Celebrate them

News of the Woman’s Hour Power List is worth commenting on.

A handful of people I sort of know through one thing or another appear on the list. Name-dropping is, obviously, a massively shit thing to do – a trope as over-used as the words ‘proud’, ‘privileged’, or ‘excited’ when describing one’s involvement in a performance, forthcoming or now over. So it’s not that I want to name drop.

It’s more that I want to celebrate discovering that (amongst others) Vanessa Read, Chi Chi Nwanoku (I still can’t say her surname out loud – she’ll quite justifiably roll her eyes at that), and Anna Meredith are on the list.

I’ve interviewed all three at various points in my career. Interviewing is an odd process. Half an hour/forty-five minutes with someone you don’t know, and who is, given there’s a microphone in the vicinity, ever so slightly on edge. In that way, you meet them at their best. It’s an unnatural setting, but it can be suffused with an infectious kind of energy.

More often that not, interviews are the only time I converse with such people. It’s an odd way of meeting someone. 

I admire the lot of them. Vanessa is a consistently strong force in the industry – the kind of person you see at an event and breathe a sigh of relief. Chi-Chi is the kind of person whose involvement guarantees a certain kind of outcome. And Anna I remember being incredibly open, warm, and game. All very non-plussed about her talent, just very matter of fact.

All three of them left me thinking, ‘I’d like to have a bit of what you have.’

That they left me with these thoughts and feelings after 45 minutes in their company says something powerful about them.

Awards, lists and gongs are good things in themselves, of course. But when individuals are heralded in this way it’s vital we reflect on what those people mean to us from our own perspective. I feel reassured by their talent, energy and commitment. Gillian Moore’s too (who I’ve never interviewed). 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 1

I’m writing a diary for this year’s BBC Proms season – mixing review and commentary and publishing it on a fairly regular basis. The diary format helps keep the copy concise, limits the time it takes to write, and leaves room for other classical music content on the blog. 

That last point is important. Every start of the Proms season marks the passage of time. And at this point in time I recognise the extent to which  my relationship with the Proms has changed.

A cautious approach

Where I used to approach it with a bumbling appreciation and unbridled joy, now I look on it a little more cautiously. Reasons abound – some of them people. I’d like to explore what that means for me. I’m rather tired of being fearful of saying what I think about the Proms.

The First Night is fast becoming a statement concert – a statement of intent, a vessel for gleeful and often self-satisfied hyperbole. The First Night is the BBC’s summer open-day. It knows it has all eyes on it, so the programme reflects that. Broad implicit messages that amplify the BBC’s public purposes, packaged up this year in a considerably more polished TV and radio broadcast.

Make it about the core content

Starting a concert at 8.15pm seemed utterly bizarre when I looked at it in the programme, until I realised that it was a neat way for TV coverage to avoid the 20 minute interval with an almost-live edited transmission. Unusually for me, I thought the TV version worked better than the infuriating radio coverage which had been scheduled to start nearly 20 minutes before the actual concert began.

Work commitments prevented me listening live (I was in Bedford recording a podcast) so I listened back on iPlayer yesterday. I ended up skipping through nearly all of the two-handed introduction – itself an annoying distraction from the purpose of the event. When the BBC tries to create an event out of a broadcast I get rather irritated. The impact of an event is only discernible after it’s over. Anything else is anticipation and therefore, marketing bollocks. 

Knussen, Vaughan Williams and Holst

Adding Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks at the beginning of the concert was touching. It also gave a tantalising glimpse of the composer’s style. Vaughan Williams’ Towards an Unknown Region had an unexpectedly restorative effect (some of the harmonic progressions are ravishing) with moments of Brahms and memories of Ivor Gurney in the 2014 season – English romanticism straining to break free from sentimentality. The tenors in the chorus sounded unnecessarily exposed in the radio mix, showing them to be under-resourced and straining to reach the notes in places. Holst’s Planets was note-perfect but lacked any kind of spark throughout.

A blistering creation from Anna Meredith

Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams was the real highlight. There is nothing I haven’t enjoyed by Meredith both as producer or composer. I admire her creativity. She also a down-to-earth kind of poise which is infectious. There’s youthful fascination and unbridled enthusiasm in her writing too. She writes for the audience, but does so in a way that challenges the performers. No easy feat.

The opening movement – Spin – displays her trademark love of rhythm; the second, a canny understanding of what makes cracking choral writing and a shimmering climax. Quirky eccentricity mixed was followed by epic carnage in a tour-de-force performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The final telegram – a plaintive cry transformed into a something altogether more hopeful and anticipatory – concluded what was a blistering musical creation.

New Music Biennial 2017 – Anna Meredith’s ‘Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra’

Anna Meredith’s Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra at #NMB17 was a revelation. Meredith’s work is a joyous and immersive thing; the composer and producer is a creative beacon.

Seven years after its commission by the Southbank Centre, Anna Meredith’s Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra received a second (and third) performance at SE1, the first concert in the New Music Biennial 2017 – the weekend-long celebration of ‘new and nearly new music’.

Meredith’s music is a mesmerising mix of rhythmic and textural geekery. Running at fifteen minutes, the composer fuses the spectacle of beatboxing with an orchestral accompaniment that imitates, approximates, and celebrates the talent the concerto spotlights.

Beatboxer is, as you’d expect, riven with an irresistible pulse right the way through. Heads bobbed and feet tapped in the Clore Ballroom as the hypnotic beat, supported by electrifying demonstrations of vocal dexterity from the four beatboxers on stage, thrilled the audience.

We marvelled, oohing and aahing at the soloists visceral art. Sublime moments of exoticism giving us permission for a spot of self-reflection on a hot summer’s evening.

Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra is a technically demanding piece for everyone on stage, and hugely satisfying for audience and musician alike – the looks on the faces of the Southbank Sinfonia made that clear to all.

Anna Meredith never disappoints. Hers are riveting composition, creations that make her and her work appointments to listen.

The performance jostled with the busy-ness of the Festival Hall bar too, adding a special buzz to proceedings. Anna Meredith and her contemporaries keep places like Southbank alive. Gratitude and pride aren’t sought, but they’re surely deserved.

The New Music Biennial 2017, supported by PRS Foundation, runs until Sunday 9 July. All events are free, some require tickets from the box office.

Thoroughly Good Podcast 3.4: Interview with composer Anna Meredith

Anna and Eleanor Meredith’s new work ‘Anno’ was premiered at the Spitalfields Festival earlier this month. Before the premiere of the work at The Oval in Cambridge Heath, I talked to her about how she identifies herself creatively, and how she works.

‘Anno’ will be performed at Tramway in Glasgow on 10 and 11 November 2016.

Listen via Audioboom, via download, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. Previous episodes available here