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 / 4: Birtwistle Deep Time / Elgar Symphony No. 2

I didn’t listen to Prom 4 in its entirety last night. I was tired. Ratty.

At one point I’d even disappeared into a bit of a black hole, running over things in my head over and over again. The process was useful – there was a lot to scribble down in my notebook – and at the same time draining.

That was why I found it difficult to focus my attention on the Prom and specifically on Birtwistle’s Deep Time.

I commented on this with my former music teacher from school. I’m friends with him on Facebook. He was listening on the radio.

“Found it ponderous,” I say to him. “Didn’t want to say to begin with. Birtwistle is so heralded that to disagree seems like blasphemy. But it did seem ponderous.”

Only later did I discover that Birtwistle’s godson – also a Facebook friend of my former music teacher – was also participating in the thread, and had presumably read the exchange.

Oops. Bad Jon.

I resolved to be a little more ‘gentle’ today. An odd thing to decide upon given that I am, as my husband puts it, ‘on holiday’. A few emails, made supper for when The Chap comes home, plus some bread. After which, I settled down on the sofa, with Faero, to listen to the entire work again.

Birtwistle’s Deep Time was, on a second listen, hugely engaging. You can’t help but lock-in to his way of thinking when his pre-performance interview contains such a concise and evocative description of the work he’s crafted. Be sure to listen.

In fact, in some ways, I wonder whether it might be better to just be done with the Radio 3 presenter when there’s a new work being performed and have the composer (if they’re alive) to be in the commentary box.

The Birtwistle was absorbing. Evocative. The work had a depth to it that made it feel like we were visiting somewhere. As though we had free reign in a large rambling house high on a hill. Free to discover its secrets without fear of coming to any harm.

There were terrifying moments. The crazed clarinet (and later saxophone) solo was a particular example. Out of control, lary perhaps. Far from being a hostile world, it was somewhere I wanted to escape to.

What a difference 18 hours makes.

The Elgar was a revelation. Symphony No.2 is a man saying farewell, rejecting the sentimentality and jingoism that still makes his name, and replacing it with something far more three-dimensional.

A blistering, triumphant celebration, followed by an expansive second movement that still manages to be intensely intimate. A restless and sometimes tortured and exhilarating third movement after that. The fourth revealed an unexpected delight: a temporary resolution of the tension I hadn’t realised had been presented in the work before, similar to my first experience of Wagner out in Budapest. Finished the work feeling wrung-out. I didn’t know Elgar could do that.

Little wonder then, after an encore of Elgar’s Nimrod, and that speech, things got a little bit sobby (by this time, around 4.30pm this afternoon).

Little wonder too that Barenboim’s words resonated the way they did. Barenboim knows how to programme. He knows what the audience wants, feels, and doesn’t want and feel. He knows it instinctively and then, through a speech, ramps things up even further.

I’d normally be self-deprecating and say I had been drinking too much wine. But this was 4.30pm. Barenboim’s speech lanced a boil. Like Jessica Duchen says, Barenboim was right. That’s why it worked. That’s why it was necessary. That’s why his words were appreciated.

But more than that, it makes me ponder some unexpected thoughts. Why aren’t we hearing more of what a conductor thinks and feels, spoken from the podium? Sure, orchestras have a voice – that’s their bread and butter. That’s what we pay them for.

But when a conductor speaks, that which seems distant to some suddenly appears human. It’s good to hear an orchestra – or an artist – speak in that way. Maybe speaking up a bit (in a different language) is all the ‘classical music’ world needs to do to contribute to the narrative.

BBC Proms 2017 / 2: Sibelius Violin Concerto / Elgar Symphony No. 1

I worried last night, but didn’t know why.

Now I do. Now I’ve heard Sibelius Violin Concerto and Elgar 1 from Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, things seem like they’re back on track.

Tonight was epic, an effortless and passionate evocation of feelings I didn’t realise I needed to confront.

The Sibelius was rich and rewarding. Elgar helped heal wounds. I feel enriched and invigorated.

Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore seemed like a deliciously ambiguous ending. The subsequent Pomp and Circumstance march felt like a clumsy and unnecessary addition.

That said, an easy 5/5 (via radio)

BBC Proms 2016 / 70: Staatskapelle play Bruckner 6

I listened to Bruckner 6 on my birthday jaunt around London. This year’s excursion took me to the Fox Talbot exhibition at the Science Museum and after that, a cheeky Margherita on the Southbank.

There’s no time to go into detail (it is my birthday all), but suffice to say Bruckner’s sixth symphony is far more engaging than his third. There’s a smattering of Mahler in there somewhere

There’s a smattering of Mahler in there somewhere for a start. The first movement gets off to an arresting start; the second (slow) movement is a remarkable achievement too.

All in all, it’s a work which demands repeat listens. It’s rich, complex and revealing. The idea that this came before Mahler’s first symphony makes the whole thing beguiling.

There was also some kind of incident with something heavy and valuable on stage which made things even more compelling. I’m not entirely clear what occurred, but it did definitely sound like something very expensive had broken .. when it hit the stage.

BBC Proms 2016 / 69: Staatskapelle plays Bruckner 4

Tradition has it to dismiss Bruckner’s symphonies as nothing more than ‘washing machine music’.

When a former colleague once threw that disparaging remark into conversation about the composer, I hit back with the retort, “Yeah, but you love Wagner. And he rarely reached a climax.”

I didn’t win the argument. Now I ‘get’ Wagner, I do rather regret saying it. Such a puerile response.

More to the point, I’m not entirely sure why I felt the need to defend Bruckner. Listening back to the Staatskapelle’s Prom from last night, I agree with my former colleague’s original assertion. I might even feel the need to tweak it.

Bruckner isn’t washing machine music in the way we’d expect a washing machine to function. Bruckner’s music is essentially nothing more than a rinse cycle.

This has nothing to do with Daniel Barenboim’s direction of the Stadtskapelle. We need to go a little deeper for the reason I struggle with Bruckner.

The first time I heard Bruckner’s 4th symphony was at a concert hall ten or so years back. I’d been asked to shoot some video of an orchestra, conduct some interviews and edit together a video package which could be embedded on their website.

The interior of the hall made for a scintillating view (and I’d just purchased a delicious wide angle lens too) and the shimmering opening to the symphony being rehearsed in the hall at the time of the shoot fitted the visuals perfectly.

I’d discovered the joys of tilts and pans on a fixed tripod too. Simple shots emphasising the drama of the surroundings cut to the seemingly understated beauty of Bruckner’s music seemed like a no-brainer.

The person commissioning the piece didn’t agree (to this day I remain unclear what he really knows about video production anyway), refused to pay costs, a fee and, to add insult to injury, insisted I handed over all the material I had shot. “We’d like to edit the material together instead.” Instinct kicked in, the words ‘trust’, and ‘lack of’ were bandied around quite a lot and there the situation was left.

From that day to this Bruckner’s 4th has been a closed door to the rest of his works. I approach it and the rest of his symphonies with prejudice. His climaxes are over-prepared and ultimately underwhelming. His scoring is overworked – the musical illustration of someone so concerned about the detail that the bigger picture seems to be lost. Bruckner 4 at least is something one just gets through.

The Staatskapelle are playing three Bruckner symphonies this week. What I’m wondering is whether I’ll have changed my mind about Bruckner by the time they leave the country.