Prom 49: National Youth Orchestra / Antonio Pappano

Watching an NYO concert is always a difficult affair for me. I’m nearly always reminded of my failed attempts at gaining entry to the band when I was a teenager. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get in. I didn’t even get an audition. (I wasn’t terribly good at my ‘tonguing’ and sometimes my intonation did leave a lot to be desired.) Even so, watching each successive NYO does tend to fill me with bitterness and resetment. I’m nothing if not predictable.

I caught the first work in this evening’s concert – Varese’s Amériques – on the live Radio 3 relay and wasn’t entirely convinced about it. Contrary to what I’ve thought for many years, I don’t think you need to know very much about a composer or the work itself in order to enjoy it. You’ll just enjoy it if it’s good. Varese’s creation didn’t appeal to me and watching the TV broadcast later in the evening did little to change my opinion.

Had I been lucky enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the NYO administration and end up playing in the orchestra when I was seventeen, I think I probably would have been hugely annoyed to discover I was playing Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto. As a listener coming to the work for the first time, I failed to identify one single discernible theme to latch on to. Sure, BBC 2 commentator Charles Hazlewood might have suggested the concerto was a jamming session between piano soloist and orchestra, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a definite theme, an obvious development and a subsequent recapitulation. There’s a reason we only really hear Rachmaninov’s second symphony and his Paganini Variations. I suspect they’re the best of his orchestral works.

To focus on largely negative and personal views of two thirds of hte programme does the members of this year’s NYO a massive disservice. Tonight was their big night: a televised demonstration of their obvious talent and expertise. I’d always liked the idea of being a member of that particular crowd even if my ambitions were delusions of grandeur. Nevertheless, the end of the Copland Symphony showed how much this event touched the members of the orchestra. I’m sure I observed a number of bottom lips quivering and hands wiping tears from cheeks.

I know, it might be mawkish to flag such an observation up, but its those things which prove that what happened in the Royal Albert Hall was a moving experience for those there. I wouldn’t deny anyone that kind of experience. Good on them.

Prom 49 on the BBC iPlayer

Prom 48: Gurzenich Orchestra / Markus Stenz

I didn’t end up going to the Royal Albert Hall last night. I fully intended to but various things conspired to make the visit impossible. The closest I got to Prince Consort Road was Trafalgar Square.

My bike needed picking up from the bicycle repair shop. In truth, I could have picked it up at the weekend, but after the week I’ve had I figured I was allowed to treat myself. After some complication with my new PIN and getting it unlocked I was soon pedalling my way to White City in the morning on a fully serviced bike.

Test results were the next thing on my personal agenda for the day before I actually got into work. It was those test results which came with the rider that I would need to visit the doctor for a full discussion about them. Inevitably, I worried about them. I’d need to see the doctor before the bank holiday weekend got underway otherwise I’d worry all weekend.

A combination of the only appointment avaialble at the doctor’s being at 5.40pm and me not being able to take my newly reacquired bike back home with me on the commuter train meant I had to leave it at Charing Cross, get to the doctor’s surgery for 5.40pm and then subsequently return to Charing Cross to get my trusty bike. I figured I’d listen on the radio when I finally got home. But would I be able to get home by 7.00pm to hear it live?

The answer was no. Instead I was stranded on a non-moving train somewhere outside London Bridge having to settle with a less than satisfactory FM reception on my mobile phone. Believe me, listening to Mahler’s 5th symphony when the radio signal lurches from mono to stereo and back again does take a little getting used to.

Still, listening to Mahler’s famous work in this way turned out to be quite a special experience. Mahler isn’t the condensed romanticist I had assumed he was. His music doesn’t alienate me in the slightest. In fact, even though I initially considered the first part of the concert – an unwieldly 74 minutes a challenge to get through (hence one of the reasons I wanted to go to the Hall to hear it) – those 74 minutes raced by. Undoubtedly the mark of a work which pulls the listener in, even those listening with poor reception.

I hung around Trafalgar Square for the first and second movements before making my way back on the train from Charing Cross to Catford Bridge. The square was filling up with tourists, drawn to the big screen at the foot of Nelson’s Column on which the BBC’s Olympics coverage was being shown. It was a slightly surreal experience listening to a live broadcast of musicians playing from a location only a few miles away, absorbing the implicit sense of excitement for the 2012 Olympic handover party on Sunday.

You’d think I wasn’t concentrating enough on the music. The truth is, however, that by the time the famous third movement started up (strings only, gorgeous and dangerous listening for anyone on the brink of an unexpected emotional response) I was on the train back home. I was doing battle with more commuters than I anticipated, none of them particularly pleased my bike was taking up valuable space in the compartment. As soon as the opening melody in the third movement emerged from the blackness of the Albert Hall, I felt goosebumps creep up from the bottom of my spine all the way to the top of my neck. If a crappy FM reception of a live broadcast can still do that then that means the music is something special.

I listened again to the Mahler this morning after I made a point of listening to the Leonore Overture which appeared last in Prom 48’s programme. Everything had a historical link (this was repeating a concert the Gurzenich Orchestra had given in 1904 only without the Stockhausen, obviously) as well as a Cologne link. The band were from Cologne, so too Stockhausen, his work Punkte being played on what would have been his 80th birthday.

Flipping the concert order around in the way they had done in 1904 made for one startling observation. Listen to the Leonore Overture which starts around 26 minutes in part 3. It is a startling tight and invigorating performance with a dinstinctly different string sound and a very militaristic sound timpani line. It’s a thrilling listen and demonstrates a well-focussed band delivering a showstopper of an overture. When I stop to consider that the Gurzenich played this at the end of a three-part concert I am even more impressed with their skill, dexterity and musicianship.

