BBC Proms 2016 / 75: Last Night of the Proms

We passed on the first half of last night’s Prom, choosing an early booking at nearby Chapter’s Restaurant in Blackheath. The service is prompt, the portions generous, and the bill modest. We opted to walk back home afterwards, making back just in time to see Katie Derham say goodbye on BBC Two and for proceedings to get underway on BBC One.

I expected to not enjoy the Last Night, but as it turned out the second half was a reassuringly warm affair with Vaughan Williams’ blissful Serenade to Music, Tom Harrold’s frothy world premiere Raze, and a gorgeous rendition of Britten’s arrangement of the National Anthem.

Most touching were the inserts from the nations – when that element was first introduced to the Last Night a few years back I wriggled a little uncomfortably. The logistics of getting three four performances to dovetail one another are considerable and, like the season itself, another element which us as TV viewers take for granted. This year was a polished link-up, presenting one traditional song from each nation to the country as a whole.

And true to form, I cried a bit during Jerusalem. It always gets me.

The Verdi Requiem seems like a world away now. All the anxious talk about failed ambition befuddle me now.. Where did it come from? Why did it spill over? Why did I succumb?

That’s symptomatic of the season being over. Like the Eurovision, the Proms is a platform – a world of opportunity – for this in it and looking in on it. When that platform has been packed away, so the opportunity and the need disappears.

Also like Eurovision, I did tweet quite a lot last night – not as much as I did during the Eurovision final this year, but at least it made sense (aside from one or two messages which got deleted after the event) and there weren’t any pictures of filled pint glasses.

What follows now feels like an exciting prospect.

After the razzmatazz of the Proms, where do I find the classical music events which fill some of the void? I count five season programmes on my desk as I write this. How does the experience of those events differ from the highs of the summer festival? How does the Proms act as a gateway for wider range of cultural experiences over the next ten months? And how does this blog develop as a result?

BBC Proms 2016 / 70: Staatskapelle play Bruckner 6

I listened to Bruckner 6 on my birthday jaunt around London. This year’s excursion took me to the Fox Talbot exhibition at the Science Museum and after that, a cheeky Margherita on the Southbank.

There’s no time to go into detail (it is my birthday all), but suffice to say Bruckner’s sixth symphony is far more engaging than his third. There’s a smattering of Mahler in there somewhere

There’s a smattering of Mahler in there somewhere for a start. The first movement gets off to an arresting start; the second (slow) movement is a remarkable achievement too.

All in all, it’s a work which demands repeat listens. It’s rich, complex and revealing. The idea that this came before Mahler’s first symphony makes the whole thing beguiling.

There was also some kind of incident with something heavy and valuable on stage which made things even more compelling. I’m not entirely clear what occurred, but it did definitely sound like something very expensive had broken .. when it hit the stage.

BBC Proms 2016 / Proms At Peckham: Multi-Story Orchestra plays Steve Reich

I’ve taken to writing blog posts in Microsoft Word, reading them over and editing, after which I upload them to WordPress for publication.

My ease writing copy outside of an adequately designed web form has something to do with needing a lack of clutter. In Microsoft Word, I can focus on what I’m doing. I won’t allow a weak moment to be subjected to another wasted few minutes on the internet.

I can focus on the words on the page; I can hear those words more clearly in my head as I type; words and phrases, and thoughts and feelings present themselves more readily to me.

Perhaps what I’m really uncovering is that typing a draft into Microsoft Word helps me create a state of mindfulness.

The same can be said of Steve Reich’s music. His creations aren’t works I’ve ever sought out, but they’re always rewarding when I hear them.

Repetitive loops shifting imperceptibly over an extended period of time are his trademark, underneath which is a respect for the smallest fragment of detail the rest of us could be forgiven for overlooking.

And when Reich brings our attention to that fragment, overlaying or colliding it with others, and then repeating it over and over again, he creates something beautiful and intensely personal to the listener.

Whilst we might be listening to Reich’s music, what we’re really hearing is ourselves. We hear the pain, the joy, and the apathy of our everyday lives bellowing out above his rich multi-layered creations.

