The least we can do is support them

Something I heard conductor Joshua Weilerstein say during the Proms Extra programme a couple of weekends back has helped focus my attention on an incoming press release this week.

It was something about the dwindling number of living composers represented in concerts today compared to the mid-nineteenth century.

I’m not entirely sure of the provenance of the statistics (I also can’t be arsed to check out the numbers), but they sounded plausible. Plausible enough.

Most importantly, what Weilerstein made me think: if I’m striving to support this sector, I could be doing more to reflect on living composers. I don’t do that. Therefore I fail them.

A good place to start is the LSO’s latest announcement. The LSO Jerwood+,  LSO Soundhub, and the Panufnik Composers Scheme.  Twelve composers get money, in-kind support, mentoring, a band to play their work, and (in some cases) opportunities for people to hear their creations. 

Given that a number of organisations are doing what they need to do to support living composers, actually listening to those new creations seems like the very least we can do. A no-brainer. Why aren’t we doing this already?

The LSO Jerwood+ scheme (this year’s intake: Amir Konjani and Daniel Kidane) will see two chamber-scale concerts from conception to performance (dates to be announced). 

Music by Emma-Jean Thackray and Jasmin Kent Rodgman who took part in the pilot year of the LSO Jerwood+ scheme, will feature in a concert on Saturday 6 October and Saturday 24 November at LSO St Luke’s. I can’t do the first one (I’m doing a fundraising firewalk), but 24th November works for me. 

The LSO Soundhub programme sees four new members 2018/19, including Alex Ho, Jamie Man, Donal Sarsfield and Keting Sun. Composers Lillie Harris and Robin Haigh will progress to phase II of the first scheme and will write a new commission for children, premiered in the autumn.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Per Nørgård, Sibelius, Bartok, Brahms, Mozart and Bernstein

I feel like I’ve done a lot of writing this week. Blogs about Eurovision Young Musician. A lengthy Proms blog covering last week. And the prospect of another about a Sistema Europe concert at Southbank later on today.

This Proms diary needs to be kept to a minimum. So, this week’s highlights first. Easy.

‘Bonkers’ Per Nørgård

Per Nørgård’s third symphony from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Monday. Brilliant, ordered, fantastical and sometimes terrifying cacophony. It’s as though the composer has shut himself away from the world, refused to be swayed by what other people are doing, and given himself permission to hit, strike, pluck, or have blown anything and everything he so desires. It’s another one of those compositions which isn’t so much a musical escape, but the artistic equivalent of grouting – filling in the gaps left behind by an often incomprehensible world.

An odd thing about broadcasters, commentators and writers who reflect on Per Nørgård and other creatives like him. There is a tendency for some to align themselves with the composer, directly or indirectly.

Peter Maxwell Davies is a good example – broadcasters referring to him as ‘Max’. That may well be what Maxwell Davies introduced himself as ( we never met), but the pally-ness that exudes from the informal references suddenly transforms what the person speaking is saying, making it less about the subject (the composer or his/her work) and suddenly about the broadcaster and their relationship to the person they think admires them.

There’s been a similar thing going on with Per Nørgård this week both online and on-air, and the apparent need to refer to the man’s work as ‘bonkers’.

It’s not that they’re saying he’s actually bonkers, I get that. Rather, its shorthand for “This stuff is crazy-shit, and that makes me equally fascinating because I love crazy-shit.” Or there are those who signal a superiority over everyone else around them by broadcasting a deeper understanding of the work, its meaning or the composer’s intent. (I suppose that’s what I’m doing in a way just by articulating my irritation at both types of people – always worth flagging.) What matters to me more about Per Nørgård’s music was the way that I was hooked after only 60 seconds or so of the live broadcast. There’s something about the music that ‘fits’ for me.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra

The Budapest Festival Orchestra visit was much-anticipated. I flagged them in my season preview; they rather delightfully retweeted a link to the blog ahead of their London visit. That stuff means a lot. It’s recognition – a form of appreciation. Unsolicited.

So I should be massively appreciative of their contribution to this year’s Proms season without question. No? On the whole, yes. And it won’t be much effort either. The Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has a kind of menace to the music which altogether darker and more threatening than a lot of that we assume to be so of Shostakovich’s music. There was a smooth and matter-of-fact kind of professionalism to the BFO’s performance too. 

One night later on Thursday 23, Brahms 1 from the same orchestra. This is only one of a handful of Proms I’ve watched on TV.

Surprisingly engaging especially given that the opening subject in the first movement felt a little sluggish. I always assume I need it to be prompt and insistent so that when the angst really kicks in during the development, the tussles are painfully unsettling. I’d assumed that the sluggish opening would result in the rest of the symphony being similarly unsatisfying. But the beginning of the second movement provided clarity and drove things forward.

