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My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 11: Berlioz (The Trojans)

Last month I wrote about the dress rehearsal for this in its staged form at Covent Garden. At the time, I was very taken with the visual aspect of the performance, so was glad of another chance to hear the music, now comfortably bedded-in with all concerned, without all the running around, and with the orchestra up on stage rather than hidden in the pit. Of course, there was no huge flaming horse, but given the ambient temperature of the Albert Hall in summer (a few degrees below the Mouth of Hell), this was probably for the best.

I particularly enjoyed Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra, more than I did at the dress – now devoid of floor-rolling and nose-scraping, but with voice just as full of character and feeling, if not more so. I also appreciated Ji-Min Park’s Iopas more this time. The acoustic, of course, was not ideal – at least, in certain parts of the hall, and the smallest voices (only in the smallest of roles) were sometimes drowned; having said that, I wouldn’t have had the orchestra any quieter, as they were making a splendid noise. The extra brass were up in the gallery, from where the antiphony worked particularly well (and the bonus that they could blast the unsuspecting audience members sitting directly below and frighten the life out of them). It was good to be able to pay proper attention to the ROH woodwind section, whom I greatly admire. 1st flute Margaret Campbell was on particularly lovely form – although I’m not (yet?) a great fan of Berlioz’s flute writing – but it’s always a little bit of a disappointment not to see Philip Rowson in the piccolo chair (no insult intended to the chap who was). There were some very fine pieces for clarinet, seemingly excellently performed – I’m a bit out of love with the sound of clarinets at the moment and not being easily moved by them, so it’s difficult to judge, but given that, despite this, I still noticed it on several occasions, it must have been pretty good!

Regarding the work itself, I was more drawn to the music in Acts 1 and 2 – the ones set in Troy. In the Carthage acts, there were some very wonderful moments, but the longeurs seemed longer. At Covent Garden, even with the distraction of men running around in little leather pants, the ballet scenes dragged; here, without even that, the music – however brilliantly played – bored me silly. By halfway through Act 4 I was rolling my eyes, and if I had magic editing powers, I would have cut pretty much the entire act, apart from Narbal’s bit – or, if that made the opera a bit on the short side, have Brindley Sherratt sing the ancient Carthanginian version of the telephone directory for half an hour. That would have been  much better.

Still, damn fine opera. Glad to have discovered it, and might even get the DVD (which will have FF/skip capability…)

PROM 42: Prokofiev, Neuwirth, Bartók

As I write this, I have just realised that someone in a neighbouring flat is listening to some rather loud jazz, a man is shouting outside, probably at the car alarm that has just gone off, and there is a bee buzzing around my room. It’s not that I didn’t hear these noises until now, but I’ve been listening to some Olga Neuwirth, and had just assumed they were all samples forming part of the eclectically diverse sound collage that characterises much of her work. Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory, which received its UK premiere at this concert, is a more traditional concert work in the sense of being a viola concerto in all but name, without electronics, samples, video, spoken text, or any of the other multimedia elements Neuwirth has embraced; it is, however, a theatrical piece requiring astonishing range from viola soloist Lawrence Power, mutating from the stillness of tiny high harmonics to mournful low snatches of folky melody, frenzied bow-shredding sawing, and solo wails à la Jimi Hendrix. Within the orchestra, the well-equipped percussion section seemed to be having a great deal of fun, while during the movement  titled “… im Meer versank …” (sank to the bottom of the sea), several of the woodwind section appeared to be required to double on mouth organ – to superbly spooky effect. Although there are passing allusions to ‘songs’ from various composers and genres, the title refers specifically to Ulrich Bauer’s book Remnants of Song, an investigation of artists’ responses to traumatic events, and how these can encompass both a desperate seriousness and a mad playfulness’… [read more here]

PROM 47: Cage Centenary Celebration

Perhaps it’s something to do with the Olympics? While there are avid lifelong fans of each one of the less-frequently-televised events featured, there have also been legions of people who usually barely register an interest in sport glued to Greco-Roman wrestling, the incomprehensible varieties of bicycle race, and hours of athletes repeatedly flinging different objects across a field. Likewise, although the many ardent fans of John Cage were obviously out in force for this centenary celebration concert for the legendary iconoclast, also present were a significant number of newcomers both to the ‘genre’ (if it can be called such) and to the Proms themselves. And the majority of them stayed the distance, too – a not inconsiderable 3 1/2 hours (5 if one took the Cage-inspired ‘Music Walk’ beforehand), at least an hour of which involved seemingly-abstract soundscapes created from unpitched ‘found’ instruments such as paper, wires, an electric fan, an vast range of cacti (Branches), and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s instrument cases (the Marclay piece Baggage). Of course, the sound made by rustling paper is not very loud (unless it is a nearby audience member’s programme, in which case it is obviously infuriatingly so), so amplification was a major feature of the concert… [read more here]

