BBC Proms Diary 2018: The Last Night

So, it’s over for another year. The Proms coming to an end is like a gear shift in the year. Summer is at an end. We’re left to our devices. Now it’s all pickling and nesting as we career towards Christmas.

As a TV broadcast the Last Night was a much tighter piece of television compared to previous years.

And it was long too. At 3 hours 44 minutes it was a marathon watch which meant the content needed to keep the energy up throughout. In that way the programme failed to meet the mark.

Premiering Stanford’s rather dull ‘Songs of the Sea’ wasn’t a great choice, though the Stanford that followed from the BBC Singers was far more compelling.

Similarly the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, Lauren Zhang’s Rachmaninov, and the Ulster Orchestra’s second musical contribution were especially good. But for a lot of the time the nations link ups were flat and uninspiring.

Jess Gillam’s performance of ‘If’ (a surprisingly uninspiring piece by Nyman) to Proms in the Park, paled into insignificance in comparison to her jaw-dropping musicianship during the Albert Hall performance of Mihaud’s Scaramouche. The last movement felt sluggish at times (largely because of orchestral arrangement I think) but Gillam shone throughout with an infectious verve and charming assertiveness that really made her the star of the night. She is well on her way to becoming an ambassador for the next generation (if she isn’t regarded as such already), much-needed and much-appreciated too.

The rest of the concert was a deeply painful experience which at times had me staring at it like I was watching the Eurovision. I get that it’s an end of season party and that it’s not trying to be representative of the rest of the season. I also know it’s different in the hall. But there is an other-worldliness to it which I assume those who are involved in making it assume the rest of us think is charmingly eccentric. The bobbing up and down and the fake crying during the sentimental parts of the Sea Songs make for irrelevant TV. Awkward and embarrassing. Like your Dad cracking the same joke that wasn’t funny 40 odd years ago.

All the images we see on the screen during what is the most watched Proms content of the season are the very images the majority to build up their impression of the classical music world. In that way I’m increasingly of the mind that the Last Night does more to create the negative image of classical music than it does to promote the art form itself. The real problem for the BBC is this one concert in the season that is such a potent kind of crowd-pleaser they are almost certainly too frightened to tinker with it. It is a concert desperately needs updating as a concert programme but no one dares to go near it.

I unexpectedly ended up tweeting my way through it. It was like the old days – 2007/8 when Twitter was new and we were all relatively free to say what we wanted. ‪“Are you drinking wine?” asked a pal following one particular tweet. “It’s my birthday,” I replied, “don’t judge.” ‬

Still. At least I got a tweet of mine included in a news story. And I’m sure the Proms will take heed of my stern warning for next year’s season. Sure they will.

I’m going to write one more post about the Proms in the next few days. I want to reflect on what I’ve captured over the past 8 weeks, see what’s changed for me, and look forward to a new season of concerts. Right now, I need to get packing for Leeds.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Well-Tempered Socially Constructed Bach

As I write, I’m listening to Andras Schiff’s late night Prom from last week – the second book from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier.

It’s the first thing I’ve listened to today. No news. A little bit of gentle morning banter with the OH before he heads off to work. Just Bach.

Music at this time of day – an active choice as opposed to anything curated by a radio station – is an intense kind of experience. The musical equivalent of a highly productive 5am conference call with the States.

If I’m really honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever had a conference call with the States, not one person there nor everyone at the same time.  The analogy still holds up though: listening to the live performance of such an intimate and discursive work, first thing in the morning before you’ve heard anything else, creates such an intense kind of focus – the sort of experience you want to have continue for the rest of the day.

I spent yesterday afternoon learning about (or at least getting an introduction to) social constructionism in coaching.

Put very simply, this is the idea that we create our own sense of identity via the interactions we have with others.

I was resistant to the notion at the beginning of the session. Sometimes such learning experiences within the coaching world can feel eerily familiar, or in some cases a cashing-in opportunity on the part of the presenter. But there is something in this that’s prompted a lot of thought the morning after – in an unexpected area too. That’s good coaching. 

A friend of old is staying with us at the moment. We haven’t seen one another for a while. Consequently those times when we connect has a significant impact on my thinking. The experience is something similar to listening to Mahler – made even more intense if the gap between now and the last time we saw each other is wide. Whether its partly down to the coaching learning session yesterday afternoon, or just because of where I am professionally at the moment, the presence of certain people can sometimes be an unexpected and valuable reflecting back experience. Their presence can unwittingly shift me into a thinking state (as opposed to a critical one). 

