BBC Proms Diary 2018: Minnesota’s Candide and Gershwin

It’s an early start this morning for another lightning visit to Suffolk. 
Taking the bus. I can get all the way to Liverpool Street Station from Lewisham for a mere £1.50. I’ve been trying to take the bus instead of the train for months now. Might today be the first day of a soon-to-be-formed habit? Could that new bus-using habit be second nature by the end of the Proms season?  

I’m listening to the Minnesota Orchestra’s return to the BBC Proms on the way. The broadcast prompts two separate memories. 

The first – an interview with Minnesota’s principal horn player Michael Gast in 2010. 

The second memory from county youth orchestra days when the cream of Suffolk’s musical talent and me ploughed our way through Candide for the first time. Me on clash cymbals. 

Listening to the Minnesota’s taut performance of Candide today make both memories seem like just a few years old; the former was nearly ten years ago, the latter twenty-eight. 

The sound of the elegant syncopation in the timpani part – dry, precise and solid – confirms what I’ve been pondering throughout the Minnesota’s first moments on the platform at the Albert Hall. 

Their sound is incredibly exciting: a sort of pit-band dryness mixed with a cavernous ambience swirling all around them. A magnetic kind of intimacy ensues. All clean lines, brushed steel worktops and polished concrete. Modern. Sleek. Sophisticated.

This continues in the Gershwin Piano Concerto – a work with far more satisfying musical material than Rhapsody in Blue which so many others I know for some reason or other always rave about. In the slower expansive melodies the strings don’t sound overly-resourced making the warmth in the player easier to detect. 

The journey to Liverpool Street Station has been a mixture of cyclists getting a head start on another searing forecast. Some have their tops off. I’d like to have that confidence in the sunshine. All around me, and those on the buses that pass in the other direction, everyone has their heads buried in their mobile phones. The woman beside spends most of the journey scrolling through Instagram. People are interested in content – but it needs to be ephemera and free. It musn’t make demands. 

I can feel the frustration creeping up on me. 

Most of yesterday’s meetings were about content and getting people to pay for it in one way or other. “Can you tell us what ideas you have and how you’d treat them for our website?” asked one person. “Yes, but that would be billable,” I replied without thinking. “Well how about you give us a treatment for one of our ideas?” said the MD in response. 

It was only later in the day when I started picking over the idea of theirs that the penny dropped: even a treatment is an idea. 

Ideas are un-produced pieces of content which drive traffic to a monetised website. If there’s no guarantee I’m getting paid for the idea, then you can’t have it. In my experience, commissioning services begins with the provider, then focuses in on could be provided. Anything else represents a high chance of pilfer, theft or ineptitude. This freelance life is as much about having the skills to sniff out and secure good business as much as it is about having the skills to create the content in the first place. 

The frustration mounts as I begin to realise that the number of people who want the content for free far outweighs those who have any kind of budget to pay. But amongst those who have a budget, its the ones who are trying to get it for nothing who you really need to look out for. 

In any other walk of life, skill would be celebrated, sought after, and re-numerated accordingly. We expend God knows how much effort telling influencers and opinion-formers that ‘creativity matters’ yet the very industry that has creativity at its heart and seeks it out doesn’t value it. The irony. 

I have skills. I have passion. I have knowledge. Finding a place for that seems difficult. Finding a place with a budget is an uphill struggle. 

At Liverpool Street its all suit trousers and pressed white shirts. Rules about uniform haven’t changed in the fifteen years since I last worked here. Life-draining joyless conformity. Maybe not wanting anything different is the better way to be. Ambition has its drawbacks.

But just as ambition comes with impatience, so the frustration comes with determination. I’ve given up before. I’m not about to again. The best we can all do is not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. 

The last movement of the Gershwin – the return of the main subject towards the end – sounds like a monster wailing with pain from an infection. There doesn’t especially feel like there’s a resolution even though there clearly is, musically speaking. We’ve not had aching melancholy but there has been exuberant of pride.

In that way Gershwin’s compositional style is fascinating. He soups up the kind of melodic mastery of Rachmaninoff displayed in his showpieces, with the harmonic abandon more commonly heard in jazz, to create a hybrid that very-nearly-but-not-quite reaches a satisfying musical argument. A crowd-pleaser who strove for seriousness but never quite made it. I’ve never really got a handle on Gershwin, though this dynamic performance from the Minnesota Orchestra still makes it an entirely pleasurable listen.  

Edinburgh International Festival 2016: Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vanska and Pekka Kuusisto

Edinburgh is a big place. I know that now I visited here for the first time. Soon after I stepped off the train I unwittingly ended up on the Royal Mile. Crowds of people, the majority of whom thrust fliers to comedy shows into the unsuspecting hands of passers-by. I cottoned on quite quickly. I deployed a terrifying scowl whenever I thought anyone was about to pounce. It worked.

That scowl remained with me pretty much throughout the afternoon, during the interviews I did for work, and during extended walks around a city with a jaw-dropping layout. I may possibly have got a little angry with Edinburgh as a whole. I may also have articulated this out loud at various points. Not one person stopped to look around. This obviously isn’t an uncommon sight in Edinburgh.

Set against the uncurated and unwieldy Fringe festival, Edinburgh’s International Festival is a far more sober affair. Concerts start at the advertised time, seating is reserved at the point of sale and the toilets don’t have a vaguely sticky feel underfoot. The Usher Hall is the jewel in the crown of EIF’s venue portfolio; it also has the dubious honour of having hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 45 years ago.

The Minnesota Orchestra under Osma Vanska played a programme of Sibelius and Beethoven. In the warm acoustics of the Usher Hall’s wooden interior, the audience got to hear fluid woodwind legatos, precise pizzicato and deadly pianissimos in the opening work, Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter.

There was another chance to see Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto who had recently wowed the Proms audience with his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and a rip-roaring encore. Tonight he brought us Sibelius’ violin concerto, in all its bright, chilling, and resolute beauty. 

Kuusisto’s sound is measured and sweet. It lacks pretension. His playing is inclusive – it never alienates. He gently moves around the stage like the Pied Piper, but maintains throughout a refreshing authenticity to his sound, interpretation and his presence.

The second movement was much more subdued and introspective than I’ve heard it before, making for something all the more humbling as a result. A heavy raggedy start to the third movement detracted from that achievement. All recovered quickly leaving us to focus on Kussisto’s captivating presence.

In stark contrast, the Beethoven’s fifth symphony lacked the magic we’d experienced before the interval.

This was a punctual performance which often lacked drama in part because there were – put very simply – way too many string players. Eight basses made the already strong cello section sound bottom heavy.

Whilst there were plenty of occasions when dramatic dynamics demonstrated the players tremendous agility it was, on the whole, an overly lush interpretation that lacked the precise articulation we’d heard the band execute in the first half, and which present-day tastes have led us to become accustomed to. In many loud sections the cello line lacked clarity, particularly in the third movement.
Here, I want to hear the precise internal workings of all of the intervening lines. I didn’t this time. 

Come the fourth movement, Vanska had pushed the band as far as he could. For all the leaping around and gesturing on stage, there was no more fortissimo to be had. What resulted felt rather tired. It never really took off, though it tried terribly hard to get airborne.