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. 

National Youth Orchestra / John Wilson / Royal Festival Hall / Rachmaninov 2

The stakes are high with an NYO concert.

Long gone are the days where you ponder the criteria for judging whether or not the NYO has met the mark. Whenever I attend one of their concerts nowadays I end up listening to them as though they were a professional band.

That’s partly a testament to the achievements of the NYO administration. The orchestra is no longer a regimented learning programme aping a professional sound. Now it’s a demonstration of the benefits of participatory music making at the highest level.  It reminds those of us considerably more long in the tooth of how music should be played – with verve, panache, and passion.

Their achievement tonight – the final gig in a three-concert UK ‘tour’ – was in part down to John Wilson’s matter-of-fact and often beguiling conducting style. There was in the matter-of-factness of the Szymanowski’s complex fourth symphony and the lush, expansive romanticism of Rachmaninov’s ubiquitous second symphony all the celluloid tropes that Wilson has built his enviable global reputation. At the same time, he remained humble and pragmatic ensuring his musicians had their moment in the sun throughout.

The NYO is a tough gig for a conductor. In a comparatively short space of time a conductor has to gauge the strengths, weaknesses and development opportunities amongst the 100+strong orchestra during a brief yet intense rehearsal period. Matters of musical expression have to be decided upon on the back of that assessment. Compromise looms large; the desire the push harder looms even larger. My assumption is that receiving an invitation to conduct the NYO prompts a lot of self-reflection.

The extra treat of the evening was a new work commissioned by the NYO by the orchestra’s principle Lauren Marshall whose love of texture was evident in her Zen-like Suspended Between Earth and Air.

Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall – an entertaining work brimming with drama was a tantalising reminder of the most exciting contemporary composer for orchestras I know of. His musical language is engaging, mixing inventive musical  ideas and inclusive orchestrations, with an appetite to entertain.

Syzmanowski’s fourth symphony is a restless work, focussed around a distinctly unsatisfying (and presumably unintended) battle between piano and orchestra. The second movement was the most successful (in particular the dreamlike opening) in establishing tension in need of resolution. Conductor, orchestra and piano soloist worked hard to create a near unshakeable connection with the audience during the second movement in what was, musically speaking an entertaining but unsatisfying work.

The high point of the concert was, inevitably, Rachmaninov’s second symphony. This highly personal evocation of intimate love is so popular now amongst audiences as to risk turning into wallpaper. Wilson began tentatively but quickly all on the platform and in the auditorium by the climax of the first movement.

The second movement saw an ambitious tempo established which sometimes resulted in the ends of phrases lost, particularly in the upper strings. But any vulnerability hinted in the second movement was dismissed in the third. This was the first performance of a familiar work when my attention wasn’t on the soloist – the first clarinet, but instead on the principal and third bass players whose team work was the perfect evocation of the earnestness in the solo.  Theirs was touching musicianship. Tears flowed accordingly.

The fourth movement saw the playing reach a maturity I’ve rarely heard in live performances of Rach 2.  This was a joyous celebration of everything that had passed before. A mesmerising performance of an inventive interpretation.

BBC Proms 2010: Rodgers & Hammerstein John Wilson Orchestra

(The blog covering the 2011 appearance at the BBC Proms of the John Wilson Orchestra is available to read here.)

I’m still not absolutely convinced about how deep Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music actually goes. There were moments when I found myself listening to music from Flower Drum Song and thinking how I must make sure not to let the show appear on my birthday Amazon wish-list. Songs from Carousel too did leave me looking a little blankly around the near capacity Royal Albert Hall.

But that lack of enthusiasm for some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs wasn’t down to soloists Kim Criswell, Anna-Jane Casey, Sierra Boggess, Rod Gillfry or the brilliant Julian Ovendon. Nor was it down to the John Wilson and his orchestra. All were fully committed to the cause. Take a look at the first violins close to the beginning of the concert when the show is broadcast on (Saturday 28 August, 7.45pm on BBC Two).

Something good at the #bbcproms this afternoon (mp3)

Listen to a post concert AudioBoo

Fundamentally, the problem is down to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s melodies, rhythms and lyrics. Yes, their work would have changed the face of musical theatre in the 1950s and 60s. But now there are moments when the seemingly two-dimensional characters end up giving the game away in the opening lines of each song. Its as though the surprise – the conclusion – is given away in the first few lines of the song. ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ is a rousing song. But once you’ve heard the opening call to arms, suddenly the rest of the song loses my attention.

Sometimes I found myself longing for complex rhythms. Maybe just a little bit more syncopation? What the performance reminded me of was the time Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music existed in. How as a kid I been exposed to the orchestral sound for the first time listening to the Sound of Music on record and how thirty years later I felt distant from some of their catalogue.

Similarly, if future audiences are left wanting musically when they hear the scores for the first time, will that mean that interest in the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein dwindles? Will the likes of the Sound of Music or Carousel or Oklahama soon become unfashionable curiosities like over-orchestrated arrangements of Bach?

The work of people like John Wilson will – undoubtedly – keep this music alive for future generations. He reconstructed orchestrations for tonight’s performance demonstrating the same love for the genre as he did for the MGM Prom last year and the Carry On medley he arranged a few years ago. And its that kind of commitment which is both indicative of and vital to the BBC Proms.

It is only by being exposed to a wide variety of music that the opportunity presents itself to think about how that music effects the individual both in the past and in the present. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s entire catalogue may not make it to my wish-list, but one might. Keep an ear out for Something Good.

Read more details about the BBC Four broadcast of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Prom