BBC Proms Diary 2018: Bernstein, Mahler, Mozart, Chopin and Tchaikovsky

Brace. Brace. There’s a lot to catch up on in this post.

There’s always a point in the Proms season when the regularity slips. It usually occurs sometime in August. I’ve never really been sure why exactly. Usually, it’s when I end up drifting away from the brochure or the radio, distracted by other things. Then I look on the bookshelf at the spine of the programme book and feel a pang of regret.

I think my attention slips when the Proms loses its unusualness. It slides from being a treat, to being a staple.

It’s no longer a full English breakfast with fresh coffee and orange juice on the terrace of a five star hotel somewhere on the south coast.

Without me even noticing its turned into the box of cereal I store on the kitchen top, look at with every good intent, but quickly get into the habit of overlooking as I head straight for the coffee and toast every morning.

There have been other things vying for attention. Last week was a business development week. Lots of emails, telephone conversations, quotations for works, dashed hopes, blissful surprises. I’d started last week with nothing in the diary and an impending sense of doom. I start this week with renewed energy and positivity. 

West Side Story 

“Gee, Officer Krupke!”

John Wilson’s West Side Story did deliver. Sassy and sexy. The chorus numbers were full, broad and deep; the solo lines rich characters whose lives and emotions were tangible even on the radio. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard West Side Story delivered with such immediacy. That a plot-line conveyed in song without visuals can elicit the emotional response it did in me says something about the power of the performance.

Old-school Barenboim

Concerts are programmed if not years in advance, then certainly six months beforehand. That Barenboim’s Prom had a feel of old-school spectacle about it is down, to my mind, about him recreating the heady verve and excitement I imagine followed him around whereever he appeared in the late sixties. There is a warmth to the applause evident from the radio mix when Barenboim steps onto the stage for the concert. In what has increasingly revealed itself as an often bitter, mis-represented and slightly broken classical music world, Barenboim and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra has the ability to unite just by their presence. 

‘Hot’ Kuusisto

Composer Philip Venables, violinst Pekka Kuusisto and Sakari Oramo

There was a similarly rare sense of excitement around the Philip Venables commission for violinst Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I’ll freely admit to finding Kuusisto unconventionally hot. There is madness in eyes and an electricity in his playing which makes him vaguely dangerous – the musical equivalent of the person your parents paced up and down worrying about you spending time on a Saturday night with. Venables’ concerto ‘Venables plays Bartok’ – a part spoken, part live performance, part click-track – exploits Kusisto’s Pied-Piper-esque presence. I can’t think of anything I’ve found quite so absorbing in this year’s season or, for that matter, over the past three or four years.

Chopin Piano Concerto from the European Union Youth Orchestra

Seong-Jin Cho

I’m still not entirely sure about Chopin’s F minor concerto. Pleasantly tuneful throughout. Technically I should like it. It’s an unabashed crowd pleaser that successfully combines melancholy and exuberance.  But sometimes the musical material, particularly in the second movement, is just all just a bit too much gilt-edge and red velvet curtains. Sometimes that lavishness can sound like bluster. I’m also fairly certain I heard some duff notes in the piano during the Seong-Jin Cho’s performance. The syncopation towards the end of the third movement still hit the spot though.

Annelien Van Wauwe transforms Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto

Annelien Van Wauwe

The real surprise was hearing Annelien Van Wauwe perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – a recreation of a Bernstein Prom from 1987. It seems incredible to think that Bernstein was still alive when I was approaching my first year GCSE – Bernstein has passed into the distant past in my brain.

I have an aversion to the Clarinet Concerto. Learned is as a teenager. Heard countless others play movements from it in music competitions. Overheard associates at university practising it too. All of its inherent joy extracted leaving just a shell. But Van Wauwe achieved something unexpected with it. Her approach was prompt and the tone of the instrument incredibly smooth. The articulation was so low-key that the roundest richest sound rang out. The second movement had a vocal almost operatic quality to it. I adored it. 

Me and Kirsty

Kirsty and I talked about the Mozart briefly at a lunchtime meet-up at the V&A yesterday. Kirsty played bass in the BBC SSO concerts over the past couple of days. We talked about the Mozart and, at some considerable length, Mahler 5. We held differing opinions about the performance. We agreed this was a good thing. Kirsty articulated some of the problems the genre has – it’s lack of visual stimuli makes classical music as an art form more of a spiritual, individual experience as opposed to something like opera or theatre which in comparison feels far more inclusive.

