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 2017/14: Holst – The Planets

Holst’s Planet Suite is a difficult thing to listen to. It’s such a familiar work, and it means so much to so many different people, that listening to it feels like a noisy affair.

It’s as though you’re in the middle of hundreds of people. Like you’ve attended a party everyone wanted to go to.

Here’s a work that for a lot of people is their connection with classical music. Expectations (on my part) are therefore set very high, in the knowledge that everyone else around me may not be quite so picky or mean-spirited. To go with the flow would mean leaving critical listening at the door ‘because its Holst’s Planet Suite’.

Is that fair? Is being critical of something so many people enjoy allowing your own ego to run riot? Does it really matter if a performance of something most people love doesn’t quite meet your own expectations? Honestly, I do think about these things when I’m listening. I don’t want to be mean. At the same time, I’m not prepared to gush (unless it’s well-deserved).

So I’ll spit it out. Tonight’s performance was a bit disappointing.

I’d hoped for more. I’d hoped to be transported. The Planets Suite is a longer-form version of Harry Potter without the visuals. Holst’s mastery is his ability to use music to trigger our imagination. I’m a much bigger fan of imagination. As a result, the responsibility on the conductor and orchestra is to create something magical.

My thinking tonight is that Holst’s score and our expectations mean there’s very little room for artistic licence. As listeners, we know what we want, even if we can’t specifically articulate it.

We don’t want to be mean, we just want it to be a bit like that one we heard a few years ago. You know, that one. *points*

What that illustrates is how popular works burn themselves into our consciousness. We can’t explain what makes the kind of performance that we want to hear, but we are able to explain how/if it didn’t meet our expectations.

And when I say that, that makes me reach out to the conductor, because that’s his look-out. When you realise you’re thinking ‘oh, I didn’t really enjoy that as much as I’d like to have done’, you realise at the same time that you’re passing comment on someone for whom it was work, and something they took seriously.

After all, if you were told that you had to stride on to stage and conduct an orchestra, have the performance broadcast live on the radio, and then (potentially) have to read what some armchair critic had to say about it, would you step up to the podium? I know I wouldn’t.

I wanted to enjoy it more. I didn’t. And in the spirit of authenticity I think it’s important to say how bad I feel about saying that.


BBC Proms 2016 / 27: Pekka Kuusisto plays Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

I’m not entirely clear why it is I missed this particular performance last week. I stumbled on it during the Radio 3 repeats series this afternoon. It was an electrifying interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s rip-roaring concerto for the violin. Pekka Kuusisto provided a clarity to the work (I’m fairly certain) by using considerably less vibrato as well as taking an irreverent approach to the performance. He kept his ego in check at all times, and yet he let his playful personality shine through. I was gripped throughout. It was incredible.

I ended up stumbling on it during the Radio 3 repeats series this afternoon. It was an electrifying interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s rip-roaring concerto for the violin. Pekka Kuusisto provided a clarity to the work (I’m fairly certain) by using considerably less vibrato as well as taking an irreverent approach to the performance. He kept his ego in check at all times, and yet he let his playful personality shine through. I was gripped throughout. It was incredible.

What followed – his encore – was equally entertaining. A traditional Finnish folk song ‘from around about the time Russia was still a part of Finland,’ he joked. The four verse ditty even resulted in some hastily directed audience participation. The effect was incredibly heart-warming to listen to.

There’s a funny thing about encores. There will be some who will assume that the best stuff is what you hear in the encore. They’ll assume that there’s no point in listening what went on before and direct you to the encore as the location of the real entertainment. Social media only serves to fuel that assumption. It does, I confess, drive me wild.

The point about encores is that they’re the light relief after the heavy dose that has gone before. It’s a chance for the soloist to show-off even more, often in a slightly more relaxed mood. It’s another opportunity for the audience and soloist to bond before both have to say goodbye. But, like a whisky chaser at the end of a rich five-course meal, one can’t really be savoured without the other.

A good encore needs an equally good performance before it to warrant the encore itself and to bring the soloist’s moment in the light to a warm appreciative end. Listen to Pekka Kuusisto’s Tchaikovsky without the encore and you’ll miss out on one of the most special moments in the Albert Hall this season. Listen to the encore without the Tchaikovsky and you’ll miss out on the finest violin concerto, and a compelling interpretation from a young Finnish man brimming with energy.

