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. 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 6 – Turangalila

Since Mark Simpson’s Prom with the BBC Philharmonic a couple of nights ago, it feels like the Proms has bedded in nicely. Similarly with Prom 6 and the BBC Symphony’s performance Messiaen’s Turangalila.

There are sections in Messiaen’s epic work I remember from my A-Level studies. We were given a thick soft-spined A4 book packed full of excerpts covering a wide range of repertoire, all printed on glossy paper my HB pencil failed to make a significant impression on.

Turangalila was one of the works on the course. Short excerpts from a seemingly impenetrable incomprehensible work. Teachers telling me it was amazing but me not understanding exactly why. There was nothing I could connect with. 

All I could really do was listen to the various excerpts over and over again, learn some facts, and practice regurgitation for the final exam. Turangalila represented an obligation or a criterion for an exam I wanted to do well in but felt slightly at sea sitting. How could I write convincingly about a work if I didn’t feel passionately about it? 

Searching through my Flickr account, I’m reminded that the last time I heard Turangalila was at the Proms ten years ago. Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle. I’m surprised reading the accompanying blog post back ten years later that a) it makes sense, b) I remember the experience I was writing about, and c) the live performance had convinced me even then that actually this was an utterly brilliant work – a must-listen.

There’s a duality in my thinking listening back to Prom 6 this (for a second time at the time of writing). I remember keenly how alienated and inferior I felt as a sixth-former listening to and not understanding Turangalila.

At the same time I metaphorically bounce up and down with excitement when I realise I want to absorb myself more and more in the work now. And when I think about that then I realise paradox inherent in the challenge any arts marketer faces selling classical music to new audiences. It’s not that marketing is failing. It’s that we underestimate the commitment the artform demands. We’re all of us impatient. If you’re going to step onto the classical music bus, you need to be prepared to be on it for 26 years (potentially). 

BBC Proms 2016 / 75: Last Night of the Proms

We passed on the first half of last night’s Prom, choosing an early booking at nearby Chapter’s Restaurant in Blackheath. The service is prompt, the portions generous, and the bill modest. We opted to walk back home afterwards, making back just in time to see Katie Derham say goodbye on BBC Two and for proceedings to get underway on BBC One.

I expected to not enjoy the Last Night, but as it turned out the second half was a reassuringly warm affair with Vaughan Williams’ blissful Serenade to Music, Tom Harrold’s frothy world premiere Raze, and a gorgeous rendition of Britten’s arrangement of the National Anthem.

Most touching were the inserts from the nations – when that element was first introduced to the Last Night a few years back I wriggled a little uncomfortably. The logistics of getting three four performances to dovetail one another are considerable and, like the season itself, another element which us as TV viewers take for granted. This year was a polished link-up, presenting one traditional song from each nation to the country as a whole.

And true to form, I cried a bit during Jerusalem. It always gets me.

The Verdi Requiem seems like a world away now. All the anxious talk about failed ambition befuddle me now.. Where did it come from? Why did it spill over? Why did I succumb?

That’s symptomatic of the season being over. Like the Eurovision, the Proms is a platform – a world of opportunity – for this in it and looking in on it. When that platform has been packed away, so the opportunity and the need disappears.

Also like Eurovision, I did tweet quite a lot last night – not as much as I did during the Eurovision final this year, but at least it made sense (aside from one or two messages which got deleted after the event) and there weren’t any pictures of filled pint glasses.

What follows now feels like an exciting prospect.

After the razzmatazz of the Proms, where do I find the classical music events which fill some of the void? I count five season programmes on my desk as I write this. How does the experience of those events differ from the highs of the summer festival? How does the Proms act as a gateway for wider range of cultural experiences over the next ten months? And how does this blog develop as a result?

Before the BBC Symphony Orchestra's 2015/16 season opening, Mahler 3 conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Mahler / Symphony No.3 / BBC SO / Oramo / Barbican

This wasn’t an entirely faultless performance. Some of the opening movement felt ragged and the third movement off-stage sequence had some technical problems. But that wasn’t actually that much of a problem, if anything exposing a sense of vulnerability and creating a sense of jeopardy as a result. The Barbican’s clear acoustic takes no prisoners, something which is, conversely, to the benefit of the audience. This was a gritty performance.

The performance grabbed attention from the start. Mahler’s specific textures are more transparent in the Barbican which make them, in turn, all the more fascinating. Sakari Oramo creating and maintaining a highly-charged atmosphere which made any technical errors inconsequential as a result.  Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s O Mensch! Gib acht!  was full-bodied with a gratifying clear-cut diction. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Trinity Boys Choir added a vivid texture to the fifth movement.

It was the sixth movement which really pinned me to my seat: Mahler’s jaw-dropping evocation of God’s love will force even the most hard-nosed individual to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. So it was here. Aching beauty sculpted by the BBC Symphony’s string players whose commitment made for a heart-stopping experience.  The sixth movement was quite the most incredible thing.

I’ve waited a few days before writing about this concert because I couldn’t reconcile the ocassional errors I’d heard with how I had been so completely riveted during the concert. Now I’ve listened (for a third time) via BBC iPlayer, I love this performance even more than I did when I left the auditorium. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra achieved something quite remarkable: a memorable and all-consuming performance filled with determination. A slightly more academic review can be found here.

Oramo said after the concert that he only really listens to something back if he’s doing a recording session or if he’s preparing for another concert in which he’s conducting the same work. I was surprised to learn that when he told me, largely because I feel he’s missing out on something. But when I thought about it more, I wondered what it was he experienced during the same performance and whether his emotional response to the music had been similar to mine

There’s time yet to ask him. Post-concert General Manager Paul Hughes announced that Sakari’s contract with the BBC Symphony Orchestra has been extended to 2020. Really fantastic news for players and audience alike.

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is on Saturday 3 October at the Barbican, concluding a day of talks films and chamber concerts featuring Henry Gorecki’s music.
  • On Thursday 8 October, also at the Barbican, Ilan Volkov will conduct a programme featuring Mendelssohn’s and Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, plus a Richard Ayres commission and a Haydn symphony.