BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 17 – Vaughan Williams from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Tai Murray

VW’s Lark Ascending is a paradoxically fierce evocation of fragility and hope. I’ve not heard it like that until today. Previously I’ve always approached it as musical wallpaper, a victim of its own success – everyone cooing around it like a newborn baby.

Appreciating Lark Ascending  only as a literal description or a nostalgic Sunday afternoon jaunt in the country is to overlook a deeper emotional intensity in the work.

Soloist Tai Murray and conductor Martyn Brabbins explored the piece with delicacy, determination and poise throughout.

The effect was terrifying, as though the music itself was reaching into my insides and pulling out all of the dark stuff I had previously thought I’d successfully packaged up and stored away. I snivelled the moment I heard the opening chords in the strings. My eyes were sticky come the end of the piece. A remarkable listening experience. 

I’m still angry. I’ve penned three posts this week where that anger has been channelled into punchy words underpinned with resolute determination. Aside from the inevitable period of self-loathing experienced early yesterday evening, I wouldn’t go back on any of it. 

Later in the concert, VW’s Pastoral Symphony with its horrific influences and flirtation with modernism is a useful backdrop to what emerged as conflicting angular thoughts. 

Some background is necessary here.

Late Friday saw me invited to reach out to the editor of a publication in order to sell the idea of me writing and article for his magazine. I have spent the grand total of maybe 2 minutes talking to him (during the 2018 Proms launch event a few months back) and, given the wine all had consumed, there’s a high chance he won’t remember me. I obtain his mobile number and his email address, emailing him first, then following up with a call (and subsequent voicemail) a few hours later. I hate calling strangers. I hate emailing strangers too. It always seems like such an unlikely proposition, destined to fail because the ground work hasn’t been laid and because I don’t think I have anyone ‘referring’ me.

Consequently, chasing an editor who probably doesn’t know me, to pitch an article I’ve no idea whether he would want me to write seems a rather odd dance to have to engage in.

I hadn’t actively wanted to write for him – someone else suggested it might be a good idea if I did. Securing his agreement to pay me requires not so much a demonstration of my skill at writing (nor necessarily a requirement for an ‘angle’), but the need to be known by him and therefore ‘approved’ by him. That approval could be based on any number of spurious and unrelated criteria of which I have absolutely no control over, and nothing to do with the actual job in hand. All this for £120 at best (assuming I secure the going rate). 

Even today, it seems a rather odd activity to engage in. Like bursting into an empty darkroom and waiting for someone to respond to your desperate calls hello.  

These thoughts mill around as the Pastoral Symphony does, the experience of listening to which equivalent to entering an abandoned home and nosing around the belongings.

Paid writing could give me credibility and secure me greater access. The irony is that the time it takes to do the research, an interview and the actual writing doesn’t make the process a sustainable way to earn money. Why engage in this odd dance to get the work in the first place? It’s not the money. Is the credibility really that worth it?

I end up wondering what the point of writing about this genre even is. That old chestnut.

It’s more than just writing for pleasure.

I don’t write for an audience in mind – I never have.

Who am I writing for?

I end up concluding that critics write for the cognoscenti; marketers write to appeal to a new or existing audiences; I represent a perceived audience – a projection of myself: the curious, the open-minded, and the unorthodox. Those people are not necessarily experts, but if I’m being completely honest, I’d quite like the approval or maybe be legitimised by the experts.

What I’m interested in is story – transformation. I write on the basis that by documenting thoughts and feelings triggered by musical experiences, like-minded individuals might have their perceptions of a musical genre challenged. The music isn’t the subject of the writing – it’s just an additional character in the story. 

But who wants that exactly? Who will commission that kind of thing unless the person writing it is already a known quantity? Audiences don’t have the time to develop a relationship with an unknown quantity. Audiences only understand the immediate currency of a perceived expert in their field, or an individual whose personality arrives in the room before them. The ‘everyman’ like me necessarily demands time and commitment on the part of the listener or reader to establish and develop the relationship. 

As the symphony draws to its conclusion, a strange shift in thought emerges. My frustrations this week and long before, stem from unrealised ambition. That ambition is both a motivation and, on off days, a stick to beat myself with. Maybe the solution to arrive at is the most difficult thing to sit with: the idea of learning to just be content with things as they are. 

The final chords in the symphony (along with the sound of a snapped string ricocheting against a soundboard) nail the insight I’ve arrived at listening to the Pastoral Symphony.

The activities I engage in, paid or otherwise, set me on a path that tries to realise that personal ambition. They always have. That’s why I nearly always end up working at the weekends. “If I just do X this weekend, then I might just eventually be able to get to Y”.

But this weekend has been different. I’ve actively wanted to relax and enjoy my weekend. In doing so it might just be the case that I need to accept that this is as far as my ambitious journey goes. Maybe there is carrying on as you are is enough. What difference would letting go of ambition have? 

