BBC Proms 2011: Prom 35 / Rachmaninov Symphony 2 / Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Rachmaninov’s second symphony is a special work. It’s my work. My symphony. My soundtrack. All mine.

I share it with a great many other people. Around Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 is a network of friends, associates, a few who have fallen out of favour and a handful who have fallen off the radar too. There’s even one who will never hear it any more.

What connects all of those people in my life is one CD with a brown cover of a recording made by the London Symphony Orchestra, given to me on my 21st birthday in September 1993.

“Here,” said a friend thrusting a gift into my hand, “this is for you.”

I tore the paper of what was obviously a CD box and stared at the cover. Rachmaninov Symphony No.2. “It’s got a fantastic clarinet solo in it,” she grinned, “you’ll love it.” Her sisters nodded in agreement.

This was a work I hadn’t heard before. A work we hadn’t played in Suffolk Youth Orchestra while I was a member. We’d not collectively experienced this piece of classical music. So it hadn’t been in my collection. This was a new introduction. A new CD to put on the shelf.

I’d known Rachmaninov’s Paganini variations but not been aware he’d even written one symphony, let alone two. A symphony by Rachmaninov sounded rather odd. Saying it out loud made it even more odd. Rachmaninov 2. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d heard anybody in my circle of friends utter those words.

I remember listening to it a few times after my birthday, thinking how terribly rich it seemed. How vast. And how incredibly large and expansive the sound. But I never especially lost myself in the moment the music was trying to create. I was listening for the mechanics of the music. Not it’s emotion.

And listening intently to the clarinet solo in the second movement, I was trying desperately to imagine what it would be like to play that line from slap bang in the middle of the orchestra. Wondering whether I ever would. The drama wasn’t in the music. The potential drama was in my head. The music – in a way – was almost incidental. At that age, it only became something of ‘note’ if I’d played it. Experienced it first hand.

It’s only now I listen to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Rachmaninov from the BBC Proms 2011 I’m reminded to what extent I had completely missed the point of my friend’s birthday gift.

She knew that all of us in our special group of friends at Suffolk Youth bonded because of the music we played. To introduce a new piece none of us had played together risked the work being overlooked. So she used a ‘hook’ to introduce the CD to me. Her ‘hook’ was the clarinet solo. But that was all it was ever meant to be. A hook. From that moment on, I’d thought the reason I’d received a recording was all about the clarinet solo and nothing else.

To my shame, the CD remained on my shelf of other discs for a number of years to follow. First in Derby Road, Worcester, later in Britten Close, Aldeburgh. It was a rare occasion I dug it out and played it. Even when I did, the potential for escapism was about imagining performance than anything else.

Something significant changed in April 1998. A few months before I’d met my now partner The Chap. The inevitable CD playing phase ensued soon after we’d both clocked I was visiting his flat on a fairly regular basis, each successive day bringing a wider selection of CDs with me to test out on his considerably more generous music system.

I was in part inquisitive about the quality of the sound production. How would my recordings of Shostakovich’s Leningrad sound via the The Chap’s Yamaha amp and NS10’s? What about Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas? Or the Saint-Saens? Or the Franck Violin Sonata?

Getting him to like the music was secondary. This was all about seeing how much better my CDs would sound on his system. In fact, given his passion for Fleetwood Mac, Sondheim, ELO and his then obsession for Famous Blue Raincoat, I saw classical music on his system as nothing more than the equivalent of testing out new sound equipment in a showroom.

Rachmaninov’s second symphony did get played. It had been my intention to play the third movement – loud, bombastic, full of string texture – but accidentally ended up on the slow movement. We both sat back, both of us listening to vast expanse of strings, me hearing the movement for what felt like the first time.

The sound which emerged from the monitors in the room was incredible. Up until that point I’d only heard classical music on my CD system which – I’d thought – wasn’t all that bad at all. It had a special “Wide” setting to enhance the acoustic mix. As far as I was concerned, it was quite good.

But The Chap’s music system was entirely different. Separate units seemed to promise an altogether superior listening experience. And it hadn’t disappoint. It transformed the Rachmaninov (along with Shostakovich’s Lenningrad).

From the urgency of the opening melody in the second movement, to the delicate yet agonisingly beautiful melody played by the clarinet and heart-stopping emotion which follows in the development of that theme, Rachmaninov’s music insisted that its newest listener submitted in the most basic of human responses.

