BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 17 – Vaughan Williams from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Tai Murray

VW’s Lark Ascending is a paradoxically fierce evocation of fragility and hope. I’ve not heard it like that until today. Previously I’ve always approached it as musical wallpaper, a victim of its own success – everyone cooing around it like a newborn baby.

Appreciating Lark Ascending  only as a literal description or a nostalgic Sunday afternoon jaunt in the country is to overlook a deeper emotional intensity in the work.

Soloist Tai Murray and conductor Martyn Brabbins explored the piece with delicacy, determination and poise throughout.

The effect was terrifying, as though the music itself was reaching into my insides and pulling out all of the dark stuff I had previously thought I’d successfully packaged up and stored away. I snivelled the moment I heard the opening chords in the strings. My eyes were sticky come the end of the piece. A remarkable listening experience. 

I’m still angry. I’ve penned three posts this week where that anger has been channelled into punchy words underpinned with resolute determination. Aside from the inevitable period of self-loathing experienced early yesterday evening, I wouldn’t go back on any of it. 

Later in the concert, VW’s Pastoral Symphony with its horrific influences and flirtation with modernism is a useful backdrop to what emerged as conflicting angular thoughts. 

Some background is necessary here.

Late Friday saw me invited to reach out to the editor of a publication in order to sell the idea of me writing and article for his magazine. I have spent the grand total of maybe 2 minutes talking to him (during the 2018 Proms launch event a few months back) and, given the wine all had consumed, there’s a high chance he won’t remember me. I obtain his mobile number and his email address, emailing him first, then following up with a call (and subsequent voicemail) a few hours later. I hate calling strangers. I hate emailing strangers too. It always seems like such an unlikely proposition, destined to fail because the ground work hasn’t been laid and because I don’t think I have anyone ‘referring’ me.

Consequently, chasing an editor who probably doesn’t know me, to pitch an article I’ve no idea whether he would want me to write seems a rather odd dance to have to engage in.

I hadn’t actively wanted to write for him – someone else suggested it might be a good idea if I did. Securing his agreement to pay me requires not so much a demonstration of my skill at writing (nor necessarily a requirement for an ‘angle’), but the need to be known by him and therefore ‘approved’ by him. That approval could be based on any number of spurious and unrelated criteria of which I have absolutely no control over, and nothing to do with the actual job in hand. All this for £120 at best (assuming I secure the going rate). 

Even today, it seems a rather odd activity to engage in. Like bursting into an empty darkroom and waiting for someone to respond to your desperate calls hello.  

These thoughts mill around as the Pastoral Symphony does, the experience of listening to which equivalent to entering an abandoned home and nosing around the belongings.

Paid writing could give me credibility and secure me greater access. The irony is that the time it takes to do the research, an interview and the actual writing doesn’t make the process a sustainable way to earn money. Why engage in this odd dance to get the work in the first place? It’s not the money. Is the credibility really that worth it?

I end up wondering what the point of writing about this genre even is. That old chestnut.

It’s more than just writing for pleasure.

I don’t write for an audience in mind – I never have.

Who am I writing for?

I end up concluding that critics write for the cognoscenti; marketers write to appeal to a new or existing audiences; I represent a perceived audience – a projection of myself: the curious, the open-minded, and the unorthodox. Those people are not necessarily experts, but if I’m being completely honest, I’d quite like the approval or maybe be legitimised by the experts.

What I’m interested in is story – transformation. I write on the basis that by documenting thoughts and feelings triggered by musical experiences, like-minded individuals might have their perceptions of a musical genre challenged. The music isn’t the subject of the writing – it’s just an additional character in the story. 

But who wants that exactly? Who will commission that kind of thing unless the person writing it is already a known quantity? Audiences don’t have the time to develop a relationship with an unknown quantity. Audiences only understand the immediate currency of a perceived expert in their field, or an individual whose personality arrives in the room before them. The ‘everyman’ like me necessarily demands time and commitment on the part of the listener or reader to establish and develop the relationship. 

As the symphony draws to its conclusion, a strange shift in thought emerges. My frustrations this week and long before, stem from unrealised ambition. That ambition is both a motivation and, on off days, a stick to beat myself with. Maybe the solution to arrive at is the most difficult thing to sit with: the idea of learning to just be content with things as they are. 

The final chords in the symphony (along with the sound of a snapped string ricocheting against a soundboard) nail the insight I’ve arrived at listening to the Pastoral Symphony.

The activities I engage in, paid or otherwise, set me on a path that tries to realise that personal ambition. They always have. That’s why I nearly always end up working at the weekends. “If I just do X this weekend, then I might just eventually be able to get to Y”.

But this weekend has been different. I’ve actively wanted to relax and enjoy my weekend. In doing so it might just be the case that I need to accept that this is as far as my ambitious journey goes. Maybe there is carrying on as you are is enough. What difference would letting go of ambition have? 

NYO Winter Concert 3 January 2016 Personnel List

Review: Prokofiev 5 / Korngold Violin Concerto / Nicholas Collon / NYO

I first heard the NYO back in 1990 in a performance of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations. A year later the band introduced me to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in an electrifying performance at the BBC Proms.

Twenty five years later, the next generation of talented teenage musicians delivered a blistering performance of works by Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Prokofiev at at the Barbican, in a performance dedicated to the orchestra’s founder Dame Ruth Railton born in 1916.

Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture made for an ambitious start but gave the orchestra a chance to get used to the acoustic deadened by the capacity audience. Ensemble work from the brass was amazing; the timpanist’s contribution was Herculean.

The reduced forces for the Korngold Violin Concerto were balanced well with soloist Tai Murray’s sweet tone in what was a spirited and assured performance. The ensemble captured the pastoral tone of the first movement without being overly sentimental; the exquisite second movement was suitably golden. Rapturous well-deserved applause rang around the Barbican Concert Hall after the final movement. At no point was there any hint the soloist had to compromise with the band. An electrifying performance.

Similarly, conductor Collon only had to coax the players through Prokofiev’s 5th symphony in a stunning performance which saw the orchestra’s ranks swell once more. The opening of the first movement was expansive and visceral. The terrifying precision of the strings in the second movement was underpinned by a tight percussion section and some seductive legato from the woodwind. Whilst the third started tentatively, the strings achieved a dream-like quality when the whispered waltz made its final appearance. The fourth started with some ravishing emsemble work from the cellis. The conclusion was a blistering tour de force.

NYO gigs are tricky things to write about. What should we focus on? Marvel at teenagers doing a miraculous job? I prefer not. The measure of a good NYO gig is whether or not you can forget the players are the age they are. I did. This was a remarkable gig.

BBC Radio 3 recorded the concert for broadcast on Monday 4 January 2016. 

The National Orchestra of Great Britain is sponsored by Quilter Cheviot Investment Management