BBC Proms 2017 / 7: Berlioz Symphony fantastique / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Disappointed by this performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.

Some caveats necessary. I’ve heard Symphonie fantastique a lot. I’m familiar with the work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that to show off. My formative listening experience was via University lecturer Denis McCaldin who introduced me and a whole bunch of reluctant second-year music history undergrads to Roger Norrington’s ‘authentic’ recording with the London Classical Players. Anything that tries to follow that is going to struggle. Norrington was, at the time, doing a ground-breaking thing.

Weilerstein got into his stride by the third movement. But there were some missed opportunities – pausing to ‘place’ a chord in the woodwind soon before the end might have created a sense of anticipation. And the coda in the final movement was also a bit strange.

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 / 7: Faure’s Shylock and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella

It’s no good listening to classical music on a short walk – not unless you know you can listen to the entire work in the time it takes you to complete the walk. If the work is too long, you’re going to face that tricky situation of killing the playback during something unfinished.

And that’s not good. When I’d finished the walk from my hotel to the training centre yesterday morning, the eagerness to listen to the rest of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was suddenly lost.

When I embarked on the walk back at the end of the day, I wanted to listen to the news, not a concert – I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Now, one day later, catching up from the start feels like a massive undertaking.

Such is the danger of missing a live Prom in the first place. For me, even the time period for iPlayer catch-up is limited.

No such problem for last night’s Prom.

The inevitable mid-training course question had arisen during a much-needed tea-break. “What shall we all do this evening?” asked one obvious extrovert. “What’s with the ‘we’?” I thought. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all went out tonight?” she continued. “That’s a closed question,” I replied smugly, “and I’ll counter it with a ‘Would it?’”

That will come across as a whole lot colder in print, than it was in person. There were sniggers all around, as it happens. More importantly, it did get the message across. I want to be alone.

I settled in the Shore Bar, next to Bristol Harbour. I ordered dressed crab on Guinness bread, followed by a 6oz burger, watched a short BBC Three film about the loneliness of trucking, before settling down to a quiet evening in a deathly quiet bar listening to Prom 7 and watching Henrik Stenson win The Open in silence.

I don’t display a similar kind of commitment to the rest of Radio 3’s live concerts throughout the year. The Proms’ are special, of course. The atmosphere concocted by the unwitting audience and masterful sound engineers who make what I hear on the radio a joyous indulgence.

An authentic representation of the UK’s classical music scene exists outside of the Proms, broadcast live most nights on Radio 3 – a demonstration of what UK orchestras do throughout the year.

At the end of every Proms season I always commit to pay as much attention to Live in Concert as I do to every Proms gig. But that commitment eventually trails off. Guilt inevitably follows. Sometimes I’ve come close to emailing Radio 3 to apologise for my slackness. That’s how much it stings.

The opening movement of Faure’s Shylock Suite sounded surprisingly simplistic. Sweet as the melody was, there was something a little irritating about its contrived regal quality. The second movement with the tenor solo seemed like trademark Faure, so too the daring harmonies underpinning an expansive melody in the third movement. From this moment it sounded like proper Faure: unapologetically romantic-sounding, but lacking any self-importance or self-indulgence. The sixth movement is undoubtedly worth paying close attention to: gripping; breezy; efficient writing; youthful.
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite stirred up all sorts of memories.

Denis McCaldin, who ran the conducting and orchestration module of my music degree, also taught a course on the history of the chamber orchestra, shared a passion for the emerging period performance scene and the music of Haydn. Denis’ enthusiasm was infectious: a forensic attention to Stravinsky’s hard-working orchestration.

I remember Pulcinella being slightly disjointed, crammed full of melodic misdirection, and utterly fascinating orchestrations – the second movement in particular.