Intent on commenting on the revelation of the quality of the sound production, I turned back to look at him to find tears streaming down his face.

Tears hadn’t rolled down my cheeks, but I’d felt something change inside me. I can remember that much. I’d been stunned by how effortlessly Rachmaninov had orchestrated his music to convey such raw, joyous emotion.

All it had taken (four years after the CD had been given to me) was for it to be played on a decent amp and with the volume to be turned up high. Listening to the movement in this new location in someone else’s front room, with this special person sat next to me had unlocked something: an unexpected appreciation for this piece of music. A special moment for so many different reasons. That moment remains embedded in my memory.

I moved in a few weeks later.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s also a work which underpins a narrative, or network of connected friends.

These are not only the friends who were there when the music was introduced to me, but also those with whom me and The Chap chose to share it with soon after we’d ‘discovered’ it together. Those friends who in turn who have received a recording of Rachmaninov 2 as a gift, those who have rung up to ask me ‘what is that composer’s name – you know, the one who wrote the music that makes you two cry?’. That friend who was momentarily taken out of his drunken ranting while he sat motionless listening to the second movement for the first time, the same friend who’s now no longer with us. And the person who reckoned our collective reaction was overstated and laughable to observe. Mind you, look what happened to him at the House of Commons.

There aren’t many works which have this effect. Nor can I think of many which have in the history of my own personal musical appreciation been loved for different reasons and in different ways. That makes this work incredibly special and because of that all important second movement, Rachmaninov’s second symphony is something I come back to time and time again in the many different performances I’ve heard since that fateful evening in 1998.

The reassuring yet bewildering power the music still has is undeniable. Whenever I heard the opening of the second movement now I will – without fail – end up crying. I’m never able to pinpoint exactly why, or identify what the emotion is underlying the tears when I hear it. It is just as though that moment of hearing the movement in an entirely different way woke me up to it’s emotional quality so that each subsequent performance is something akin to an involuntary reaction. (Interestingly however, it has to be preceeded by the first movement and followed by the remainder of the symphony. Taking it out of context doesn’t – thankfully – have the same effect.)

But it’s works like this (and a few others) which illustrate my love of this art-form. Orchestrations can be multi-layered. Compositional technique can be terribly clever. The melody can be memorable. Composers themselves can be notorious.

But when something written 100 years ago with it’s own history gets embedded into your own personal narrative, then over time it can take on some strange qualities. It’s possible it can even become a friend. A friend as important as the one who introduced you to the work in the first place or even the one who helped transform your appreciation of it quite unexpectedly years later.

Little wonder Rachmaninov’s second symphony feels like my symphony. It is my symphony. It is my friend.

Proms 2009: Prom 34 – Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Julian Rachlin Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Twenty minutes before Prom 34 I found myself in the bar asking my Proms Cohorts whether it was normal for me to feel as unenthusiastic about the prospect of another concert as I was at that particular time. A small glass of house red seemed to be doing nothing to lift me from my fug. I was fearing my love of the Proms was on the way out (assuming it hadn’t deserted me already).

The group reassured me that at this point in the season – four days before the half-way point – my feelings were quite normal. There is a natural lull it seems, one which I’m told will pick up as when the visiting orchestras descend on the Royal Albert Hall and we skid inexorably towards the conclusion.

Tonight’s band was a visiting orchestra as it happened, one with a Ukrainian conductor making his Proms debut. Maybe tonight’s show would do the business. Maybe tonight would see my much-sought after Proms “thrill”.

The first half – Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss – was unlikely to hit the spot. I went into it with all the best intentions, encouraged by season ticket holder Scott’s obvious enthusiasm for Stravinsky’s music. But something just didn’t work for me. It certainly wasn’t the band. It wasn’t the conductor either. It was probably the score (itself reasonably OK). The score just left me feeling a bit cold. Nothing to spark my interest or get me thinking.

By the end of the first half I was looking forward rather more to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto after the interval. It’s a tub-thumper after all. No-one doesn’t like the Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky can be relied upon. It’s a goodun.

Lithuanian born soloist Julian Rachlin obviously had every intention of doing something a little different. Whilst he remained true to the programme, there were some in the arena come the end of the third movement who felt he may have strayed a little too far from the score . At the end of his 35 minutes on stage, his risk-taking with speeds was interesting, thought-provoking and (given how close some of the Prommers armed with their scores were to him) brave.