Classical music’s ‘spiritual’ vacuum

This helped me bolt on my increasing disillusionment: in the perceived vacuum of classical music’s spiritual experience, classical music journalists, writers, commentators and broadcasters wade in and try and lead, cajole, influence or persuade. Little wonder I’m often frustrated when I don’t feel the way I (and others like me) experience this genre is being reflected or represented.

If few are reading the classical music press (I’ve lost count of the number of classical music ‘fans’ who freely admit to me they don’t read Classical Music, BBC Music Magazine, Bachtrack or Gramophone) then who is exactly? I know people are reading Bachtrack – I’ve seen the statistics for the website. Who are those people and what are they going for exactly? And where do people like me and everyone else I’ve spoken to who don’t especially care about reviews go to for their fix?

Where do the people who see those who revel in their academia, wearing it like a badge to ward off the ignorant and inexperienced go? What do those of us go who despise the marketing-fuelled hyperbole read?

And when will we get comfortable with the perfectly reasonable proposition that two people can have entirely different views about the same concert without the discussion descending into one underpinned by perceived ignorance or snobbery?

I can’t give up on this genre, not yet, even if I have frequently wondered over the past few months or so where I fit into it. There is truth in what another blogging friend of mine says: we should continue to do what we do and do it well.

Anything else is succumbing to the perils of the classical music bubble: seeking legitimisation and validation from peers and elders. That would never do. 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Brahms, Bernstein, Beethoven, Elgar, Pärt, and Grieg

I’ve struggled to keep up momentum over the past few days.

Anxiety has kicked in. Mild. Manageable. Nothing too onerous. Just enough for me to be aware of deep-seated emotions having found a short-cut to the surface. 

What’s surprised me most is the way in which in these moments of intense anxiety I hear the music in an entirely different, possibly even darker, kind of way. It’s not that the music triggers the emotions. It’s that the music doesn’t trigger anything. I end up ‘observing’ the music through cold eyes. Is this how critics experience concerts, I wonder?

I’ve listened to last week’s Brahms German Requiem from the BBC Symphony and heard raggedy intonation in the voices. It’s so incredibly disappointing to hear voices strain for the top voices, even more so to read people waxing lyrical on social media about how wonderful a performance it was. The line between marketing and virtue-signalling is faint it seems. I get that it’s live. I embrace the fact that not everything will be perfect. But let’s all try and listen as critically as we can – especially those writing for platforms who are heralded by festivals and orchestras as being of marketing value. 

The Philharmonia delivered (as I always assume they will) with a blistering performance of the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th, and in the first act performance of Die Walkure a reminder of an the as yet unexplored music of Wagner. Yes, of course, Wagner was a shit, but I want to immerse myself in his output more. I’m ready to do that. I wasn’t ready when I was a teenager, but I am now.

Beethoven 4 from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was OK though nothing special. The Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No.3 not something I’ve heard before nor anything I especially want to hear again. And the intonation in the woodwind during the opening Midsummer Night’s Dream enough to make me screw up my face and raise my voice at the Bluetooth speaker. There were errors throughout the concert – things I wouldn’t have anticipated a band like ASMF to make – and it wasn’t an especially warm evening either.

I ended up – unfairly I suspect – feeling shortchanged. That’s when I started thinking: has the Proms let me down a bit this year? Musically, I haven’t been pushed towards new repertoire; I’ve been reminded of stuff I’d forgotten. That isn’t enough for me. I want to be challenged more. But is that down to me being more accustomed? Is my potential dissatisfaction with the Proms a measure of its past successes? I’m not sure. 

The dissatisfaction goes further though. I may be at risk of projecting or clouding things. This season I’m tired of presenters using the tone of their voice to signal what I should be thinking and feeling about an event I’m about to listen to. The announcement from Broadcasting House of two such presenters often informs whether I speed through their gleeful introductory monologue; one of them consistently sounds as though they’re introducing a cooking programme for the under thirties, strapped for cash but eager to create their own shabby-chic mid-summer outdoor dining experience. 

