Neil Brand’s Sound of Song (BBC Four)

I blogged about the press launch for the BBC’s Year of Song and Dance on the About the BBC Blog last week. I really enjoy attending the occasional press launch. If staged well, they’re usually things which give an irresistible taster of things scheduled for later in the year. In the case of Song and Dance it was the opening broadcast which caught my eye: Neil Brand’s Sound of Song.

Brand is knowledgeable, self-effacing and oozes style. His programmes provide the blueprint for any fledgling TV producer feeling the pressure as he crafts the ‘menu’ at the top of each episode. Just enough tantalising titbits are offered at the beginning of each episode of this three-part series. At no point did I as a viewer feel patronised, nor felt like I was being taught something I already knew. More than anything else, Brand’s series has introduced me to a wider variety of musical styles than I ever thought I’d be interested in, solely because he’s revealed some of the mechanics in production.

That’s quite an achievement. Something us viewers could, if we didn’t take time out to reflect on what we’ve seen, take for granted. Kudos to commissioning editor, Jan Younghusband. Now then, Mr Brand. What’s next?

Neil Brand’s Sound of Song is available on BBC iPlayer for around about a month, but at the time of writing the first episode has 17 days left on the clock. Get watching it. You won’t be disappointed.

Proms 2009: Prom 9 – Finzi Elgar Leon McCawley BBC Philharmonic

Listen to an Audio Boo thing

The BBC Philharmonic joined forces with Vassily Sinaisky for a programme of nearly all English music from composers Moeran, Finzi and Elgar.

I say nearly all because although Irish born Moeran did spend some of his life writing in England, the symphony played during Prom 9 was half and half recollections of Ireland and East Norfolk.

As a kid I spent a long time flitting between Norfolk and Suffolk – we lived on the border – and for a long time I found little of interest in either county. It was only when I listened to Benjamin Britten’s music I slowly came around to thinking that East Suffolk was best. Moeran’s music (listen to the second movement for his take on East Norfolk) did little to change that opinion.

The real surprise was the Finzi played by former Young Musician participant Leon McCawley. Watching him on TV proved what an amazing and totally reliable ability the chap has in delivering a clear and robust tone from the Steinway on the stage. Finzi’s writing (in my opinion at least) shows some sympapthy for the soloist who is required to deliver a massive cadenza right at the beginning of the work instead of the end (where you’d normally hear it in a standard concerto). Was Finzi getting the worst stuff out of the way first or (as I suspect Leon McCawley might have thought) deliberately frightening the soloist before he walked on to stage. Either way McCawley rose to the challenge.

The BBC Phil delivered a fantastic performance of Elgar’s Symphony No.2, something I hadn’t heard in it’s entirety and am as I write downloading off iTunes. Pundit Tom Service was right in his fairly forceful assertion during the interval that the Symphony is Elgar proper. Forget the populist stuff, this is the Elgar you need to listen to.

Watch it on BBC iPlayer or listen to it on BBC Radio 3 – first half including Leon McCawley (second half – Elgar).

TV: It’s time to go Nationwide

Esther on the box

Esther Rantzen (marvel at her as she was in the 1960s above) was one of a handful of TV yesteryear celebrities who shared their recollections of working on tabloid-style magazine TV programme Nationwide in the shamelessly self-indulgent documentary “It’s time to go .. Nationwide” recently. 

I remember Nationwide although didn’t realise how long it had gone on before I started consuming it. Being a relatively spring chicken, I hadn’t appreciated it actually started out in black and white or that it was produced at the Lime Grove studios in London once owned by the BBC. 

There’s plenty of footage of life at Lime Grove in the programme. Cramped surroundings, ridiculous look corridors designed to confuse visitors and occupants alike, an appalling canteen (according to former Nationwide presenter John Stapleton at any rate) and … horror of horrors, people smoking in the production office. 

It’s a completely different world, one laden with glamour guaranteed to seduce broadcasting history junkie who finds names like Lime Grove, Alexander Palace and Bush House evocative. It’s exterior was hideous and even I can see that working conditions were pretty awful – no surprise it was knocked down – and yet it’s exactly this kind of BBC history which gets me ridiculously excited. 