The first movement has historically always been my favourite – musically speaking it’s always spoken with more immediacy. But in this performance, there was a hint of resilience in the solitude of the second movement that was so touching and possibly even restorative as to downgrade the personal significance of the first movement.

Benjamin Grosvenor and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21

I’ve long been a fan of Grosvenor’s playing. I think part of that maybe because of superficial reasons. I remember interviewing him for a Proms launch one year. A few months after that he called out my name in Broadcasting House reception when he and I were passing in opposite directions. From that moment his ‘Good Sort Status’ was confirmed (if they say acknowledge on a separate occasion when the microphone is off then they’re good’uns). His involvement (completely unplanned) in a 2011 video was quite special too. 

But more than that, his piano playing transports me. I heard him play Liszt at the Proms once – 2009 maybe? Fluidity was what I remember thinking at the time. Mentioned the word again when I heard him play Mozart 27 with the Britten Sinfonia a couple of years back too. That, I think, is his trademark style. I like musicians having a trademark style (just so long as it doesn’t interfere with the actual music). 

Similarly in his Mozart 21. A performance that made me focus in on the mastery of the writing. Concise. Efficient. Like unwrapping a box within a box. A magical creation that cycles through endless modulations. None of it flabby. An intense release after two days of surprisingly demanding work. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the radio, completely transfixed.

It’s perfectly OK to have a negative opinion

One of the many benefits of the Proms season is the regularity and exposure given to classical music. That keeps the conversation such as it is relatively alive. That’s a good thing.

But it does at the same time highlight an oddness in the style of conversation we’re prepared to tolerate about live performance.It’s a subjective experience – being present in the Hall, listening on the radio or watching on the TV.

For some it’s the style of the music which entertains, for others it’s the way it touches or unearths emotions. Equally there are going to be occasions when it does neither of things on a personal level.

I’ve noticed again this week that if I express what might be perceived by some as a negative view about a performance or work, I first experience a mild pang of guilt as though I’ve been ‘bad’ to do so. I’ve done this three times this week on Twitter – the most recent about On The Town – what I consider to be a distinctly underwhelming creation.

If someone expresses an opposing view then I end up feeling an overwhelming need to clarify my position because I’m assuming that their opposing view seeks to alter mine or correct a prevailing view.

A lot of this is, of course, my shit to deal with. But, it makes me wonder whether we’ve lost the ease (assuming we had it in the first place) to comfortably express our opinion about the art form. Nobody quibbles about expressing an opinion about Steps, ABBA, the Beatles, or passing comment on the merits of a film. Express an opinion about the way a piece of music or a performance speaks to you (which is exactly the point of the live performance) and people start wriggling around uncomfortably. That strikes me as counter-productive. 

More buzz please

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

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Selected London Concerts This Week (Mon 5 – Sun 11 Feb 2018)

I’ve been meaning to put together a timetable of concerts like the one above for a few months now.

The original idea was borne out of the frustration I find trying to keep track of what’s going on when across the capital. After last week’s marathon set of announcements – Southbank’s 2018/19 season plus the four resident and associate orchestras, Barbican, and Wigmore Hall – I revisited the original planner idea.

Caveats

It’s not meant to be exhaustive though could be if I scaled it up (something I wouldn’t mind trying eventually). Instead, it’s just a way for me to map out what’s going in a given period of time. It’s also deliberately meant to be analogue as opposed to digital. The very act of drawing out a timetable, searching through the listings and writing it into a chart increases focus, in turn helping make decisions about what to see and what not.

Note – the London Mozart Players gig is on Wednesday not Monday. We’re all allowed to make mistakes.

Scope, Range and Busy-ness

It became really obvious very very quickly (even restricting myself to just seven days) that there’s not only a lot of options to hear classical music live, but there’s also a lot of information to take in. Potential ticket buyers are having to process location, time, names of performers, and works. That’s a lot of variables being considered before deciding on what to go to.

As a freelancer I have a lot more flexibility now. Concerts on ‘school nights’ aren’t such a thorny issue like they used to be. Interestingly for me however, it’s the lunchtime opportunities which seem more appealing because I feel as though I can fit them into my day more easily where evening concerts present themselves as a commitment.

Must-Attends

What surprises me is how an event like Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky at Barbican this week could have completely gone unnoticed. The fact that it’s sold out makes getting a ticket at this late stage a bit of a challenge, but I’m going to give it a damn good shot. But the Marin Alsop conducting masterclasses is a must-attend. It’s free. And on a Wednesday lunchtime. Peachy.


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