Orchestral musicians send instruments to Patagonia

I was really pleased this week to learn of the efforts of two years fundraising work by members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. has resulted in unwanted percussion instruments being sent to schools and youth groups in Patagonia.

The Patagonia Instrument Project has been granted the right by the Argentine Consulate and foreign ministry to send its collection of donated musical instruments to Patagonia. The instruments left Cardiff on Friday 9th and will arrive in Puerto Madryn in April. The Education ministry in Chubut will distribute them across the region.

The charity was formed in 2016, on the back of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ tour of the Chubut region of Patagonia in 2015 celebrating the 150th anniversary of Y Waldfa, the Welsh settlement in Patagonia.  The charity is run independently from the BBC, obvs.

The hope is that the musical instruments will help support music education and appreciation amongst staff and pupils in Patagonia.

I really like the idea behind the charity. There’s a pleasingly reassuring aspect to it – the idea that this is a charitable endeavour, with direct action and a tangible outcome. Importantly, connecting up with communities and contributing something which is both meaningful and lasting.

It also reminds me of one of the points that was made at the ABO Conference a while back. Specifically how there are a growing number of opportunities like this for Wales to reach out directly with people and organisations outside of the usual territories, and how valuable it to promote the Wales brand now and in a post-Brexit world.

More information is available via the Patagonia Instrument Project website.

BBC Proms 2017/21: European Requiem / Beethoven 9 / BBC National Orchestra of Wales

I don’t know much of James MacMillan’s work. But based on a couple of listens to his European Requiem, I think he’s someone whose work I’d like to explore a little more.

But …

Let’s not extract the joy out of proceedings

Radio 3 went to great lengths to contextualise MacMillan’s work before it was performed. A sign of the times no doubt.

I get why the explanation was necessary. Post-EU referendum, we’ve entered a phase where everything has to be clarified in case someone’s misled, offended, or something is misconstrued. It’s important that the BBC maintains its commitment to impartiality. No-one wants the right-wingers thinking the BBC is pedalling an anti-Brexit agenda.

But that contextualisation is at the cost of personal discovery.

God forbid we’d be allowed to be revel in an ambiguity and arrive at a sense of what the music means to us on an individual basis. Do we have to experience a work of art precisely as the composer intended?

European Requiem

I love MacMillan’s writing for chorus. His rich harmonies create an uncompromising wall of sound that is comforting in places, and terrorising in others. Some of the solo lines for Jacques Imbrulgio had a haunting effect, the chant-like melisma conveying a desolate air in places.

MacMillan’s obvious enthusiasm for bold rhythms makes the work accessible on a first listen too, giving the percussion section in the orchestra a central role in contributing to an inclusive end product.

Beethoven 9: underwhelming

In the spirit of aspiring to be objective, it’s probably worth me being transparent. I tend to have higher expectations of a performance if the work is popular. Holst’s Planets Suite is one example, similarly Elgar’s tiresome Enigma Variations. So too Beethoven 9 – the kind of work that demands precision because it is played so very much.

BBC NOW’s playing was efficient and workman-like, but prone to slip-ups in places. I’ve heard a lot of eye-squinting intonation over the past three weeks and Beethoven 9 was in no way the worst demonstration, but there were some surprising moments.

I’m a stickler, I know. And quite rightly, a lot of people for whom this concert was targeted and attended by, wouldn’t be unduly phased. But, if the Proms is to call itself the greatest classical music festival in the world then I do think spot-on intonation at all times should be a deliverable.

There were moments when soloists and ensemble competed with different speeds in the final movement, and I would have liked the slow movement to linger a little more than it did. A lot of the time things felt rather hurried.

But, what really shone was the rich vocal ensemble in the final movement, and in particular the bass soloist. The chorus too, performing without scores, was the boldest evocation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy I’d heard in a long time.

Listen to the concert in full on the BBC Proms website

BBC Proms 2017 / 6: Shostakovich Violin Concerto / Nicola Benedetti / BBC National Orchestra of Wales

I’ve taken a little bit of time to get to Nicola Benedetti’s Prom. A full four days in fact. In years gone by I’d see that as evidence of me slacking. Now, with a little more time on my hands, knowing I have something I’m looking forward to listen to on iPlayer Radio makes the wait all the more tantalising.

Benedetti is an amazing musician. She is a natural on-stage, incredibly expressive in her playing, and a brilliant ambassador. She projects an air of down-to-earth confidence in everything she does. She’s also something rare in the UK classical music scene: a good bet for a captivating performance. There are a handful of others like her, but not many.

The Shostakovich in this Prom – a dark, poignant, and often visceral work that contains a great many musical signposts to some of the composer’s other works – is a complex exploration. It’s also a far more personal work in comparison to some of Shostakovich’s more populist creations.