The roar of approval from the audience masked the debate which kicked off as soon as Rachlin turned to shake the conductor by the hand. Some people smiled, some people applauded raucously while others showed their dissatisfaction. Was it risky? Was it daring? Did it work? Or was it just plain wrong? I was a little bemused. I rather enjoyed it.

I can’t attribute the viewpoints – there was no time to get names and write them down given the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra had some excerpts from Khatachurian ballets to get through before the concert was over.

Some might share @chriskeating’s assessment (“tchaikovsky concerto 4/10” and “a dreadful interpretation”). Personally I really appreciated one man having the balls to come on stage and do something a bit different with a concerto I’ve heard played many times the same way before. His performance grabbed my attention, made me listen hard and hugely appreciate his risk taking. A performance which also provoked quite a lot of debate at the end.

And frankly, that is precisely what I was looking for twenty minutes before the concert.

Special mention goes to the string section in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra who – in my unsolicited and beige opinion – provided the best string sound I’ve heard all season. And this compliment is in no way influenced by the glare thrown to the arena by the lady with glasses sat on the second desk of the first violins post-Tchaikovsky. Well done them. Lovely job indeed.

Radio Highlights: Sat 28 Feb – Friday 6 March 2009

Away from home and working late this week, I need to plan my listening to provide some welcome relief and take my mind off any bouts of homesickness I might suffer from. Thus I commit to the following perceived radio gems in the coming week.

The Talented Mr Ripley / Saturday 28 February 2009, Radio 4, 2.30-3.30pm
Happy to confess that I haven’t actually seen the film or read the book. But going on the way I totally got into listening to hour long segments of the radio dramatisation of To Serve Them All My Days this time last year, I’m relishing the opportunity to listen to Patricia Highsmith’s novels over 5 weeks.

The Bottom Line / Saturday 28 February 2009, Radio 4, 5.30pm
Evan Davies hosts a discussion about the future of computing and Microsoft vs. Google amongst other things. I’m looking forward to hearing about the thorny issue of cloud computing in the hope I might hit upon some rouse to sabotage the growing popularity for cloud computing.

Stand-Up With the Stars / Sunday 1 March 2009, Radio 4, 1.30pm
Comic Relief has landed on Radio 4. It was inevitable. In this little number, Evan Davis, Libby Purves, Peter White and Laurie Taylor try a spot of stand-up for the charity. I will be listening for all the wrong reasons.

Woman’s Hour / Monday 2 March 2009, Radio 4, 10.00am
I’ve recently basked on a Twitter and Facebook holiday. It’s been bliss. Life has returned to normal. So in a bid to see whether I’m missing anything (it certainly doesn’t feel that way) I’ll be listening to Woman’s Hour doing social networking in Monday’s programme.

Front Row / Monday 2 March 2009, Radio 4, 7.15pm
Leslie Garrett joins Katherine Jenkins and James Taylor to talk about singing live in large arenas. I’ll listen and pass on any tips I think UK Eurovision representative Jade Ewen might need.

Performance on 3 / Monday 2 March 2009, Radio 3, 7.00pm
Clearly there’s going to be a bit of a scheduling clash with Front Row (above) but it’s ages since I’ve heard a regional orchestra that isn’t either a BBC or part-funded BBC band. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra always seemed rather good in the past. Are they now? A fairly safe programme of accessible repertoire from the Lighthouse in Poole, Dorset.

Night Waves / Monday 2 March 2009, Radio 3, 9.15pm
Everyone’s favourite irritatingly intelligent, well-informed and unsmug radio presenter Matthew Sweet isn’t presenting this edition of Night Waves. Instead it’s Bidisha talking dance with studio guests Sylvie Guillern, Robert Lepage, Russell Malipant and Alexander McQueen about a new Sadler’s Wells collaboration called Eonnagata. I’m sharpening my pencil and retrieving my notebook in preparation …

Readings from Bath / Tuesday 3 March 2009, Radio 3, 3.30pm
Series of three short stories from the Bath Literature Festival kicking off with a short from Pippa Haywood. There aren’t enough short stories around it seems to me, at least not on radio.

