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. 

European Union Youth Orchestra to move administrative base to Italy

Today’s news regarding the EUYO’s move of its ‘legal operation’ from London to Rome secures the orchestra’s future, but not necessarily that of UK musicians from 2018 onwards. One of many illustrations of the implications of the government’s Brexit Clusterfuck.

Sure, the EUYO has been based in London since its inception in 1976, but from a marketing perspective the EUYO is a European Union initiative. It has a distinctly European mission. It’s even got ‘European Union’ in its name for crying out loud. And even though its CEO – musician, advocate, and educator Marshall Marcus – is British, so too some of the Trustees, it is its activities which define the band.

On its website, the orchestra speaks proudly of its many global destinations this remarkable ensemble has taken its brilliant music-making over the years. An international endeavour – as international in reach as it is European in membership.

Could the move from London to Rome have been part of an underlying strategy anyway, the implementation of which was hastened by Brexit? Or is this announcement a direct consequence of the disastrous referendum? We’ll never really know for sure.

That’s important for me. Because amid the present UK narrative, the real impact of Brexit on the EUYO for the UK will be felt further down the line.

For example, where the band is based is, strictly and artistically speaking, should really be of little consequence, shouldn’t it? Its work is done all over the world. It’s the membership and its activity secures its ongoing reputation.

There are potential losers, of course. We just haven’t quite got to that stage yet. That’s where the real story is.

Of the current membership of 112 musicians, 11 are from the UK, compared to 23 from Spain, 5 from Germany, 8 from France, and 5 from The Netherlands amongst the remaining 101 players.

UK musicians can still apply and will be able to for the 2018 season. But, in the event that the Brexit negotiations go tits up (which it’s looking rather like they will do) there’s a real chance UK musicians can’t apply – a valuable opportunity for an experience to work with international musicians at the top of their game denied to UK talent.

There’s a reason the EUYO sounds consistently as good as it does – because it cherry picks the finest young musicians from across the continent.

There are multiple benefits from the EUYO’s continued existence and specifically for it remaining open to UK musicians: it develops the performers through collaboration; and it provides an opportunity for individuals to trumpet (forgive the pun) its musical prowess. Intangible as those benefits might seem to some, it is vital to underpinning the UK’s continuing relevance on the international cultural scene.

If those Brexit negotiations don’t work out favourably, young developing UK musicians will lose out. What that also means the UK aspect of the EUYO’s strategy is waiting to be shaped, dependent on a whole bunch of politicians getting their act together to deliver something few of them expected they’d really have to follow through on.

The cheerleaders for the UK classical music sector need to get a little louder than they are at the moment. Amid the extended and rather desperate-looking uncertainty, the EUYO’s announcement is a good opportunity exploited well by Marshall Marcus to bang the drum about the impact Brexit will have on the UK’s cultural scene.

More people need to do it though. And they need to shout a hell of a lot louder than they are at present. Forget reassuring one another that the right people are speaking to one another. As a consumer I want to know that the thing I care most about is not going to be adversely impacted.

The EUYO’s administrative changes announced today are merely the overture. The symphony is yet to come. No-one’s quite sure what that’s going to sound like. My hunch is that its going to sound a little shambolic.