This is a ‘meaty’ work. Steak and chips on a Saturday night with a couple of slices of bread, baked beans, and probably gravy too. It’s a commitment. You may experience some mild indigestion during or after, but it will be worth it.

Benedetti’s musicianship will carry you through. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ precision will make your jaw drop too. The investment you make in the bleak third movement cadenza (Benedetti creates something especially riveting here) is repaid in the visceral fourth movement in which soloist and orchestra career towards a near cataclysmic conclusion.

Compared the disappointing Rachmaninov Piano Concerto the night before, this was an electrifying performance of a work I don’t recall ever having heard it in its entirely before now, despite its regular appearance at the Proms since 2000.

An undisputed highlight of this year’s season.

BBC Proms 2016 / 37: BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform Brahms Symphony No. 4

I combined a long walk to Greenwich and back with listening back to last night’s Prom.

The sun was bright but the air, especially in the shade was cool and refreshing. I managed a respectable average of 17 minutes per mile. Sweat poured down my neck at central Blackheath. A state of mild euphoria was reached somewhere in Greenwich Park. Total walk 8 miles. Completed in 2 hours 33 minutes.  I will be thin again.

Last night’s Prom was 2 hours 30 minutes and its contents made it the perfect companion to my walk.

First, an entertaining discovery – Walton’s Partita. A hugely accessible and entertaining three-movement curtain raiser that had some members of BBC NOW’s string section feeling slightly under pressure.  The premiere of Huw Watkins cello concerto composed for his brother Paul wasn’t quite as absorbing as I thought it might be. It wasn’t difficult to listen to but, at the same time, I did notice that my mind wandered just a little.

It may be the case that I was gearing up for the interval feature. There was a time when Radio 3 used to produce quirky but rich content as an interval ‘escape’ for listeners. The Twenty Minutes strand sometimes picked up on a theme in the concert, had a direct link to the programme or in some cases, went off at a complete tangent. I rather liked them, a short extended radio package that could surprise and delight.

Now, the interval feature is always a discussion from the Proms Extra pre-performance talk pre-recorded an hour or so before the concert. Sometimes they’re really informative. Last night’s Proms Extra on Brahms 4th symphony was an event with a special significance. Robert ‘Bob’ Samuel joined Laura Tunbridge and presenter Martin Handley.

Bob was one of my tutors at university. He either taught me music harmony or musicology, I can’t remember which. What I do recall was how Bob, along with Alain Frogley, Roger Bray, Denis McCaldin, and a tall fusty-smelling man who taught me keyboard harmony whose name I can’t quite recall, were the dream team undergraduate music degree lecturers – a rare combination of skill, passion, experience, and knowledge in every single one.

I hadn’t heard Bob’s voice for 25 years or so. We’ve connected on Facebook but never met. I used to think I could recall his voice from my undergraduate days, but the voice that spoke knowledgeably of Brahms and Schumann playing chess came as a surprise. Far deeper than my memory recalls, though I recognised the enthusiasm for his subject, the ocassional turn of phrase and the love of detail.

It got me thinking about something I’ve often wondered: if I feel an appetite for the subject, why am I not going further with it and studying masters? The answer might be that I’m not entirely clear whether it would be of any use. Would it be worth the investment in time and how would I apply it in the future? What doors would it open?

Brahms 4 is a special piece. Rich and complex, there are rapturous almost modern depictions of pastoral landscapes with many of the hints of academia I appreciate in Brahms’ music. I don’t know exactly what those characteristics are – perhaps the broad brushes from a rich legato string section? But, they hasten the approaching autumn and the new school year. Brahms’ music never fails to satisfy. It doesn’t so much heal, rather than nourish. In that respect Brahms is quite close in musical effect on the soul as JS Bach is. Brahms is just a lot more German about it.

More importantly perhaps, it was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ performance which stood out once again. The second consecutive night at the Royal Albert Hall and their final London appearance of this Proms season, the band has continued to go from strength to strength in recent years. I’ve always walked away from one of their concerts surprised.

Of all of the Corporation’s orchestras, I often wonder whether BBC NOW has to work harder at its UK-wide and global reputation. I’m not entirely sure why. It might be because in recent years their name has been associated with Doctor Who and other large-scale dramas, not in itself a negative thing on their CV, but in my conscientiousness it’s their TV work they’re known for before the more orthodox orchestral repertoire. One is not better or worse than the other, of course. If anything, the sign of a healthy orchestra in terms of finances and reach is surely that it covers lots of ground and reaches a variety of different audience groups.

For me, it’s when I hear them play with the kind of steeliness and grit of the kind I’ve heard over the last two Proms this season that I get to feeling really proud of them (odd given that I have nothing to do with them). Performances with them feel harder fought as a result. Brahms 4 was no exception. This performance bears closer scrutiny and repeat listens.