A dangerous mix of enthusiasm and self-satisfaction has been allowed to permeate what had previously been a necessarily neutral space – an opportunity to prepare for active or mindful listening. Now we’re being led to believe that a concert will be amazing just because the presenter’s delivery says it will be so. I lost count of the number of times I’ve turned down the speaker pleading the presenter to ‘Shut. Up.’

I don’t want to be told, directly or indirectly, what I should be thinking or feeling before I listen to a piece of music. Stop making it about you. Let the music speak for itself. It’s possible to do that and talk about it. Everyone else did before you.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Elgar Cello Concerto with Jean-Guihean Queyras didn’t do much to improve things. Rocky in places. Disappointing. 

I wonder sometimes whether there I’m doing that classic BBC thing: loving working there; leaving; pissing and moaning about the place like Bill Rogers does.

I make a point of checking myself. I do. But as I listen more, write more, and try and make connections with people in a world I want to feel a part of, I end up feeling disconnected from it.

A lot of that may well be down to me and my own thoughts and feelings. I accept that. It may well also be a symptom of me expressing a strong (as today) negative view. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy or is there something real in it?

Right now, I’m just not especially sure what to do next. It’s as though I’m pushing at one of those swing doors you find in a restaurant, only there’s a waiter with a massive tray of used crockery and cutlery trying to pass through from the other side.

The thing to do would, I suppose, be to just step aside and wait for an opportune moment during the rush. 

The bottom line is this. It seems to me now writing this that classical music wants and needs people talking about it, but they won’t pay for it. They’re only happy if it’s all rainbows, unicorns and exclamation marks. Fuck me. That’s a lonely place to be.

This past week one PR invited me to produce a podcast for a festival in London this week. When I offered to make content for that festival so that I could get some money back from the time spent and they could get some longer-term value out of their endeavours, the response was that the client wasn’t really interested in the podcast idea. Why exactly did you suggest it in the first place? 

Arvo Pärt Symphony No.3 helped. Different. Unusual. The timpani solo made me cower. And the opening movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto has held my attention. The second movement may just have the necessary amount of pathos. 

There’s also West Side Story to look forward to tomorrow. Maybe John Wilson can save the day. 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Shostakovich from Aurora

This has not been an easy week.

The trip to Suffolk forced me to confront some ugly truths which cannot be overlooked any more. I returned to London feeling battered and bruised. The morning after (Wednesday) I felt like I’d run a marathon the day before. A chilling void followed.

The music I started to listen back to on Wednesday (Aurora Orchestra’s late night Shostakovich programme) didn’t seem to cut it. Not at first.

That’s not to say the performances I was listening to didn’t hold my attention. Nor that they failed to display any merit. Far from it. I was just a bit sore. 

I’ve listened to Aurora’s Shostakovich programme maybe five or six times since. I’m still not sure it’s required listening by all, but it’s lodged itself in my consciousness. Replacement memories have constructed themselves during each successive listen.

Despite the hype dripping from the live broadcast of their concert, the Aurora’s ‘play it from memory and move around a bit’ did result in a noticeably richer, more colourful sound.

They are undoubtedly a fantastic band. They approach everything with vim and vigour (there’s even an endearing hint of teenage bravado about them too).

Aurora are more likeable as a brand than MusicAeterna‘s ‘rock star’ marketing Sony Classical pushed and the BBC reflected in their broadcasts.

Aurora’s woodwind demonstrated the extent to which playing stood up and from memory has on the sound: soloistic playing gives the music more of a chance to shine.

I listened to the broadcast arse about face, starting with Shostakovich 9. Memories flooded back. Post-county youth orchestra tour in the summer of ’89, I’d secured the Lenningrad and symphony number nine on Chandos from a record shop in Cambridge. SYO playing his fifth had unlocked something. I wanted more. On a first listen, his ninth symphony presented itself as a calling card for efficiency, compactness and utter brilliance – a start contrast to the epic imposing Lenningrad. Summer 1989: the first steps.

What pulled me back to the present was the beginning of the Proms broadcast – pianist Denis Kozhukhin’s playing in the second movement of the Shostakovich’s second piano concerto. The Aurora maintained a modest distance with its pained opening melody; the piano’s melodic material a wistful and healing counterpoint.

I’m familiar with this work. Heard it loads of times before now. But it’s never touched me in this way before. Sat there at the desk, looking out over the garden I’ve steered clear of for the past 12 months for fear my inner slacker will run rampant, and started to cry. Tuesday’s unpleasantness had found the valve.