Schoenberg’s Gurreleider / Tuesday 3 March 2009, Radio 3, 7.00pm
As challenges go this is one of the more demanding ones as far as I’m concerned. The Philharmonia Orchestra play Schoenberg’s seminal work. It’s a tough one. But I’m ready for something tough and challenging to listen to.

Performance on 3 / Wednesday 4 March 2009, Radio 3, 7.00pm
The BBC Symphony Orchestra runs over some Strauss, the Chopin Piano Concerto (a personal favourite of mine) and Ravel’s La Valse in a concert recorded at the Barbican last week. Nice.

I will also be watching Newsnight Review to see what the panellists thought about Doctor Atomic opening night .

Prom 16: Inside the Royal Albert Hall

Inside the Royal Albert Hall at Prom 16

By the time the first violins began scurrying around the fingerboards of their instruments at the beginning of Prom 16, I had already concluded that the smell of body odour was indeed coming from me and not from the older looking man with the unnaturally large earlobes who sat in the seat directly in front of me.

I had also worked out where exactly the 5 Euro note I found in my wallet earlier which had made me all hot and sweaty in the first place had originated from. I made a note in my internal diary to pay a visit to the canteen at work and confront the lady who had issued me with it.

By the time the applause had finished ringing around the auditorium at the end of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, the sweat had stopped pouring down my face and arms. I now felt as near human as I could do given the near hysterical panic which had ensued shortly before I had taken my seat inside the Royal Albert Hall.

It was only now I felt able to relax. Only now was I able to fully take in the sight before me. In my panic to buy any ticket just to get inside the Royal Albert Hall, the man behind at the box office had sold me a ticket at the back of the circle. Right at the back of the circle. A plush, padded seat high, high up in the Royal Albert Hall, quite literally within spitting distance of the gallery ticket holders the level above me who’d paid half the price I had for my last minute purchase.

It was up here I was able to stop for the first time in this Proms season and take in what I’ve seen in front of me for nearly seventeen years but never thought to share with anyone.

An orchestra sits on stage bathed in white light. If you didn’t have a programme you’d be unaware it was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Crammed into nearly every available space in front of them from the bottom to the top of the Albert Hall are 5000 other people. Some standing, some sitting. All of them, like me, waiting expectantly to indulge themselves with the experience of hearing 150 musicians give a concert broadcast live on the internet and on radio.

When the music starts the effect on my senses takes me by surprise. Suddenly I’m aware of the distance the orchestra is away from me. From where I’m sitting I can hear a beautifully sonorous sound. A rounded and balanced sound. A perfect sound. The kind of sound I had forgotten existed.  It’s almost like I’d forgotten that the orchestral sound is one arrived at by the combined forces of real people. Real people who’ve spent years training and even more years working. And here they are in exactly the right setting. A barn in the middle of London, where everyone has come for the same reason: because of their love of music.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with or even averse to classical music, come to the Albert Hall to savour those rare moments when 5000 people listen to an orchestra erupt in fortissimos. Hold your breath when, perhaps out of nowhere, the entire band suddenly plays incredibly quiet. Watch as the heads of the people in the same row as you suddenly move forward as if craning their necks will help them hear better. Then, just as you’re getting used to the levels, a smartly dressed percussionist surrepticiously steps forward and strikes his tenor drum, catching everyone in the hall by surprise. 

All of this going on way, way down on the stage below. All of it an electrifying experience.

I can’t guarantee every Prom concert will deliver this kind of experience although I suspect it might to a greater or lesser degree.

What I’m describing here is my experience of listening to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra introduce me to the dramatic scoring of Aaron Copland’s Symphony No.3. Under the direction of it’s small but perfectly formed conductor Marin Alsop, it’s difficult not to see and listen to this band living and breathing as one being.

And, as I write, out of nothing, comes a melody I never expected to hear. It’s a melody known the world over. It is inextricably linked with Aaron Copland. It epitomises America and yet, as the gorgeous lady who sat next to me shouted to when the cheers went up at the end, Copland’s music is totally democractic. It’s a melody for everyone in the world. It’s instantly recognisable. It brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye when the woodwind slip it under the radar as they did this evening.

If you’re to stand a chance of experiencing half of what I did listening to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No.3 then to tell you what that melody was would ruin everything. So, find a way of listening to the work yourself from beginning to end. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. 

And if you’re ever in London over the next few months, for God’s sake corroborate my posting by going to the Proms yourself.