Applying social constructionism in a pseudo-analytical way, it is important to stress that the friend in question isn’t actively prompting me to reflect back. Merely, his presence and the thoughts which emerge in me (what was yesterday described as a ‘context’) contribute to creating a reality in the moment and also now (well, strictly speaking I think the process of writing creates this moment of reality). 

This approach does of course let us both of the hook so to speak. He is not responsible for the thoughts that arise as a result of our metaphorical connection, just as I’m not. I think I’m right in saying that I’m not technically personally responsible for the resulting reality either. But I’ll revisit that another time. 

The real point here is the reality that was created as a result of the connection. And in this case its a vague sense of self-doubt which, if not kept in check, could escalate into full-blown guilt, followed by a considerable wave of anxiety.

Specifically, this is the idea of what I’ve been writing about over the past few weeks – actually let’s just be honest, the most recent years. I’m talking about the ranty stuff, the pissing and moaning, the calling out of the nonsense and unfairness. The snobbery, the inverse snobbery, misogyny, and various other grit in the classical music engine which has to a greater or lesser extent got my goat. I’ve used that as fuel for the blogging fire.

But is that doing me any good? Am I, in fact, digging my own grave? And if I am and I don’t stop now, will the grave be so deep there won’t be a rope long enough to lower the coffin gently to the bottom?

The friend’s presence reminds me a private observation I’d made a few months ago. There is a paradox about the classical music world and orchestras in particular: orchestras can look big and grand and important on stage; the sector they represent is surprisingly small which is itself a tiny part of a much much larger entertainment industry. 

In this way it’s possible to say that if what I’ve written has the power to dig my own considerable grave, then given the sector is so small there’s every chance that I finished digging the grave years ago and that the coffin is already in it.

And … I’m reminded of something else. Creating content about the subject I love – a ‘friend’ in my life just as, in fact, as any actual person – is an activity I pursue not for those who are already a part of the classical music world, but those who aren’t.

This helps me reconcile one other rather odd paradox.

Writing a blog – any writing come to that – does demand a slight detachment from the group. If you thought about everybody who might read what you’re writing you wouldn’t write at all. So you need to be detached. At the same time, this Proms season more than any other, I recognise an underlying need I have to be accepted by the bubble. And yet, the people I’m writing for aren’t part of that bubble anyway. And that essentially means that writing about a world you’re seeking approval from for an audience who don’t know they even want to be a part of that particular world, is a surprisingly lonely experience. Necessarily lonely too.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Bartok from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and (even more) moaning

I heard back from the Proms Office after my (though I say it myself) charming moan.

An administrative error it turns out. Historic lists. The additions process not being as robust as perhaps it could be. Investigations will, I’m assured, be carried out in the morning.

I was of course ‘very welcome to attend’. I reiterated that to then accept an invitation would result in a rather hollow experience for me (and essentially make me look like a complete prick). I had, in a very real sense, created my own fait accompli. I extended my appreciation for the Proms Agent coming back to me, following up ten minutes later with an updated message when I realised my iPhone’s auto-correct had issued a bewildering sentence. I now imagine everyone at the BBC basically hates me. Whatever.

How the BBC Proms is squeezing out independent voices

A few days distance on the matter reminds me of the original underlying ‘moan’. For clarification: it’s not that I’m not able to be present at the event; it’s the disappointment that they didn’t think of me in the first place. Put simply it would have been nice to have been asked. 

It makes me more certain of my hunch this season – a mutually beneficial partnership between two content producing platforms risks occluding independent voices. I don’t deny either platform (not really). But in overlooking independent voices, the Proms is inadvertently perpetuating a problem.

It’s limiting the conversation. It’s restricting the language used to discuss a genre which already struggles to acquire mainstream recognition. By doing so the Proms is not only limiting the range of conversations to be had about its content, it’s perpetuating the notion that assumed expertise is a prerequisite for understanding the artform. And that’s something that’s completely at odds with Henry Wood’s and RobertNewman’s founding principles for the concert series.

Recovery

It’s been a massively demanding few days at work. Rewarding stuff. The recovery from the two-day facilitation course I’ve hosted has taken me by surprise – I woke up this morning wondering whether I’d run a marathon in my sleep. The prospect of catching up on the concerts I’d missed since Wednesday felt like a massive demand on my energies. 