The second movement conveys something so painfully lonely it’s almost too much to bear. There’s an underlying hint of determination. We’re not going to be beaten. We’re going to find what we need from wherever we can find it. And somehow, we’re going to kick it all down. We will find our space in the world.

This and the third movement that followed has grown on me during the repeat listens I’ve flown through over the past 48 hours. It’s retrieved me from wherever it was I was languishing. That a live performance can achieve something so incredibly valuable to me personally reinforces what an an amazing genre of live performance this music really is. 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 22 – Haydn and Vaughan Williams from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

If this is to be a diary entry, you need a bit of backstory first.

I tried again to listen to last night’s Strauss at home this morning. My mind was distracted by a brass quintet website I’m building at the moment – adding the sound files could be made slightly less onerous a task in the next iteration of the development software I think.

The window cleaner and his gang turned up twenty minutes into the piece and, as my desk sits directly in front of the office window, I had to move the furniture so that the chap with the beard could get to the window. Why can’t they put the furniture back when they’ve finished? Also, why did I feel the need to switch off the music when they were in the house, as though I was faintly embarrassed by playing it? Odd.

I’ve got into the habit of checking my bank balance nearly every day. I hate doing this. I screw up my face when I tap in the code and wait in agony while the ‘loading’ graphic wurrs around and around. I try to absent-mindedly avoid the ‘number one account’ balance (because of course, denial is the best way of dealing with things) but it never works. I knew the mortgage was coming out today, so it really wasn’t a surprise. But even though there’s a handful of outstanding invoices (some in fairness only sent out in the last few days), seeing the balance drop so much in such a short space of time was the equivalent of a school bully whispering in my ear, “I told you this would happen and its only going to get worse – you’re fucked now. Why did you think any of this freelance career would work?”

This unhelpful and familiar thinking hung around for most of the day, gnawing at the inside of my stomach, leaving me breathless whenever I broke into anything over a gentle stroll, and resulting in beads of sweat sliding now the back of my neck for most of my journey into London. An hour-long meeting about social media and professional musicians saw some surprising ideas emerge and the symptoms temporarily abate. After which a rich coaching session with a client successfully distracted me to such an extent that it almost felt like I’d been on holiday from my own thoughts.

And then on to the Royal Albert Hall for my first Prom. Sat down in the stalls, minutes before the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra walked onto stage everything flooded back. I might as well have been swigging on acid for most of the afternoon the way my stomach was reacting.

The music, and more specifically the way the BBC Scottish played under the direction of Andrew Manze, triggered some emotional reactions too. They play with such precision during the Haydn symphony, paying as much attention to the time necessary for the silences in the music to reach all of the 6000 strong audience, as they do the clear articulation in the strings and the sparkling brass. The exuberance Manze displays on the podium is matched by the players. It is an invigorating and magical execution, packed full of playful dynamic contrasts. A musical spectacle. 

I look around the auditorium and reckon I can spot two familiar former colleagues. They’re too far away for me to be sure. But they might as well be them.

My eyes well up. I miss them.

There are moments – like this moment sitting in the stalls at the Royal Albert Hall – when I realise how much I miss not being able to fly down the stairs in Broadcasting House and breeze into the Proms office. I didn’t think I missed them. I didn’t think I would ever miss any of the people I worked with at the BBC (except for two). It’s not that I want to go back either. It was in many respects the very worst place for someone like me.

But, in this moment I can picture the people who worked on the thing that seemed to escape the everyday criticism and realise that I do miss them. It’s not that irritating yearning Thomas Hardy kept endlessly indulging in when I was studying my A-Levels. The insight was something far more fleeting and matter of fact, like passing a road traffic accident and observing the flashing blue lights surrounding it as everyday and inconsequential.

A short surprise conversation with a BBC associate sat across the aisle from me preceeded what would later turn out to be a trascendental performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony.

Despite the composer’s detailed clarification to the contrary, Vaughan Williams’ music brought London alive for me. Grand, dark, ambiguous in places, and achingly proud without being cloyingly nostalgic. I heard the musical equivalent of cognitive dissonance laid out in the score. Reassuringly authentic without being trite.