But the real shock to the system was hearing the Toccata – a section of Pulcinella I was first introduced to by Classic FM – specifically their drive-time show that used the brass sequence as a music bed. (I’m not entirely sure whether they still do. I haven’t listened to the station since they’d turned me down for a job I interviewed for there.) So, here I am listening to Stravinsky on Radio 3, thinking of Classic FM and trying desperately to work out why it was I’d applied for the job in the first place – an odd Proms-listening experience.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater was interesting. By this point I’d returned to the hotel room, catching up on emails and a handful of outstanding tasks. I half-listened to proceedings. But, what I heard sounded very 1950s-Hollywood film score and, in that respect, hugely accessible. It was a far more tempting proposition to return to than Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the night before.

Before the BBC Symphony Orchestra's 2015/16 season opening, Mahler 3 conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Mahler / Symphony No.3 / BBC SO / Oramo / Barbican

This wasn’t an entirely faultless performance. Some of the opening movement felt ragged and the third movement off-stage sequence had some technical problems. But that wasn’t actually that much of a problem, if anything exposing a sense of vulnerability and creating a sense of jeopardy as a result. The Barbican’s clear acoustic takes no prisoners, something which is, conversely, to the benefit of the audience. This was a gritty performance.

The performance grabbed attention from the start. Mahler’s specific textures are more transparent in the Barbican which make them, in turn, all the more fascinating. Sakari Oramo creating and maintaining a highly-charged atmosphere which made any technical errors inconsequential as a result.  Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s O Mensch! Gib acht!  was full-bodied with a gratifying clear-cut diction. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Trinity Boys Choir added a vivid texture to the fifth movement.

It was the sixth movement which really pinned me to my seat: Mahler’s jaw-dropping evocation of God’s love will force even the most hard-nosed individual to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. So it was here. Aching beauty sculpted by the BBC Symphony’s string players whose commitment made for a heart-stopping experience.  The sixth movement was quite the most incredible thing.

I’ve waited a few days before writing about this concert because I couldn’t reconcile the ocassional errors I’d heard with how I had been so completely riveted during the concert. Now I’ve listened (for a third time) via BBC iPlayer, I love this performance even more than I did when I left the auditorium. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra achieved something quite remarkable: a memorable and all-consuming performance filled with determination. A slightly more academic review can be found here.

Oramo said after the concert that he only really listens to something back if he’s doing a recording session or if he’s preparing for another concert in which he’s conducting the same work. I was surprised to learn that when he told me, largely because I feel he’s missing out on something. But when I thought about it more, I wondered what it was he experienced during the same performance and whether his emotional response to the music had been similar to mine

There’s time yet to ask him. Post-concert General Manager Paul Hughes announced that Sakari’s contract with the BBC Symphony Orchestra has been extended to 2020. Really fantastic news for players and audience alike.

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is on Saturday 3 October at the Barbican, concluding a day of talks films and chamber concerts featuring Henry Gorecki’s music.
  • On Thursday 8 October, also at the Barbican, Ilan Volkov will conduct a programme featuring Mendelssohn’s and Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, plus a Richard Ayres commission and a Haydn symphony. 

BBC Ten Pieces at the Backstage Centre, Purfleet

I attended one of the BBC Ten Pieces concerts given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Backstage Centre in Purfleet earlier this afternoon. It was an experience I wasn’t entirely prepared for, which this Facebook post explains in a little more detail.

I’m at a BBC Ten Pieces concert in Thurrock hosted in a big Opera House studio with a view of the Dartford bridge. Four or five or so schools are in attendance: watching the BBC Symphony Orchestra play ten pieces (or rather nine plus a participation number).

Either I’m tired and emotional or there’s something inherently wonderful about this project. Or, maybe, both help explain why I’m moved by this.

When I hear and see kids getting excited about the pieces the BBC Symphony Orchestra are playing, I can feel myself getting incredibly emotional. It’s a highly charged atmosphere: hundreds of kids looking on the stage in wonder, some telling the person sat next to them to be quiet, others looking at a big screen at the films and animations created by other children in response to the music.

It brings a tear to the eye, because it’s in these moments I see something tangible: a potent illustration of how to inspire, educate and entertain, and an unequivocal demonstration of value for money.

It’s a relief to experience as much as it is invigorating to be a part of.

This stuff I’m immensely proud of. This is the stuff that really matters.