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. 

Philharmonia: Sibelius Symphony 6 and 7 / Bjarnason Violin Concerto / Pekka Kuuisisto / Esa-Pekka Salonen

The LSO has Rattle, but London has the Philharmonia, and the Philharmonia has Esa-Pekka Salonen.

And whilst writing about orchestras and their concerts shouldn’t be like writing about football matches, the Philharmonia’s opening 2017/18 season concert presents a temptation too hard to resist.

So I won’t.

Based on conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interpretation of Sibelius’ 6th and 7th symphonies, the Philharmonia is at the top of the league.

There ends the footballing reference. I’m way out of my depth.

Accessible language, but the narrative is lacking

Both symphonies are tricky affairs. They’re not to everyone’s liking.

My plus one for the night had done his research. “I’ve listened to the 6th fifteen times in the past 72 hours,” he told me in the interval, “and it fails to deliver the emotional wallop of Mahler’s 1st.”

Someone else I asked rolled his eyes at me, and muttered something about the work being ‘aimless’.

There’s an element of truth in what both parties say.

Forget the abominably dull Karelia Suite ruined by endless school concert renditions. Sibelius’ symphonies are where the man’s purest art is.

But whilst his compositional style makes his music accessible (the melodic and harmonic grammar is easy enough to grasp), the underlying narrative isn’t immediately obvious. That means it doesn’t register well.

The sixth symphony feels like a series of vignettes powered by nationalistic pride. Youthful enthusiasm and anticipation jostle with stark solitude in a pastoral setting.

The end of the third movement is good for that – there’s a delicious sting in the tail in that way that makes me want more.

Similarly, the fourth movement’s abrupt and seemingly unresolved ending leaves me hanging. Sibelius’s depiction of a string musical distractions sounds likes an authentic snapshot of real life.

I like it for exactly that reason, but it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

A fierce nurturing energy

That both symphonies in the concert have prompted greater exploration is a testament to the remarkable quality of the Philharmonia’s performance.

Salonnen’s attention to detail is matched by a fierce nurturing energy. A side parting and a noticeably gaunt appearance gives him a not unpleasant wizard-like air too.

Evidence of Salonen’s effect was found in the work of the string section, whose commitment to delivering a wide range of carefully executed sounds and textures made for compelling enterainment.

A real shame then the performance wasn’t recorded. What I recall is being amazed at the distinctive sound the strings were creating. What I’d give to check out my reactions to confirm I wasn’t imagining things.

Kuusisto and Bjarnason

Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, written for soloist Pekka Kuusisto, is a captivating creation – given its UK premiere during the concert.

The work is packed full of arresting sound worlds created for the orchestra and solo violin, geared not only for the instrumentalist, but also with the audience in mind.

This work grabbed and held attention not least because violinst Pekka Kuusisto has such a remarkable energy about him.

Kuusisto is the only performer around at the moment whose presence and playing creates a dangerously seductive air (watch him in his Edinburgh International Festival session last year, and you might see what I mean). There’s a spirited sense of integrity too in the way he speaks about his craft and about the concerto.

The combination of Salonen, Kuusisto and thought-provoking works by Sibelius and Thorvaldsdottir, made this a memorable start to the Philharmonia’s exciting new season.

And whilst orchestral concert seasons aren’t competitive in anyway, I can’t help but call this one. The Philharmonia has the edge over the LSO, even with Rattle.

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.

BBC Proms 2016 / 27: Pekka Kuusisto plays Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

I’m not entirely clear why it is I missed this particular performance last week. I stumbled on it during the Radio 3 repeats series this afternoon. It was an electrifying interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s rip-roaring concerto for the violin. Pekka Kuusisto provided a clarity to the work (I’m fairly certain) by using considerably less vibrato as well as taking an irreverent approach to the performance. He kept his ego in check at all times, and yet he let his playful personality shine through. I was gripped throughout. It was incredible.

I ended up stumbling on it during the Radio 3 repeats series this afternoon. It was an electrifying interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s rip-roaring concerto for the violin. Pekka Kuusisto provided a clarity to the work (I’m fairly certain) by using considerably less vibrato as well as taking an irreverent approach to the performance. He kept his ego in check at all times, and yet he let his playful personality shine through. I was gripped throughout. It was incredible.

What followed – his encore – was equally entertaining. A traditional Finnish folk song ‘from around about the time Russia was still a part of Finland,’ he joked. The four verse ditty even resulted in some hastily directed audience participation. The effect was incredibly heart-warming to listen to.

There’s a funny thing about encores. There will be some who will assume that the best stuff is what you hear in the encore. They’ll assume that there’s no point in listening what went on before and direct you to the encore as the location of the real entertainment. Social media only serves to fuel that assumption. It does, I confess, drive me wild.

The point about encores is that they’re the light relief after the heavy dose that has gone before. It’s a chance for the soloist to show-off even more, often in a slightly more relaxed mood. It’s another opportunity for the audience and soloist to bond before both have to say goodbye. But, like a whisky chaser at the end of a rich five-course meal, one can’t really be savoured without the other.

A good encore needs an equally good performance before it to warrant the encore itself and to bring the soloist’s moment in the light to a warm appreciative end. Listen to Pekka Kuusisto’s Tchaikovsky without the encore and you’ll miss out on one of the most special moments in the Albert Hall this season. Listen to the encore without the Tchaikovsky and you’ll miss out on the finest violin concerto, and a compelling interpretation from a young Finnish man brimming with energy.