So, I settled on revisiting the RLPO gig on Wednesday night. Elgar’s In The South is a pleasant surprise. Not in any way like Elgar. Not British at all. The commentator says StraussI hear Mahler. I hear an ugly monster (and probably smelly) lunging around. I hear a golden holiday destination and an odd grand kind of musical full stop that helps me tie-up loose ends from the week. 

I listened to the rest of the concert (again) on the big speakers downstairs in the lounge while the OH has his bath, drafting a quotation for a video editing job at the same time – or at least I start drafting the quotation.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

The spirit, depth and richness of the RLPO’s sound commands my full attention. I skip to the Bartok at the end of the concert – it is a riveting affair. It reminds me of two unexpected press trips to Budapest – the place where I ‘get’ Wagner for the first time in my life – and where I hear unequivocal pride in music in the composer’s homeland. I’m not sure I necessarily love Hungary, but I think it’s somewhere I’d like to return to. It’s where I remember my sense of independence was re-awakened.

I’m surprised by the way we have collectively overlooked what Petrenko has achieved with the RLPO over the years. The RLPO sounds like the ocean liner of UK orchestras – worthy of revisiting Petrenko’s and their catalogue of recordings, I think. Maybe a post-Proms project?

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Delusions of grandeur

I’ve listened to two concerts on iPlayer this week. Unexpectedly arresting ones. First, BSOResound – the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s group for disabled musicians – who played at the Relaxed Prom. Second, the RPO’s Sound of an Orchestra gig from Saturday.

A year into my new life, my mental attitude must be improving. I assumed that I would instantly hate the RPO’s concert. For reasons I can’t divulge (and actually don’t need to) it wouldn’t have been otherwise entirely out of character of me to project my personal irritations about the RPO onto the blameless musicians on stage at the Royal Albert Hall during my listening experience, and dismiss the concert as annoying.

But I didn’t do that. That’s partly because I’ve finally become a decent human-being (even though I say it myself), but more importantly because it was a fascinating presentation.

The first sixteen minutes alone hooked me in – especially the demonstration of how one E major chord could sound so different in the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Recreating the script originally spoken by Bernstein in his ground-breaking TV broadcasts in the 50s and 60s was inspired too. I was expecting the thing to dumb the subject down. What I got instead was something that fuelled my curiosity. 

The Relaxed Prom had the same impact Sistema Europe did on Sunday evening. The warmth that emanates (implicitly and explicitly) from an actively inclusive event is fiercely infectious. Stripped bare of the familiar contextualisation the music has an immediacy which is often lacking for the traditionally catered for audience.

Raw audience enthusiasm – the authentic kind I heard during the Relaxed Prom – is a special thing we don’t always get to experience. And then there’s the undeniable feeling that classical music’s purpose (actually music’s purpose) is clearer in this kind of concert where a specific audience’s need is being met. Music is doing right. For a brief 90 minutes we’re not having to defend classical music – it’s effortlessly demonstrating what’s so brilliant about it. Job done. And it’s always marvellous to hear the Festive Overture again.

This upbeat positive mental continued into the working week. I’ve taken to using the bus to get everywhere as much as I can this week. It’s slower, cheaper, and what with the gentle rocking and the smoother ride, it’s unexpectedly calming too. Ended up having an unexpectedly powerful experience – was it mindfulness? I’m not sure – en route to Waterloo, experiencing waves of emotion whenever I saw old buildings, striking architecture or a bustling street. At various points it felt almost too much to handle.

Today I’ve spent making the final preparations to a team away day I’m facilitating on Thursday and Friday – typing up documents and bulk buying stationery. Listened to a painfully slow rendition of Shostakovich 5 on YouTube – it took an hour. The Baltimore’s Proms performance from Monday was a much prompter affair. Warmer too – the strings in particular. Quite the treat. 

Then, out of the blue, I’m asked by a writery-pal whether I’m going to the Proms Press event on Wednesday. I say no – I haven’t been invited. At this stage the question doesn’t bother. It makes me laugh. I check in with another pal: “Have you been invited?” “Yes.”

It turns out I am the cliche, I think to myself. The shouty gobby twat who is shouty and gobby because no one else is, has finally got it confirmed: one festival on the continent doesn’t rate him, and now the present one closest to home doesn’t either. Epic delusions of grandeur. No really, its funny.

I message a friend of mine who’s holidaying in Greece. Various expletives abound. He assumes an unexpected coaching role. Starts asking me all sorts of probing questions. I come up with a series of points in response: 

1. If I was to look with joy on this (as I was yesterday when I looked at an old building from the bus and nearly burst into tears with excitement – yes really) it would be to celebrate distinctiveness and difference.

