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 2016 / 43: Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich

This may be a career limiting move, but I’m prepared to admit that I didn’t on the whole enjoy Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich’s Prom last night. I imagine you won’t read that kind of statement anywhere else on the internet.

I know of a handful of people who were very excited at the prospect of the much-anticipated double bill finally appearing at the Proms (Argerich has a reputation of not so much cancelling engagements as not committing to them in the first place, at least not in the orthodox sense – at least she was in 2001). Barenboim wows audiences wherever he appears too – of course he does. Teaming up with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra was bound to be a brilliant concert.

The paradox is that it was a brilliant concert. The band – established as a youth orchestra twelve years ago, now the players have grown up so the orchestra has matured too – played with a remarkable warmth. It was like nothing else I had heard before. As an ensemble they outstrip nearly every other ensemble and a lot of that is to do with the relationship between players and conductor.

The creation was somehow miraculous, but it wasn’t something I wanted to hear more of. It was almost too perfect. It was as though someone had told me to try on a really expensive piece of designer clothing because they wanted me to experience that moment. I did so, appreciated it for what it was, but realised at the same time how the experience left me feeling a little cold.

Part of my problem (and really, it’s my problem – not the orchestra or the soloist or the conductor) is the sense of expectation which accompanies any Barenboim or Argerich appearance. There is an assumption that if Barenboim is on the podium it will just be brilliant, no question. That he could perhaps only step onto the podium and do nothing else and we’d all be incredibly appreciative he was even there.

I exaggerate a little to illustrate the point. But, whenever I sense that assumption about any kind of event, there’s a bit of me that rather hopes that there will be a chink in the armour. That there will be something in the perfect performance which takes me by surprise; that the armour won’t shine quite as brightly as everyone assumed it would. I don’t look out for errors – that would make a vile harridan – but I don’t want to assume it will be brilliant. What would be the point in even attending the concert in the first place if I knew for certain it would be brilliant?

Those assumptions and expectations bring out the worst in others, in particular some members of the cognoscenti. Words like ‘maestro’ are bandied around quite a lot, as though musical greatness demands we refer to people with an outdated and an archaic title – an ego-massaging or self-aggrandising exercise. Such unquestioning deference feels borderline sycophancy.

There are no assumptions with live music, that’s part of its appeal. There are certain requirements which need to be met for the likelihood of a moving performance to connect with the audience, but no-one can predict that something will be amazing before it actually happens. People I know do that before some concerts (not just Barenboim’s). And when they do, they instantly ruin the prospect.

Implicit in this expectation is the promise of perfection. Perfection was present during the West Eastern Divan Orchestra Prom. I don’t want perfection. I want there to be some jeopardy in a live performance. Jeopardy demands investment on the part of the listener – a commitment to see this thing out and make an assessment after. If I go into a performance with no expectations then everything else that follows is a surprise. Assure me it will be brilliant, then what follows will almost certainly be a disappointment.

There was another thing I was (probably) projecting onto proceedings. Argerich’s reputation/style/tendency/distinctiveness around commitment to gigs infuriates me. Obviously, she is an amazing musician. An international exponent of her art. Artists at that level can pick and choose what they want to do, of course. But I’m a traditionalist, I think. If you’re going to do a gig, you should do the gig, unless you’re physically unable to play. Eccentricity is interesting, but at the same time it’s annoying. And when you do commit to that gig, then I start feeling condescended by your appearance on the platform.

The encore somehow provoked me even more. Conductor and pianist – lifelong friends, both of them prodigies – sit down at the piano and play a duet. Their musicianship was incredible, the energy between them remarkable. A joy to listen to. But simmering somewhere underneath was a nagging sense that the stars on the stage were bestowing on us a great gift, taking advantage of this great moment and giving the audience a chance to see something they’re probably unlikely to see in London any time soon or indeed ever again. There were even moments in the encore when it all felt a little bit self-indulgent.

Don’t read this as an unequivocal fact. It’s opinion. More importantly, this is all a me thing. It’s about how I react to the artist, not necessarily about the artist themselves. The artist is allowed to do whatever he or she wants. Of course. How I’m reacting to it says far more about me, than it does about them, so the saying goes.

But why is it important? What do I conclude from what might seem mean-spirited?

I’ve already mentioned perfection. I think I just have an aversion to absolute perfection. If it’s utterly perfect or perceived to be then somehow it’s inauthentic. That’s such an odd thing to say when the sound is undeniably beautiful and exquisitely and instinctively executed, I know. I just need a sense that what I’m listening to is real.

But more than that there’s this sense that Barenboim and Argerich are from an entirely different classical music era, a time when instrumentalists were in the ascendancy, pursued by television producers and documentary filmmakers. A time when classical music was incredibly glamorous. Read any Jacqueline du Pre or Barenboim biographies and the glamour oozes off the page. They are both, Barenboim especially, from that age.

That way of being for instrumentalists from that era is still visible when you see them on stage. It’s not wrong. It’s not irrelevant. It’s other-worldly. It distances me from them. It makes them a member of the elite – the untouchables. And the present day is demanding that the gap between artists and audience is reduced not widened. It is a symptom of their brilliance and their genius that they are put on that pedestal. But I think I feel it more keenly now.

Their playing was spell-binding, their presence thought-provoking. But I think I’m probably more interested in musicians I can connect with as an audience member. I just can’t relate to them.

BBC Proms 2012: Barenboim, Beethoven & the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

117 years of the BBC Proms there have been 983 performances of Beethoven’s symphonic works, compared to 338 by Mozart, 313 by Brahms and 115 by Mahler. Beethoven symphonies are as much a part of the Proms season as Henry Wood’s bust looking over the stage and auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall.

In 2012, there’s a new twist to the perennial favourite.  Venerated conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim returns to the BBC Proms with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra to perform the first in their special Beethoven symphony concerts, the first time all nine works have been performed at the Proms in one entire cycle in 60 years.

Daniel Barenboim

Is that sufficient to explain the buzz around this special series of concerts?

Even though I usually steer well clear of anything a large crowd is stampeding towards, I still couldn’t help dipping my toe in the water to see if there were any tickets still available for the cycle.

Momentarily forget there are day tickets at £5 available for each of the five concerts (if you’re prepared / have the time to spare to queue for them), imagine instead of the relative comfort of a cushioned seat.  As of 6.55pm on Wednesday early evening there were between only 1 and 6 tickets available for each of the five Barenboim concerts.

I confess I was tempted to buy one for one of those concerts and join the rest of approximately 4,500 strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall. Last year I wouldn’t have thought twice of reach for my credit card to stump up £45 for a seat in the stalls (my Promming days are over). This year things are different. I’m listening on the radio.

But why has this run of concerts been so popular? Is it Beethoven, his music, the performers or the marathon of a week-long symphony cycle?

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