I love Reich’s music. I love its respect for those of us who ruminate. I love the way I can get lost in his creation on my own unique journey. And I love the way he’ll insist of changing direction in a piece as though he knows when my mind needs a gear change. The effect is hypnotic, of course, but it’s also one which makes me feel safe, free to explore whatever it is I want to look for.

There should be more of these at the Proms, but I’d really like to hear events like this unmediated. Such is the effect of Reich’s music that any interruptions to an altered mind state are jarring.

Perhaps there’s scope, as we heard during the Stockhausen Prom a few years back, for broadcasting exclusive new works which play during stage moves.

The really daring approach would be to be to stream the entire concert live to iPlayer with a fixed cam – no direction, just one fixed camera including the audience and the stage.

A favourite from the concert? There is no favourite. All of Reich’s music is sheer brilliance.

BBC Proms 2016 / 59: Leipzig Gewandhaus, Beethoven 7, and a Touch of Class

We’ve passed a critical point in the Proms season. There’s less than two weeks to go until it’s all over and my classical music world returns to something approaching normal.

This is not something to be sad about. All good things must come to an end. That way we can all have a much-needed break and, when the good thing returns we appreciate even more because of the time it’s not been around.

But more than that (and other similarly tired clichés pedalled by my parents), this point in the Proms season coincides with a change in the weather and as a result, everyone’s mood.

The bedding plants are giving us their last show of colour. The sun is still shining brightly, but the air has cooled dramatically. People have either returned from holidays in a good mood, are about to go on a late holiday or, in some cases are still on holiday (and therefore giving the rest of us a holiday).

It’s as though we’re all used to the summer conditions by this point in the summer too. We’re not hastening the end. We’re just basking in the familiar. When something first becomes familiar it is the most glorious thing.

But there’s a hint of impending newness about things too. The Other Half puts this down to the counter-intuitive sense of renewal that this time of year comes packaged up with. The autumn term beckons with new well-worn textbooks, new exercise books, and an untouched pencil case. More than spring, autumn is the time for a new start.

All of this is very descriptive and possibly a little florid, but it sets the perfect scene for Beethoven 7 – in my opinion, Beethoven’s finest – which I listened to as I walked around Regent’s Park at lunchtime.

Colleagues had commented on how I was ‘looking well’ – one even reckoned I was ‘looking thinner’. If this was the case, I was eager to capitalise on the aerobic exercise regime I’d established (albeit accidentally) when I was at the Edinburgh Fringe last week.

Regent’s Park was packed full of people making the most of the last rays of the summer. Deck chairs, shades, and a multitude of tanned bodies dotted around the green expanse of a grand Royal Park.

It’s what opens my favourite ever film (which may not necessarily be the best film, I hasten toad): Touch of Class. Divorced mother of two Vicky Alessio has to juggle the demands of a single parent, her career copying the latest fashion designs, and looking after a myriad of pets. One sunny afternoon in Hyde Park she bumps into Steve Blackburn – an American in insurance, complete with wife and two children. The pair end-up falling in love and having an affair.  They go on an initially awkward weekend away to Malaga, after which they set up a bolthole in 70s Soho. It’s a bittersweet comedy romance.

But before everything ends in tears, there’s time for a number of illicit escapes to their salubrious Soho escape, including one mounted during a performance of Beethoven’s 7th symphony at the Royal Albert Hall which Steve is attending with his wife.

During the unfeasibly long performance Steve appears to have time to leave the Royal Albert Hall in a black cab, get to Soho,  have an awkward conversation in which he tries to break up with Vicki, have sex, and then get back to the concert just in time to hear the final bars of the symphony. Quite some achievement.

I’ve always loved Touch of Class, in part because of the interplay between Vicky (Glenda Jackson) and Steve (George Seagal), but also because of the visuals. London always looks more glamorous in film. The newfound chic of the capital in the early 1970s only makes the whole thing even more irresistible. It was probably quite a grim city to live in back then, but every time I watch it I want to get a taste of it.

Jackson was spotted in the Cleopatra sketch on the BBC’s Morecambe and Wise Show. She was given the role by writer, producer and director Melvin Frank. Jackson went on to win an Oscar for her role. And the whole bittersweet romantic, Oscar-winning story starts in a Royal Park in central London and places Beethoven 7 at the heart of a critical moment in the development of Steve and Vicky’s ultimately doomed relationship.