BBC Proms 2016 / 31: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite & Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev’s relatively unknown Scythian Suite is a fun four movement tale scored with the composer’s trademark sounds and textures.

The first movement blazes with technicolour peril before leading into something far more evocative, shimmering with mystery, intrigue and the distant threat of something very ugly carrying something very sharp in its hand. The high-octane second movement contains a gripping string sequence with terrifying counter-melodies in the violas and cellos and terrifying militaristic brass fanfares. The third movement, in stark contrast, extols a pleasing eastern mysticism threatened on occasion by swirling strings and bassoon. Something is overcome during the fourth movement by a benign force of some kind, after which something awe-inspiring and almost certainly naturalistic sweeps across our consciousness and makes everything better.

Musically, there’s a strong narrative underpinning the whole thing. The joy of the work on a first listen is that even without knowing what that narrative is. The music constructs such a potent image throughout. This is a work which can stoke anyone’s imagination. I immediately fall in love with it for that reason alone.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 is the original version, that intended and written down by the composer himself. It’s the version that pianists suggested he adapt it to the one we now recognise instantly as Tchaik 1 today. The most obvious difference (there are many – far too many to go into) is in the opening bars of the piano solo. Gone are the ponderous chords full of Russian portent. In the original version, the chords are given a gentler ‘spread’ treatment, making for a far more accommodating opening. As we start from a less domineering place, the musical development that follows seems more natural, less contrived.

I’m thinking this (and noting those thoughts down in my notebook) on my late-running train into work this morning. I realise quickly that I have nothing to really compare it with. I know of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto (the revised version) but I don’t know it so well that I can pick out the differences immediately. I half-know these things, nowhere near as in-depth as I’d like to think I do.

There are moments when I feel as though the material is wandering a bit and end up yearning for the more tightly-written chamber works last weekend in Verbier. And maybe not immediately warming to a sometimes rambling composition is in itself an illustration of what I do know and what I don’t. If I knew it better, I wouldn’t be dismissing bits as ‘musical flummery’.

My mind wanders a lot on the train. It takes a lot to focus.

What I end up thinking about is the tyranny of knowledge in the classical music world. On the one hand, the industry I feel most at home in is also the industry which I suspect would laugh at my apparent inability to recall basic facts about compositional style, composer’s dates, harmonic progressions, and star’s names. I’ve certainly found myself in conversations with contemporaries and associates and discovered how unable I feel I am to spit out detail on command.

I should probably try harder. Or maybe, as in the last post, I should have tried harder to remember this stuff years ago. But it isn’t the detail which interests me, or rather, demonstrating I know the detail isn’t what is important to me. What’s vital is feeling it when you hear it, and then communicating what you felt after the occasion. Explaining why you felt takes all of the joy out of proceedings and, in turn, makes you look like a self-important self-aggrandising arsehole.

At the same time, the industry demands that kind of knowledge. In some cases, if you can’t prove your encyclopaedic knowledge then you’re judged as ignorant. But, articulate that knowledge and you’re at risk of putting people off. You can’t win in classical music.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto starts as a blissful lullaby, its main theme played in the wind and then subsequently the piano, is the most miraculous of creations. It’s a melodic idea that lulls without being too saccharin, and built into it’s very DNA is the hint that there may need to be a key change every time we reach the end of it. Sometimes I’m sure we’ve moved to a different key. Other times I’m not so sure. And I like that playfulness, that teasing quality to Tchaikovsky’s writing in this concerto. It’s a far more rewarding work than say some, if not all, of his symphonies.

The final movement bathes me in the musical equivalent of an end-of-day glow London offers every summer. A rousing conclusion to a mammoth wander through all sorts of surprisingly blissful states. This is the moment when I want the summer to go on forever. This is when the Proms presents itself its meaning to me: a daily opportunity to reflect on what I’m listening to. A summer-long workout of musical discovery.


Independence and its potential impact on the Scottish orchestral scene

Scotland on Sunday imagines a future independent country and its impact on the Scottish orchestral scene in an opinion piece published on Sunday 5 January 2014.

Inevitably, much attention focuses on what impact a yes vote would have on BBC services, and in particular the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. But it’s the wider impact independence might have on other cultural institutions as well as the delayed impact a no vote might also have which makes this an interesting piece.