2. I don’t want to be like them; but I do need to become more accustomed to the feeling of being alone and distinctive which sometimes feel the same but aren’t.

3. I need to find a way of capitalising on what I’m doing and on that distinctiveness (that doesn’t necessarily mean money) and I don’t what that is yet.

4. I want to learn more and read more and I don’t spare any time for that
Orthodox routes are often toxic – I need to find a way of avoiding them 

5. No one wants to spend time pursuing something tough (ie doing exactly the opposite of what I did at the BBC – I did in a sense give up because I was impatient) and then discover that there was no talent there in the first place but I was too slow to realise it.

6. I am a disruptor; but I don’t have cheer-leader – I could probably do with a cheerleader/advocate – who?

7. I am also independent – fiercely so. In which case who the frig wants to be part of the cognascenti anyway? 

We make good progress during our exchange. We really do. Adopting a stance that is distinctive – being bold about it – is a challenge. I like a challenge. Being robust is important. 

And then, without even having realised it, I’ve penned an email to the Proms Office. I read it back. It’s charming. Personable. Honest. Straightforward. Maybe even self-deprecating.

If I was to look at the situation rationally this is what I’d think about not being there (and not having received an invite to respond to). Where “they” is used I refer to the entire Proms machine, BBC Communications, and to a lesser extent Tony Hall: 

– maybe my name wasn’t on the list because someone forgot; 
– maybe my name wasn’t on the list because they don’t want my name on the list; 
– maybe I should just get over myself and climb down off my perch;
– maybe I need to swallow the hard truth that I’m of little significance/value (to the classical music world!) 
– maybe they’ve not got the budget for a blogger 
– maybe I’m a massive pain in the arse and everybody groans when they hear my name
– maybe post-BBC I’m massively unimportant and I need to get used to that fact

These points are shared with a certain amount tongue in one of my cheeks. Though at the same time, there is an element of truth in each statement. 

Here’s the thing. I know I don’t necessarily toe-the-line – I’m an independent writer and a disruptor, with a distinctive unorthodox voice. Here’s the real truth: you’d think I’d be quite self-sufficient and not need recognition or validation. The sad truth is that I do. I struggle a bit with that. 

I’m not asking for an invitation – not now. That would be just weird. Can you imagine how hollow the experience would be if I received one, said yes, and then turned up? But I would appreciate being reassured that it was just that I was missed off the list. 

[…]

Sure, my posts haven’t all been rainbows and unicorns, but they’ve been fair and importantly a distinctive voice. Also, I realise that I choose to write about the Proms and just because I have I am entitled to little or nothing. That’s the deal with blogging. 

So really, what I’m hoping is that what you’ll be able to tell me is that me not getting an invite is just an oversight. Because if it isn’t, I’m going to have to take a hard look at myself (which I’m happy if the need is there). I’d be mortified of course. But I am a brave chap. I’m prepared for the worst. 


J

As I say. Delusions of grandeur. No question about it.

Update: clarification received – historical admin error. So that’s all good then.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Per Nørgård, Sibelius, Bartok, Brahms, Mozart and Bernstein

I feel like I’ve done a lot of writing this week. Blogs about Eurovision Young Musician. A lengthy Proms blog covering last week. And the prospect of another about a Sistema Europe concert at Southbank later on today.

This Proms diary needs to be kept to a minimum. So, this week’s highlights first. Easy.

‘Bonkers’ Per Nørgård

Per Nørgård’s third symphony from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Monday. Brilliant, ordered, fantastical and sometimes terrifying cacophony. It’s as though the composer has shut himself away from the world, refused to be swayed by what other people are doing, and given himself permission to hit, strike, pluck, or have blown anything and everything he so desires. It’s another one of those compositions which isn’t so much a musical escape, but the artistic equivalent of grouting – filling in the gaps left behind by an often incomprehensible world.

An odd thing about broadcasters, commentators and writers who reflect on Per Nørgård and other creatives like him. There is a tendency for some to align themselves with the composer, directly or indirectly.

Peter Maxwell Davies is a good example – broadcasters referring to him as ‘Max’. That may well be what Maxwell Davies introduced himself as ( we never met), but the pally-ness that exudes from the informal references suddenly transforms what the person speaking is saying, making it less about the subject (the composer or his/her work) and suddenly about the broadcaster and their relationship to the person they think admires them.

