BBC Proms Diary 2018: MusicAeterna play Beethoven

It’s best I get Prom 18’s diary entry written and done with as quickly as possible. Short and sweet. Quick and to the point.

I’m not a massive fan of Beethoven though there have been some notable exceptions (the late quartets, the Emperor Concerto and a wind ensemble arrange of the seventh symphony).

MusicAeterna brought a different perspective on symphonies 2, 5 and (a bit of) 7. Death-defying speeds, extreme dynamic contrasts, and blistering articulation. It was a fresh perspective, but it didn’t really work for me – I found it a bit ‘showy-offy’.

It was without doubt brilliantly executed – fast, exhilarating, taut. But it was a performance that left me entirely cold. It didn’t say much to me. I couldn’t connect with it.

Not everybody shared my view. It’s easy to see when there’s a different audience engaging with a performance because different voices appear in my social media feed. In that way, Sony Classical and the BBC Proms will have done a good job securing a different audience. But from my perspective it wasn’t necessarily a group that entertained the idea of conflicting views. When a Sony Classical Exec ‘liked’ one of the push-backs to my mildly critical tweets, it struck me that the evening was a big moment for the record label. Not the kind of evening for a range of views unless they unequivocally pro-MusicaAeterna.

It was a hyped night. The conversations about it made me feel detached and alienated. There was a sense that ‘if you didn’t like it, then you’re part of the problem’. I don’t consider that I am, but I know that others do. Maybe it wasn’t really intended for the likes of me anyway.

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? 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 12 – Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 & Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances

Years ago I recall posting pictures of what I was doing in the kitchen whilst I was listening to the Proms on the radio. That was around about the same time work-pal David used to ‘tease’ me about how I had to actually attend a Prom if I was to call myself a ‘Proms Fan’. 

Listening to the Prom slowed me down, extending the meal preparation phase of the day, making the both experiences a good deal more meaningful and the finished product – a meal – all the more appreciated by me and the OH. 

It’s where I experience the most intimate connection with the Albert Hall during a concert, listening to a concert through the smallest of speakers – the stereo kitchen radio. The sound is focused; the listening hard-fought. Binaural sound is one thing, but I’d advocate trying to create our own present-day kind of ‘listening-in’ for a more highly-charged live broadcast experience.

It’s in these instances that the electricity of the event still sparks from the radio. It did during the second movement of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1. The first movement careered ahead, one or two moments where it sounded like the ensemble might just fall apart; the second movement was blistering in its intensity, perfect for the cloying heat of the day that lingered in the kitchen. I was entirely bought in come the second movement, and gripped by the relentless third-movement cadenza. But my jaw-dropped during the maniacal fourth movement. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein provided a fresh perspective on a perennial favourite.

When the Thai Fish Cakes were finally served, I insisted me and the OH listened to Rachmaninov’s raucous Symphonic Dances. I adore his second symphony (I’m a clarinettist – I’m bound to love the second symphony), but more and more I’m coming around to the idea that the symphonic dances are perhaps a more satisfying on account of them being less emotionally brutal than the second. The woodwind sequence during the first movement is to die for. 

Some residual shame post-Swiss Festival Growling. Hardly surprising. Spent most of the day setting up a database of music competition alumni. Repetitive tasks only promote rumination. The festival had partially offered to pay my travel and expenses (on the basis that I could stay in a studio apartment instead of a hotel) – so as far as I could had basically gone back on their original intransigence. Twenty-four hours has passed and nothing has transpired. So, I suspect that I’ve pissed and moaned a lot to no great effect. Sod them. It probably would have rained anyway.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem from the World Orchestra for Peace

It’s not that I wish I hadn’t pushed back on the festival, nor that I wrote the angry words blog post (and then sent a link to the Festival’s director).

I just wish I didn’t need to.

Calling it out isn’t a pleasing thing. It’s not an ego-boost. I worry people might think it is.

I don’t regret doing so either. Someone needs to. 

I’d just like to be taken seriously on my own merits as an advocate, not be judged on whether or not I can persuade someone else to commission me to write something for their platform. What a ridiculous and pointless dance that is. 

I don’t say these things for pity. I write them because this is meant to be a diary and it wouldn’t be a diary if I wasn’t honest. And being honest does, more often than not, mean revealing some uncomfortable truths about myself. I’m OK with that. At the very simplest level it goes some way to show how much this genre means to me and others like me. 

Listening to the Proms on catch-up (currently running at 24 hours after the event) makes for a more private affair. I’ve been looking forward to hearing Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem all day. “I want to write for half an hour,” I announced to the OH earlier on this evening, “Is that OK?” “Fine,” he replied.

I came to Sinfonia da Requiem in a slightly disjointed way. I read about it first in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography. I remember marvelling at the way Britten’s mis-directed composition (it was commissioned by the Japanese government in 1940 to mark the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire) ended up antagonising the Japanese government at the time. I liked Britten for that achievement.

I must have listened to the work once or twice since 1997 (when I bought the book). But I remember distinctly listening to it in its entirety on a long walk along the coastline from Port Issac to Polzeath in 2014 – a mammoth walk because a member of the family had commented on me being overweight. So, I started on Prom 8 from 2013. I’d climbed the first hill out of Port Isaac just as the first climax kicked in. I remember feeling determined. Defiant. Fuck them.

I ended up walking for nearly three hours during which I’d ended up listening to three separate Prom concerts. I ended up in Polzeath and whilst I waited for a bus to take me back to Port Isaac, I watched then PM David Cameron hand his son a ice-cream on the beach. 

Britten always reminds me of home. His musical language paints the world in colours I recognise as real.

The early stuff of his is fascinating. It’s as though he’s writing in the style that everyone expects him to because that’s what’s everyone else is writing. I hear Sinfonia da Requiem as strangely lavish in its scoring – rich and romantic-sounding.

Sometimes I can listen to this and Grimes and ponder what he might have been had he continued writing primarily for symphonic forces instead of the chamber forces that makes his writing sparkle. I like the Requiem’s uncompromising brutality. It forces you to listen. It forces you to reflect on your own reaction to it.  

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Proms at … Roundhouse

I wrote my angry words about PRs, credibility of blogs and the need to receive some kind of recompense for my work on the way to today’s afternoon Prom at the Roundhouse. That it’s been read as many times as it has makes me think it’s resonated. Good. I hope some of the traffic has come from Switzerland.

So I headed to my first Prom this season feeling a sense of anger, relief, and excitement. A programme of twentieth-century stuff played by the Sinfonietta with George Benjamin at the helm.

More and more I’m looking to the unusual and unorthodox in search of visceral experiences. When something is unknown and unorthodox there is a closer connection with my emotions.

All of the music today had a strangely tactile quality to it. Three dimensional too. Gripping. A new five minute work by Hannah Kendall was absorbing. The second half of Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrection mortuorom was blistering bordering on the ear-splitting. The textures are musical escapism, guaranteed to trigger the imagination. Compelling, gripping and terrifying. There aren’t many works that push me to the limits of my decibel tolerance, but this is one of them. Even the tubular bell player had his fingers in his ears at one point.

This was also an opportunity to catch up with long-standing acquaintances. A reaffirming experience. Sometimes when I push back on the everyday exploitation that pervades the entertainment industry, I end up questioning whether I’m really entitled to complain.

When I end up having conversations that take me back to my roots, I’m reminded that I do know my stuff and that it’s perfectly acceptable to push back on stuff. Messiaen’s uncompromising love of sound and texture helps in that regard. And I’m wondering whether Messiaen might be my new best pal this Proms season.