For sure, Prom 48 will go down as a personal favourite at the end of this season.

Prom 48 (Part One – Mahler 5) on the BBC iPlayer
Prom 48 (Part Two – Stockhausen) on the BBC iPlayer
Prom 48 (Part Three – Schubert Songs & Beethoven Leonore Overture) on the BBC iPlayer

Prom 46: Sleeping Beauty / LSO

Not for the first time this season I’m feeling guilty as hell. Friday – the last time I was at the Royal Albert Hall – feels like months ago. I’ve lost track of what’s going on in the Proms brochure.

In fairness, I have had other things on my mind. Work has taken up a lot of my time for one reason or another. Energy levels sag. A process of prioritisation kicks in as a result.

The alternative initially felt dirty in comparison. I haven’t had the chance to listen live. I’ve resorted to catching up on iPlayer or via the PVR. Nifty planning has allowed me to listen on the way to work. I’m getting used to the alternative.

Today’s catch-up was last night’s Sleeping Beauty performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. Here was a chance to hear a full performance of a ballet score without the usual interruption from dancers thumping around on stage. Normally the band would be in the orchestra pit. Now they get their chance to shine. It isn’t the dancers gig, it’s the band’s.

The most surprising thing was appreciating just how accessible the likes of a ballet score really was. Each movement or episode or what ever you want to call it is pragmatically short. Dancers can’t dance forever. As a result listeners are getting a steady stream of varied material, all of it chocolate-box in it’s sound and short and manageable. Tchaikowsky’s ballet scores are the equivalent of the short-form video content we see on YouTube and the like today.

I’ve only got through the first half of the concert. My glum mood prevented me from following up on my way home. But one thing is clear from listening to last night’s gig: orchestras playing ballet scores have a tough job. The band is always playing. The strings are always scurrying, the wind articulating, the brass punctuating. It’s a massive job. It’s an exhausting job.

Listen to Act 1 of Tchaikowsky’s Sleeping Beauty via the BBC iPlayer
Listen to Act 2 of Tchaikowsky’s Sleeping Beauty via the BBC iPlayer

Prom 44: Beethoven 6

All credit to Beethoven for Symphony No.6. Not only did he craft a work which deftly illustrates a Germanic pastoral setting when he’d lost his hearing, but it’s his work which took me on a suitably escapist journey as I trudged my familiar route to work.

Like the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth, the Sixth symphony is a shameless crowd pleaser. Instantly recognisable, easily listened to and frequently player, it often runs the risk of acquiring the tag of “elevator music”.

Ilan Volkov’s direction of the BBC Scottish successfully made that description redundant and in so doing made my usually overbearingly dull journey to work intensely satisfying. A pair of noise-cancelling headphones undoubtedly helped as I listened to my special PVR recording of Prom 44.

It was a sunny day as I walked to Hither Green station. What better way to listen to the calming first movement with it’s fluffy white clouds and rolling countryside ? I started thinking about my first year at college. Buy the score and listen to a recording of it, I kept thinking to myself. Make sure you know the symphony inside out before you start term. (Sometimes thoughts of my own conscientousness make me feel physically sick.)

Listening to the symphony as loudly as I did on the train this particular morning signposted a number of reasonably interesting things.

First, how very like Dvorak some of beethoven’s symphony string writing can sound; Second, that Beethoven really knew how to write for the clarinet (and similarly Prom 44’s clarinettists really know how to render a suitably pastoral theme); Third (and most important of all), the work is perfect for softening the visual impact of a carriage full of tired looking commuters. It was also pretty effect at drowning out the inane conversation had by the teenager plastered with unsuccessful make-up who sat next to me all the way from Hither Green to London Bridge.

I’d completed the entire symphony by the time I got to WHSmith at London Bridge. It was a marvellous performance with some unexpected twists making for a refreshing show.

Prom 43: Flos Campi

Sunday evening’s concert seems a world away now. To be writing about it the City of London Sinfonia’s gig the Wednesday after it occurred feels positively evil.

I’ve got out of sync, you see. The Proms season consumes everything. But let something like a video shoot or a couple of parties get in the way and see the tight schedule slip spectacularly. The order I’ve listened to recent Prom concerts has been out of whack and so too the contents of those concerts too.

I tried listening to the Nigel Osborne flute concerto first and found found myself feeling angry at first. This feeling was quickly supplanted by a feeling of embarrassment after I communicated my two-word opinion to a good friend of mine who, it turns out, actually quite likes Nigel Osborne on account of the Professor – Student releationship my friend had with his 60 year old composer-tutor. Thank God Osborne wasn’t a member of my friend’s family. It could have been a whole lot worse.

The Mozart symphony at the beginning of the concert.. well, that was just a symphony and it was Mozart and, well, what’s there to say about Mozart symphonies exactly?

The real surprise of the evening was the bizarrely named and supposedly “erotic” Flos Campi by Vaughan Williams. Introduced and scored as a concertino featuring solo viola, orchestra and voices, this was bound to pique my interest given that the chorus contribution consisted of “worldess voices”.

There was something ethereal about this work, with barren sounds combined with moments of unmistakable Vaughan Williams. There was somethign fresh about the unusual textures created by the open string viola combined with voices singing no consonants.

Whilst the text of the multi-movement work may have been erotic and there might have been moments of unexpected beauty about the piece, I remain unconvinced about whether it can be necessarily erotic in itself. Vaughan Williams may well ahve been quite shrewd when he subsequently distanced the work from the description ascribed to it by contemporaries.

As for the Beethoven Mass in C .. sometimes I find Beethoven so incredibly dull and boring.