is playing. A fascinating muse on the role of the performer.

The Capucon Quartet began with Opus. 132, playing with poise and committment right from the off. They are, if you need an analogy, a rock star presence on the platform who perform even when they’re not playing a note. That makes attention all the easier, preparing us the listener for every note, delighting us when they sound.

Capucon pounds his heel on the stage – the first of two mannerisms I’ve seen here in Monte Carlo which should technically be a distraction, but does instead add to the overall effect. He exudes an alluring and intense kind of heat when he plays which only adds to the effect.

Cellist Moreau in comparison – youthful complexion with a strong nose – gives off a studious air about him as though he’s not yet given himself permission to live the experience he’s having. Guillaume Chilemme (second violin) and Adrien La Marca (viola) maintain a solid but comparatively low key presence, supporting their colleagues but not competing with them. I’m not clear on whether that’s as it should be, but the implicit deference on stage was striking nonetheless.

The second movement of Opus 132 – a profound musical expression – was made more enthralling as all found maintained a sense of stillness throughout. Long sweeping statements seemed to continue long after the musical phrases had come to an end. Here there was a sense of completeness about the experience as though the music was being conjured up from amongst them and existing around and about them.

The energy was broken after a false start to Opus 135 when one of Moreau’s strings either broke or slipped at the beginning of the performance. This understandably demanded all the performers left the stage whilst the necessary corrections were made. This didn’t impact their performance necessarily, though there was a sense that this interruption underlined by the supportive warm applause when Moreau had to call a halt to proceedings had cut the energy short.

Such piffling detail didn’t put a dent in proceedings especially. If anything it illustrated the necessary criteria for Beethoven string quartets. There needs to be focus, uncompromising commitment and limitless energy. As you’d expect the Capucon Quartet had this in spades throughout. But what will remain memorable about this event was Opus 132. An undoubted highlight of my musical year.

Review: Capucon plays Bartok Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Péter Eötvös

A mixed experience. Strong playing from the strings, a beautifully rich tone from Capucon, but some difficulties with balance which didn’t really get corrected until the last work in the programme.

Capucon plays with a warm tone throughout this mercurial material. Sometimes the orchestra swamps in the fortissimos. The generous acoustic in the Grimaldi Forum highlights some moments of great precision in the opening movement – one particular chord with triangle was exquisite.

But the balance between soloist and orchestra wasn’t consistent and didn’t favour the solo line necessarily. It did settle down towards the end of the first movement.

The second movement in comparison is musically difficult to follow. The material creeps along, the underlying narrative structure of the movement difficult to decipher. It felt like what seemed like an unedifying work on a first listen hadn’t necessarily been given due attention to underline its central ideas.

The battle between sections of the orchestra seemed to continue Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s a well-known work brimming with recognisable tunes and heartwarming evocations of a bygone era most of us can only perceive. It showed the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current calling card: a strong vibrant string section that works hard to create a wide variety of compelling colours and textures.

Consistently throughout this performance and in Bartok Violin No. 2 the strings delivered in the generous acoustic, but this was at the expense of the woodwind section who seemed to struggle cutting across the band.

This I took to be down to the conductor Péter Eötvös who (after a similar experience watching him conduct the Philharmonia recently) I remain unconvinced about in terms of direction. It’s difficult from an audience members point of view to know 100% what a conductor provides an orchestra. We the audience don’t get the full picture – only the back or the side.

There were moments when it felt like details like dynamic contrast, balance between sections and detailed attention to the ends of phrases had been overlooked.

This was the case during the fourth movement when the counter-melody in the pizzicato celli almost seemed to go overlooked. Later in the third movement, declamatory statements didn’t appear quite as doom-laden as I’ve heard in other performances. The beginning of phrases seemed to lack the attack I’ve come to expect.Some of the drama was lost.

It made me wonder whether Eostvosworkman like conducting style meant the finer points were lost a little. Similarly, some of the watery textures in Bartok’s orchestration didn’t come across quite so fluidly at the beginning of the third movement.

Credit where its undoubtedly due though: the bassoons in the second movement were something to behold. And whilst the dynamic range of the string section wasn’t as marked as I personally would have liked, there was simply no doubt that the section delivered, especially on the G-string.

Bartok’s second violin concerto is immediately more interesting in terms of material. The first movement is more cohesive – Bartok’s juxtaposition of material combined with seamless transitions makes the argument easier to follow and the end product more satisfying to listen to.

The balance between the orchestra and soloist was strikingly different too.

Capucon is captivating. He has an air of the Candyman from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about him. Proud, determined, and sensitive with a seductively infectious enthusiasm. Another mannerism I noted during this performance – the stiff leg kick thing he does from time to time is weirdly satisfying to see. He was doing a similar thing during the encore when sat towards the back of the firsts , momentarily reposition ing himself in the chair when he’s tense with unspent energy.

The second movement confirms Bartok’s material in this work makes this concerto far more compelling. Exquisite playing. Capucon’s tone rung out again, every note ‘bang on’ every time, positioned right in the centre. Here he created and sustained the magic right up until the end of the second movement. The silent transition to the final movement was a beautiful piece of ballet in itself.

Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast Series 5 Ep 35: Aksel-Otto Bull and Gisle Kverndokk discuss ‘Upon This Handful of Earth’

‘Upon this Handful of Earth’ received its European premiere at the Church Music Festival in Oslo on Monday 24 March 2019.

I spoke to composer and librettists Gisle Kverndokk and Aksel-Otto Bull about the work, the issues it highlights, and the challenges in bringing the conversation about climate change to the operatic form.

In some respects, interviewing a composer and a librettist after the second performance of a new work they’ve created is something bound to result in one or two schoolboy errors on my part.

If you’d written something, watched a one off performance of it after a week of rehearsals and then headed into a anaylsis of it given by an audience member you’d feel uncomfortable, wouldn’t you?

Gisle and Aksel – composer and librettists of ‘Upon this handful of earth’ – a parable-esque inspired opera exploring the ongoing conversation and mounting campaign around climate change – handled the experience like the professionals they are.

Podcast 35 was recorded in Oslo on Monday 25 March 2019. It also contains exclusive excerpts from the production mounted in the Trinity Church, Oslo the day before.

Read a review of the European premiere of ‘Upon This Handful of Earth’