The epic second movement conjured up a jaw-dropping atmosphere amongst the audience, all of them in the zone, none of them moving a muscle. Exquisite tension hung around the auditorium pushing to a point that was almost too much to bear.

The Albert Hall was the perfect setting for the vast expanse of the second movement, offering a three-dimensional quality to the performance I’ve rarely experienced in the venue before now. Part of that is down to conductor Andrew Manze understanding how to capitalise on the acoustic’s inherent properties. And the audience’s responsibility, to breathe deeply, matching the long phrasing. Just the kind of personal intervention one might mount to overcome a hefty dose of anxiety. 

And when the baton went down at the end of the second movement, a moment of realisation.

Thoughts are not facts. We have millions of thoughts every day. Far too many of them to be facts. Those thoughts are either assumptions or perceptions. Be on your guard for assumptions and perceptions which present themselves as facts. The only facts are those things which have gone before. Anything else is a construct based on fear, joy, hope or yearning (to name a few). Nothing is ever completely over – Vaughan Williams revised the London Symphony three times over a twenty-year period. There are no manuals (though there are plenty of spectacularly unhelpful self-help books) on being a freelancer. The only way to live this life is to get on and live it.

By the end of the symphony I was an entirely different person. The pains in my stomach had gone. The lethargy had disappeared. And in leaving the Albert Hall and stepping out into the cool air around Kensington Gore, something else came into focus.

Experiences like the one I’d had at the Proms tonight succeeded in fusing a number of important thoughts and feelings into one potent memory (what’s referred to in NLP terms as an anchor) – an unbreakable link between me, the man across the aisle, the conductor on the stage, the orchestra, the work and the audience around me.

This was the 2018 equivalent of the Mahler from the World Orchestra of Peace a few years back when at the end of the symphony, instinctively, I turned to the friend sat next to me and we hugged.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Mozart and the Alpine Symphony

If you ask to do something for someone they won’t pay. Or maybe they can’t. Or maybe I just left it too late. Or maybe I should take the foot off the gas a bit. There’s assertive. There’s being a pain in the butt. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two. I’ve spent a long time wanting to change the system when everyone else around me recognised long ago that the system needs to be navigated around.

Elsewhere a school associate has cancer, has lost her hair and had part of her bowel removed at the weekend. In Chicago, a talented pal is playing with a band to big crowds and loving it. In Battersea another pal is recovering from a stupidly demanding bike ride and in training for it has gone through enviably dramatic weight loss.

I’m not saying one thing is tougher than the other, nor that one thing is better than the other. Just that we’re all trying our best and it’s often incredibly hard.

Mozart’s Notturno played by multiple ensembles scattered across the Royal Albert Hall came across well on the radio. All caressing and soothing as though I was walking through a dream filled with billowy white-curtains and freshly-plumped sofas. I realised I hadn’t heard any Mozart in ages – music that cuts across the gloopy everydayness we all unwittingly carry around with us. This was a musical lay-by after a frenetic, manic and sometimes terrifying day full of repetitive tasks, disappointing exchanges, failed bids and escalating ruminations. 

I skipped the Haas, finishing off a couple of emails before heading out for a skoot around nearby Mountsfield Park listening to the Alpine Symphony in the second half. Memories of cable car trips from Verbier town came flooding back.

Strauss music like the most intense and unrelenting kind of mild-altering experience – something that imposes, consumes, and commands. There’s no easy place to stop. If you begin you need to end it. But it was a little too close to the edge for me, accessing emotions and thoughts that brought tears close to the surface, succeeding in perpetuating the rumination which had been present for most of the day.

Such occasions demand the triggers are dampened, so that the surroundings can seep into the void. The view over South East London towards the horizon where Crystal Palace tower pierces the sky brought it all home: freelance life isn’t easy by any means; resilience is often demanded; there’s a grumbling fear that there will come a point in time when the crushing truth that no-one will want to work with me will be impossible to deny any longer; and the reserves will finally disappear. 

A university friend of 25 years who lives nearby provided a gentle pat on the shoulder via a What’s App message, reminding me that this was something I had chosen to do (meaning I must have believed then I could make this work and what new information led me to believe that original assertion was wrong now) and, importantly, that she had every faith. It was the first time in twenty years I had been quite so honest with her (not since I ‘came out’ to her twenty one years before).

I walked back down the hill and the road to home a little calmer compared to when I had set out.