Music: 80th Birthday Concert BBC Symphony Orchestra Barbican

Friday night was party night for the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Concert Hall on Friday 22 October.

Inevitably, this was a tame party. No drunk teenage girls perched on the stairs trying to avoid the desperate advances of teenage boys eager to show off their alcohol fuelled prowess at an ill-thought out Saturday night bash at home.

No one was rowdy. Everyone even had their mobile phones switched off – largely because the moment the doors shut at the Barbican Concert Hall all connection with the outside is thankfully severed.

But there was a relaxed feel to the concert. Chris Cooke – the tallest presenter I’ve ever seen with the most gorgeous of voices on the Radio 3 network – guided the audience through the concert, papering over the delays whilst an army of stage managers reset the platform for a range of large scale works.

Short film excerpts kept the energy up as audience and orchestra members alike peered into archive footage of previous BBC Symphony Orchestra performances (the earliest from 1935 shows that in some respects classical music television hasn’t really changed that much so much so that we mourn the brief excursion into daring shots and screenwipes peppered through Pierre Boulez’s studio productions of the late 1970s).

No surprises that amongst this party atmosphere, the audience was at one stage invited to wish the orchestra a happy birthday in time-honoured tradition. I hope to God that doesn’t make it to the broadcast in Wednesday evening’s Performance on 3. The singing was a little lack-lustre, it has to be said. Maybe they were a little shy.

Seemingly cast-adrift at the top of the programme was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture. Its relevance was that it was one of two works the orchestra played in their inaugural concert in 1930, a nod to the revolution Richard Wagner’s contribution to the operatic canon had made 80 odd years before.

The concert programme for the BBC Symphony Orchestra clearly set the tone of the band back in 1930. Hearing the overture now in isolation seemed a little odd however, almost as though its tuneful popularity had eclipsed the composer somewhat. The work sounds overblown. Pompous even. Part Tchaikovsky in its momentary similarity with the 1812 overture, other times veering towards Gilbert and Sullivan. There’s nothing wrong with popularity, clearly. But take a snippet out of its original setting – today – and somehow something is lost.

ConcertO Duo composer Stephen McNeff

One world premiere DuO Concerto by Stephen McNeff and a UK premiere premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s D’Om Le Vrai Sens graced the middle section of the concert. Both large scale works demanding big platform settings, these performances underlined the contribution the BBC Symphony Orchestra still strives to maintain in today’s considerably larger orchestral scene.

On a personal level, McNeff’s DuO Concerto was the more successful. Breaking the usual conventions of two concerto soloists standing solemnly on stage as the music began, percussionists O Duo bounded onto stage with all the youthful bravado naturally expects of boys who love to creating a cacophany of sound. Percussionists were always the ‘cool’ mysterious people in the orchestra. The ones who could drink endlessly into the small hours of the morning and still arrive at rehearsals on time and fully alert. Light of foot, both performers didn’t disappoint here.

O Duo‘s performance was breathtaking. Players Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell mastery of their instruments was quickly taken for granted. But more than that they achieved something rare in the concert environment (and something which sadly you won’t necessarily appreciate fully if you only get to hear this on the radio). As a pair of instrumentalists on stage they communicated with each other almost immediately. Separated by a large selection of percussion instruments at the front of the stage, you’d forgive them for concentrating solely on their own individual lines. And yet they didn’t. Such was their interaction with one another that there were moments when the fact that this was a world premiere was completely forgotten. Was this a work written solely for O Duo or something they had picked up, understood immediately and associated themselves with almost immediately?

D’Om Le Vrai Sens was less satisfying, possibly because it trod the fine line between music and performance art. One of the most technically demanding plays for any clarinettists (some of the sounds soloist Kari Kriikku delivered were stunning in his depiction of a unicorn in this setting of a collection of medieval portraits), the boundary between what was the composer’s intention and the soloist’s realisation were blurred, clearly making closer inspection and repeat listens of the work necessary. Where it succeeded in the concert hall was when the soloist wasn’t detached from proceedings – as at the beginning when his opening lines made determining where exactly in the hall he Kriikku was.

Ultimately however, it was a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring rounding off the concert which ticked the most boxes. On paper it had all the potential of being just another performance of the Rite. Everyone plays it. Everyone knows it. And when you listen to it more and more it’s initial impact lessens somewhat.

And yet, the BBC Symphony’s performance during this concert was none of those things. Indeed, it was the best I’ve heard them play in a long time, well-timed and fitting. Something underpinned by a comment made by one of the violinsts after the concert who explained how much the band liked playing it: “It’s one of those works which has been handed down through the ranks of the band since it started. We always love playing it.”

:: Listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Performance on 3 on Wednesday 27 October via BBC Programmes or via the Radio 3 website or – who knows – live on the radio.

:: Performance on 3 is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Monday-Friday from 7pm

BBC Symphony @ 80: Maida Vale Studios

Formed in 1930 and based in Maida Vale studios in West London, The BBC Symphony Orchestra – along with a great many other orchestras like the City of Birmingham Symphony, Halle and London Philharmonic – is part of the fabric of the UK’s orchestral scene.

But is its longevity something which inevitably results in us taking its existence for granted? How does the band operate today in what is a considerably more competitive world than when it was first established? And, with a more fragmented listening audience, how does the Symphony Orchestra maintain its distinct proposition?

I put these questions to General Manager Paul Hughes when I met him earlier this week. Listen to our conversation recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios here.

Listen: Interview with BBC Symphony Orchestra General Manager Paul Hughes


Radio: German Requiem Brahms BBC Symphony Orchestra Bělohlávek BBC Radio 3

I like to indulge in Brahms’ carbohydrate-rich symphonic sound as much as the next person, but I do have my limits. Friday night’s live broadcast from the Barbican of the German Requiem did rather test me to those limits.

Self-indulgent as I am, even I don’t like it when I’m given no choice but to wallow.

And, judging by the multiple S’s ricocheting around the hall at the end of many of the long phrases at points during the work, I suspect the chorus may have felt the same way as they gasped for breath. Despite that, they did an admirable job. The combined efforts of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus just didn’t move me particularly.

And Brahms’ German Requiem normally does move me.

The opening pianissimo of the first movement – Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) –  in the orchestra with his scattering of crushing minor seconds establishes brief moment of anguish and expectation. The stage is set. The moment is prepared. We know its going to be tough. But there is hope. 

But fail to pay due attention to the dynamics and the entire effect can be something quite leaden, something I felt towards the end of the movement. Everything felt just that little bit clunky. It just lacked spirit.

The usually agonisingly beautiful second movement – Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all that is flesh is as grass) – didn’t do much to allay my fears for the rest of the performance, I’m sorry to say. Brahms scores this movement Langsam, marschmäßig (Slowly, marching). It was certainly slow, but more of a reluctant trudge rather than a march. It had a similar effect on the chorus at the end of long phrases with enough of a smattering of strange intonation at the end of the movement to make the right hand side of my body go into a mild spasm.

I suspect it was this which resulted in me not maintaining close attention for the rest of the performance.

Things did improve during the fugue in the sixth movement – Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? (Oh death, where is thy sting?) – when the chorus were able to show their mettle. So too during some suitably lush moments in the final movement – denn ihre Werke folgen (then they may rest from their labours). But even if my palpable sense of relief at hearing things perk up a bit led to me question whether I’d just been a miserable arse in search of something to blog about today, I still felt disappointed about the whole affair.

Proms Diary 2009 (4) – BBC Symphony Orchestra @ Westfieldspo

The BBC Symphony Orchestra rocked up at nearby Westfield Shopping Centre ahead of the Proms as part of a “Proms Out and About” promoting the forthcoming season. In addition to seeing a variety of little helpers dressed in green and yellow t-shirts, I also got a chance to see Radio 3 Controller Roger Wright being all normal and lovely having donned a pair of stout trainers and eating a banana. Quite a treat.

I couldn’t resist recording a bit of audio …

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Missa BBC SO Storgards Tiensuu Kriikku

A cracking concert on Friday 3 April 2009 given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall.

The brass section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra made light work of Magnus Lindberg‘s fiendish writing in the UK premiere of his work Ottoni. But it was a performance swiftly eclipsed by the surprisingly fresh rendition of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.  The success of the performance was in no small part to the obvious mastery the string section has attained for bringing the demanding Barbican acoustic alive. Of particular note was sweet sound of the firsts during the fourth variation. Repetition of standard repertoire needn’t be a by-word for dullness, as the string section proved on Friday night.

The real revelation however, was Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku‘s London premiere of Jukka Tiensuu‘s clarinet concerto Missa.

Was it Tiensuu’s concerto or the brilliant Kriikku’s? Sometimes it was difficult to tell for sure. Kriikku’s mastery of the instrument was awe-inspiring, especially a seemingly long sequence in which he effortlessly demonstrated circular breathing and apparent ease delivering all manner of harmonics at the top of the instrument. This was a jaw-droppingly brilliant performance.

But the real orchestral highlight was hearing the puddles of sound created between clarinet soloist and the woodwind section behind him which acoustically transformed the interior of the Barbican into a cathedral like structure by way of the echo effect the orchestration had.

Hear the concert in Performance on 3 on Wednesday 8 April 2009 at 7.00pm and for seven days after broadcast.