Hyde Park is a little too far from work for a lunchtime stroll. Even with my new walking regime, I’d never be able to get there and back in the space of an hour. Regent’s Park is far closer and is a perfectly passable alternative to Hyde Park.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus’ Beethoven 7 with 90 year-old Herbert Blomstedt was serviceable if a little raggedy in places. The second movement lacked the deadness I’ve come to expect from the work, but the basses did deliver in the all-important ‘grinding’ bass line towards the end of the last movement. The beginning of the last movement felt uncertain, and whilst I know Blomstedt had been keen to reflect the same attention to the ends of movements pianist Andras Schiff had during the Emperor Concerto earlier on (ie letting the woodwind linger whilst the strings finished playing), there were times when it all felt surprisingly rough as though corners were being cut.

I wasn’t altogether disappointed. Beethoven 7, satisfying as it is, isn’t one of my must-listen-to works – hearing it is enough.

My mind was on other things. I was distracted. This happens every year around this time. When the end of the Proms is in sight I end up not so much reflecting on how full the tank is, but obsessing what I need to do in order to fill it up. Familiar questions arise. Who really cares about the copy I’ve written over the summer? What impact has it made? How will it help me in the future (if at all)? What the hell am I going to do next? Will I be saying EXACTLY THE SAME THING NEXT YEAR AS I AM NOW. Dear God, I hope not.

That’s when I start dreaming about wonderful it would be if I could just magic up something completely fictional and get off the blogging bandwagon.

I realise as I’m heading down the main avenue back towards Portland Place that what I’m really after is to be paid to do what I’m doing here: to write a column and be paid for it. OrBuried deep in that goal is one very clear assumption: that what I’m writing is interesting. And, as we all know, just because I think what I’m saying is interesting doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else does.


BBC Proms 2016 / 49: Quincy Jones Prom

The Quincy Jones Prom was last week. I listened to it live as I packed my bag for the trip. What I heard blew me away. (If you find me nestled in the corner of the kitchen looking out of the window while a Prom is blaring out of the radio, you know it’s probably a good one.)

Jules Buckley is the present-day John Wilson, bringing the unexpected into the concert hall and, not so much validating it, as reminding us that the thing we’d forgotten we’d loved was actually made up of real instruments.

The opening medley of Roots Mural, Ironside, and Sandford & Son contained some of the brightest and tautest ensemble work I’ve heard in a long, long time: brassy, funky, and toe-tappingly good. Laura Mvula followed with something exotic and utterly enthralling. After that there was something that transported me back to university days and the musical talents of contemporaries of mine who played a lot of this stuff. And then there was Soul Bossa Nova. My God, does that sound fantastic live.

The jaw-dropping moment was hearing Billie Jean. I didn’t know anything could be done to improve on it, but in Buckley’s hands the arrangement slow build up makes the moment the hitherto implicit harmonies are made explicit a truly delicious one. A triumph.

You’d think I’d have hated the Quincy Jones Prom. It wasn’t what most assume as a Prom concert. I posed the necessary questions to the other half when we sat and watched it on BBC iPlayer on Friday. Does it meet the criteria of a Prom concert and if so, why? Does its inclusion damage or develop the perception of the Proms brand?

The answers were surprisingly easy to come up with. First, it’s the integrity of Quincy Jones’ original creations which lend themselves well to orchestral arrangements. If music can be enhanced in some way, or something new created with the music as a starting point then it has a lasting quality. And if it has a lasting quality, it needs to be celebrated in this way. In that way, it meets the criteria for a Prom concert.

And second, does its inclusion damage or develop the perception of the Proms brand? Not in any way. If anything, it demonstrates what the Proms is – a powerful platform that acts as an introduction to a variety of musical genres. Buckley’s Ibiza Prom last year did that in spades. The Quincy Jones Prom, I think, has the edge – the music has a bit more heft to it.

More than that, the performance brimmed with passion, dedication, and breathtaking talent. This isn’t me being sycophantic. Listen to the articulation in the brass. Listen to the rhythm section. The entire thing is a gripping listen, though I’d argue that the TV broadcast flattens the whole experience somewhat. Best listen on the radio.