BBC Proms 2016 / 47: Ulster Orchestra plays Haydn’s Cello Concerto, Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5

The Ulster Orchestra is a plucky bunch. They returned to the Royal Albert Hall this afternoon still no surer as to their financial future but eager, hungry and defiant. This was a high profile gig for them, played to a near capacity audience with a conductor whose passion is reflected in his love of the art form and his gleeful attention to detail. I can think of no other concert this season I’ve enjoyed more.

This may have something to do with what else has been going on in the world today. Team GB is celebrating a second place in the Olympics medal table. BBC News headlines with the ‘Great Britain beats China’. The world is, thanks to the Olympics, standing up and taking notice of us (at least that’s what we think). What the vast majority of people are overlooking is the extent to which that success is as a result of considerable commercial investment.

I don’t deny us that. I’m not a completely cold-hearted bastard. Of course I recognise that Olympic achievement comes from hard work, dedication, passion and talent. But don’t overlook the fact that it also needs money. And don’t forget that, where some Olympic athletes and sportsmen and women are concerned, these people are now celebrities for their skill and accomplishment. We are basking in their achievement. In some cases we have assumed some of that triumph as though it is our own. It isn’t at all. All we’ve done is watched from  the other side of the world.

What the Olympics has done this year, I think, is highlight what can be achieved when considerable sums are invested in the development of individuals. At the same time it underlines those areas where investment is lacking. And where it is, in the case of the arts in general, and classical music in particular, the question asked then is, why?

We don’t value our orchestras in this country. At least, I don’t think we value them enough. Orchestra concerts don’t carry with them a tangible benefit of the kind that Olympic gold medals do. Funding gets cut. Education policies get down-graded. Generations miss out. I may sound a little whiny and boring, but that is how it is. And the more we celebrate the celebrity of sporting achievement, the more the chasm between the investment necessary to get to that point and that which is sadly lacking in the arts begins to show.

The Ulster Orchestra has had its local detractors. Local government there haven’t been terribly forthcoming in their support (although I understand that this might be changing). Their management has gone through some dramatic changes too. The hard work showed in their concert this afternoon at the BBC Proms. The Ulster Orchestra shone in a way I’ve never seen before.

Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow – a BBC commission and world premiere deployed a fragmented compositional style to great effect. This was a hugely entertaining new work that conjured with exciting, inventive and immersive textures, particularly at the beginning of the second movement. Wild Flow had clearly been orchestrated with passion. The work was full of drama. I really connected with it.

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan’s cello concerto by Haydn was a revelation. The cellist combined elegance and simplicity with a rare and enticing kind of vulnerability. The second movement in particular had a touching humility about it. Taut playing in both strings and the solo line helped maintain a breakneck third movement. There was urgency in the final bars. An enthralling performance.

The band’s numbers swelled for the symphony. Tchaikovsky 5 may have seemed to some under-powered, but this was a resourceful interpretation, with distinctive twists – notably the horn solo at the beginning of the second movement. Here conductor Rafael Payare seemed to draw something special out of the orchestra. The wind ensemble work at the end of the second movement was stunning.

In the third movement Payare showed great panache; in the fourth he showed his cards. This was an impressive combination of grace and defiance with enviable boldness, making this a distinctive performance.

We need to stop thinking of orchestras and the works they perform as miracles or some kind of historical curiosity. It’s about time we recognised that they are the product of hard work and lifelong passions. They sustain communities and livelihoods. They aren’t better or worse than sport, they are part of our culture. They deserve more respect than they currently receive. And we might start by all of us making a conscious effort not to take them for granted.

The Ulster Orchestra’s 2016 BBC Proms concert was a tangible demonstration as to why that’s important. Under Payare they appear transformed. Hearing them play today, I’m reminded about how they – the only professional orchestra in Northern Ireland – deserve more than one Sunday afternoon gig at the Proms every year. They represent an important part of the UK.  We should hear from them more.