Watch it via the BBC iPlayer whilst it’s still available or check in at BBC Programmes to see when it’s next on.

There’s always the  blurry footage of Lime Grove below before it was demolished to salivate over in case those other two options fail to register a modicum of interest. </p>


Prom 62: Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra / Davis

I fear I’m beginning to flag just a bit when it comes to promming. I’m still as committed as I was to begin with (even if some other people I know may question this given my comparatively poor attendance – Prom 62 brings my personal best to 23, I think) but having stood for three hours at the concert in a packed arena my back is telling me what my thighs and feet have been feeling for ages. I’m getting tired.

This might be why I spent a great deal of time concentrating on other things during the Beethoven Violin Concerto. At first I was struck by how people weren’t coughing that much. I started trying to work out what the reason might be. Was it that the audience – a full house – were on the whole quite a healthy bunch? Had people watched the video? Had they taken notes ? Was the message getting through?

(Self-obsesion is a nasty trait. I must do more to stamp it out.)

I suspect the real reason was that Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is unusual in its’ dynamic range. Orchestra and soloist have to get to grips with what might at first seems like a fairly straightforward score. But factor in the pianissimos daubed all over the score and the idea of breathing let alone coughing during the performance is would guarantee embarrassment. There was no way anyone wanted to disturb the atmosphere in this one and risk drawing attention to any ills or stubborn medical conditions.

Personally, I want to listen to this back if only to give the entire concert a second go. Assessing why everyone was so unusually quiet had taken up quite a lot of my attention not to mention the sight of one man in front of me in the arena who’d missed a loop with his belt when he dressed himself in the morning. This and a definite case of broken wind emanating from the second row (I was on the fourth row, I hasten to add) towards the end of the first movement of Sibelius’ second symphony made this evening’s concert quite an arduous task.

Still, some others rather liked it and at least there’s iPlayer and a modest sound system at home to go some way to recreate the experience.

Prom 53: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Gatti

My journey to the Royal Albert Hall this evening didn’t go quite as smoothly as I’d hoped it might. Police dog “Diesel” reckoned he’d smelt drugs on my person when I strolled into Lewisham train station with my bike. The place was swarming with representatives from the British Transport Police. They were looking for law-breakers with a vengance.

Naturally, I protested my innocence. My face must have said it all. What on earth was the dog thinking when he rubbed his nose up and down my leg? When the lovely policewoman failed to find anything but my cheese and tomato ciabattas, I was certain I could tell the animal was embarrassed.

Events at Lewisham train station only added to the excitement of today’s Prom. I’d wanted to go all weekend, especially seeing as I hadn’t been able to get to there last week. By the time I’d cycled from Charing Cross to Prince Consort Road, I’d reckoned I’d be a ridiculously long way down the season ticket queue.

As it was, the rest of the season ticket holders had, apparently, made a value judgement on tonight’s conductor. Consequently, whilst the day ticket queue stretched way down the steps and quite possibly down Prince Consort Road, I skipped to the end of my queue little knowing quite how close to the front I’d be when I got in to the arena.

I was in the second row, directly opposite the leader of the orchestra and within spitting distance of the conductor. For those of us who used to work in orchestral management, this was the perfect spot. I could assess the first violins and have line of site of the first desk of the cellos and pretty much most of the violas too. Those of us who enjoy judging like this kind of position.

There were two works in what felt like a short, intense gig. The first half’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music by Prokofiev is bound to be recognisable to all. The “big tune” – the Montagues and Capulets – is at the top and pales into insignificance in comparison to the rest of the suite which did at times leave me breathless.

It was Tchaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony I was really looking forward to, something a pal who was on the front row during the first half didn’t know when he offered to swap with me after the interval. It was my first time on the front row in a long, long time and the Royal Philharmonic’s stunning performance made it perfect, no mistake.

Prom 53 on the BBC iPlayer