There’s been a similar thing going on with Per Nørgård this week both online and on-air, and the apparent need to refer to the man’s work as ‘bonkers’.

It’s not that they’re saying he’s actually bonkers, I get that. Rather, its shorthand for “This stuff is crazy-shit, and that makes me equally fascinating because I love crazy-shit.” Or there are those who signal a superiority over everyone else around them by broadcasting a deeper understanding of the work, its meaning or the composer’s intent. (I suppose that’s what I’m doing in a way just by articulating my irritation at both types of people – always worth flagging.) What matters to me more about Per Nørgård’s music was the way that I was hooked after only 60 seconds or so of the live broadcast. There’s something about the music that ‘fits’ for me.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Budapest Festival Orchestra visit was much-anticipated. I flagged them in my season preview; they rather delightfully retweeted a link to the blog ahead of their London visit. That stuff means a lot. It’s recognition – a form of appreciation. Unsolicited.

So I should be massively appreciative of their contribution to this year’s Proms season without question. No? On the whole, yes. And it won’t be much effort either. The Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has a kind of menace to the music which altogether darker and more threatening than a lot of that we assume to be so of Shostakovich’s music. There was a smooth and matter-of-fact kind of professionalism to the BFO’s performance too. 

One night later on Thursday 23, Brahms 1 from the same orchestra. This is only one of a handful of Proms I’ve watched on TV.

Surprisingly engaging especially given that the opening subject in the first movement felt a little sluggish. I always assume I need it to be prompt and insistent so that when the angst really kicks in during the development, the tussles are painfully unsettling. I’d assumed that the sluggish opening would result in the rest of the symphony being similarly unsatisfying. But the beginning of the second movement provided clarity and drove things forward.

The first movement has historically always been my favourite – musically speaking it’s always spoken with more immediacy. But in this performance, there was a hint of resilience in the solitude of the second movement that was so touching and possibly even restorative as to downgrade the personal significance of the first movement.

Benjamin Grosvenor and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21

I’ve long been a fan of Grosvenor’s playing. I think part of that maybe because of superficial reasons. I remember interviewing him for a Proms launch one year. A few months after that he called out my name in Broadcasting House reception when he and I were passing in opposite directions. From that moment his ‘Good Sort Status’ was confirmed (if they say acknowledge on a separate occasion when the microphone is off then they’re good’uns). His involvement (completely unplanned) in a 2011 video was quite special too. 

But more than that, his piano playing transports me. I heard him play Liszt at the Proms once – 2009 maybe? Fluidity was what I remember thinking at the time. Mentioned the word again when I heard him play Mozart 27 with the Britten Sinfonia a couple of years back too. That, I think, is his trademark style. I like musicians having a trademark style (just so long as it doesn’t interfere with the actual music). 

Similarly in his Mozart 21. A performance that made me focus in on the mastery of the writing. Concise. Efficient. Like unwrapping a box within a box. A magical creation that cycles through endless modulations. None of it flabby. An intense release after two days of surprisingly demanding work. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the radio, completely transfixed.

It’s perfectly OK to have a negative opinion

One of the many benefits of the Proms season is the regularity and exposure given to classical music. That keeps the conversation such as it is relatively alive. That’s a good thing.

But it does at the same time highlight an oddness in the style of conversation we’re prepared to tolerate about live performance.It’s a subjective experience – being present in the Hall, listening on the radio or watching on the TV.

For some it’s the style of the music which entertains, for others it’s the way it touches or unearths emotions. Equally there are going to be occasions when it does neither of things on a personal level.

I’ve noticed again this week that if I express what might be perceived by some as a negative view about a performance or work, I first experience a mild pang of guilt as though I’ve been ‘bad’ to do so. I’ve done this three times this week on Twitter – the most recent about On The Town – what I consider to be a distinctly underwhelming creation.

If someone expresses an opposing view then I end up feeling an overwhelming need to clarify my position because I’m assuming that their opposing view seeks to alter mine or correct a prevailing view.

A lot of this is, of course, my shit to deal with. But, it makes me wonder whether we’ve lost the ease (assuming we had it in the first place) to comfortably express our opinion about the art form. Nobody quibbles about expressing an opinion about Steps, ABBA, the Beatles, or passing comment on the merits of a film. Express an opinion about the way a piece of music or a performance speaks to you (which is exactly the point of the live performance) and people start wriggling around uncomfortably. That strikes me as counter-productive.