Prom 38: Daniel Barenboim / West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

I feel wretched. Tonight was a big night at the Royal Albert Hall and yet I failed to consume anymore than five or six minutes of the actual concert.

I know. It’s no big deal really, is it? It happens to all of us. We all sit down in front of the TV and for one reason or another find ourselves distracted by something going on in the kitchen, the telephone ringing or an incoming SMS.

In fairness, today has been a bit of a weird day. I didn’t intend to spend most of the day working from home. I’d hoped I’d do some work in the morning and making it to west London by 11.30am. My best laid plans ended up being a complete disaster however, almost as soon as I woke up this morning.

I’ve been obsessing about some bizarre pains in my chest just recently. Am I drinking too much? Do I need to exercise more? Is day to day life getting me down just that little bit too much? Is the pain across my chest some kind of warning signal?

The doctor at the neighbourhood surgery whose name I can’t and won’t even attempt to spell was suitably reassuring before proposing it might be a good idea for me to go to the nearby walk-in clinic for a series of blood tests. He was such a charming man, terribly effecient too. Despite his reassurances however, I have spent the entire day obsessing about what that chest pain might be.

I opted not to go to the Albert Hall. There was a heavy camera to carry home from work, things to think about for the recording tomorrow and a spot of work to attend to in the morning. It was important not to cram too much in, I thought. “And, look!” I thought as I looked in the Proms brochure for tonight’s gig,  “It’s being relayed on BBC Four. Why go to the Albert Hall? I’ll watch it on TV instead.”

In between sneezing, snoozing a little and engaging in conversation with my mother about something she took a dislike too on TV recently, I only managed to get part way through the Haydn Concertante from tonight’s concert. I feel like a complete let down as a result.

Call youself a Proms fan Jacob? Surely you could have stayed the course for this important gig?

Sadly not.  I’m disappointed that for one reason or another tonight’s concert has passed me by. I’m banking on some free time tomorrow morning to catch up on what I missed. And if I manage to watch it back from the PVR, I promise I’ll report back. In the meantime, let me know what you think should you have an opinion when you listen via iPlayer.

Prom 14: An ironic performance

London Paper

Whilst rolling news channels and the editors of those god-forsaken free newspapers jumped for joy at the prospect of the impending environmental crisis to report on, the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston under the direction of groovy-authentic-performance-specialist Roger Norrington got underway with their performance of Haydn’s Oratorio, The Seasons.

At exactly the same time as the mammoth work got started in the Royal Albert Hall, I was tentatively starting my journey home on my bike, hands locked into position, helmet securely fastened underneath my chin and my face screwed up to withstand the driving rain which appeared to have started the moment I emerged from Tower Hill tube station.

Even the instrumentalists playing in the Royal Albert Hall must have rolled their eyes at the irony of being in London playing as something as climactic as The Seasons at a time when the Midlands are seeing the worst floods they’ve seen in years and everyone in the UK suddenly knows the telephone number for the Environment Agency.

There’s not much I can tell you about The Seasons other than it is absolutely fantastic music for riding home in a rainstorm to. There’s something raw about the sound of authentic performances which fits well with the relentless rain. I’m not sure whether it was the weather or the music which spurred me on more.

There was something quite magical too about cycling away from the centre of London with sounds emanating from the Royal Albert Hall via my radio earphones. There are some things we all of us take for granted and the beautiful simplicity of radio is one of them.

I have to confess though, I did lose interest in the music the moment I stepped inside the front door. I am human, after all. Not all of us can commit ourselves entirely to this summer music marathon. Haydn’s choral work might help maintain a fitness regime but sitting still long enough to listen to the remaining 60 minutes of the concert was not something high on my agenda.

Sorry Mr Norrington. As much as I appreciate the work you do promoting the authentic performance cause, when it comes to the bare necessities you and your love of classical composers do, sadly, have to come a poor second (or maybe third, depending on whether the cats have been fed or not).

* Sadly, I wasn’t able to get a brilliant shot of the rain which we’d all been bracing ourselves for, but I did get this picture which amply illustrates what my rainy ride home was like.