PROM 63: Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel

I bloody love Ligeti. It reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t. I’ve been having some horrid #fibrospoon* stuff going on recently, with muscle fibres randomly knotting themselves up into snarling masses of tension and pain, but when those microtonal clusters of gossamer sound settled on me, the tightness eased, and the knots began to unravel themselves. I would say that I should try it more often, but even the most high-definition of recordings doesn’t work in the same way as being hit by the actual sound waves from the actual instruments. I’ve been lucky enough to hear maybe 3 live performances of Atmosphères in the last few years, and so after a couple of minutes of letting it do its soothing work, I decided to open my eyes and actually look at the musicians for a change. It did amuse me a little to see such a famously disciplined string section as the Berlin Phil with their bows all flying chaotically in different directions (of course they were – they were all playing different parts), and the double bass section getting all excited in the piccolo lead-up to the Vertical Asymptote Bit (if you don’t know the bit I mean, listen to the piece, and you will). The Albert Hall was rammed full of thousands of people being as quiet as they possibly could so as not to miss a note; this was very pleasing – I didn’t have to poke or scold anyone! It also worked extremely well to segue straight into the Lohengrin Overture; with the most careful of gear changes, the textures were matched perfectly and the first tonal chord emerged in a sudden manifestation of reverse entropy.

I didn’t know Sibelius 4 at all. I should have done, as it was on the programme for an orchestra repertoire course I was on the other year, but there were, that afternoon, as frequently happens, more flutes around than required, and I generously volunteered to take the afternoon off (in favour of a hot bath to soak a set of arms and back not used to 8 hours a day of playing). Anyway, when I turned up for dinner, the other flutes rounded on me, suggesting I’d only pretended to be reluctantly stepping down because I secretly knew that it was an awful symphony and wanted to get out of playing it. This was Very Unfair, both to me, and, it turns out, to Sibelius. It is not an awful symphony at all; it is rather lovely – although on the dark, stark side, and possibly a disappointment to anyone expecting Big Tunes like in No.5. There was one bit I hated, to be fair – anyone guess what? – yes, some incredibly obtrusive walloping glockenspiel, that had me fantasising about taking a machine gun and blowing the bastard thing to smithereens. I mean the instrument, of course, not the player, who was presumably only doing what the score and maestro required of him. Fortunately, from a Law n Order point of view, I had no access to firearms or the percussion area. Or, for that matter, to Jonathan Kelly, whom I do not know personally and so would have probably alarmed by giving a massive hug, just for playing such beautiful oboe solos. (Yes, I really like oboes. This is not news to anyone. Or is it? I was out the other night with old friends who were somehow surprised to discover that I really like curry and tennis, so who knows…)

In the second half there was something of a change of pace with Debussy and Ravel. If Sir Rattle thinks Jeux is a worthwhile piece of music, I’m perfectly happy to take his word for it and assume it’s me that’s missing something, but – meh. Whatevers. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Daphnis & Chloe, on the other hand, was absolutely brilliant. The woodwind were nice and prominent, as it should be, and from my Upper Choir seat I could hear more of the detail in their parts than I’d dared hope. Admittedly I did have a brief thought of how I’d like to be at a sectional rehearsal for the piece, so I could hear all the lovely bubbly ripply stuff just once, minimalist-style, without the distraction of the soppy string tunes. I also felt a litle ashamed of myself for having, when the orchestra first came on, noting the 1st flute only as Not Emmanuel. It was in fact Andreas Blau, and he played the the extremely demanding Ravel really damn well, so much so that at the end, Sir Rattle ran through the orchestra and gave him a big hug before anyone else. (I’ve sometimes been hugged by appreciative conductors after concerts, but that tends to be down the pub after they’ve had a beer or two, not on the actual stage. Maybe if I get to play D&C one day, and don’t bugger it up…) The final section of the piece had all the fire, fury and kick you could desire, and was not in the least diminished in excitement by its technical perfection (as at least one sniffy critic said). The audience would have liked an encore, but honestly, what would you follow an ending like that with? Let’s leave the table comfortably full after an imaginative and varied 5-course meal, not stuffed to ickiness by an extra helping of pudding.

* Don’t look it up. I made this word up.

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Despite the plenitude – some might say surfeit – of 3D films gracing the cinemas in the last year or so, its use in orchestral concerts and ballet performances is still rare enough to generate a deal of interest. Of course, the fusing of live orchestral music with recorded video is not new, whether it be performances of film scores (e.g. the Philharmonia’s concert of the complete music to 2001 – A Space Odyssey earlier this month) or the multimedia collaborations of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot; likewise, the real-time manipulation of visual imagery in response to music has become mainstream on both the opera stage and in the concert hall. Of course, the melding of orchestral sound and digital imagery may be used to superb effect (e.g. in last year’s ENO/Complicite A Dog’s Life) but also such poor effect that it distracts from or diminishes the music (of which I will refrain from raking up examples)… [read more here]

Programme

Varèse: Tuning Up (sketch, completed by Chou Wen-chung)
Ligeti: Lontano
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Performers

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor)
Julia Mach (dancer), Klaus Obermaier (concept, artistic direction, choreography), Ars Electronica Futurelab (interactive design, technical development), Alois Hummer (sound design), Wolfgang Friedlinger (lighting design)

Lola Perrin’s recital began in contemplative fashion, with Abandon and Julia’s Chorus from her Silver Suite for solo piano. Having come in from the bustle, noise and bright lights of the Southbank Centre and the Embankment, the reverberating dreamy Debussy-esque chords had immediate effect in setting a peaceful mood – one could see some audience members’ shoulders visibly un-hunching as they relaxed into the evening. The energy level was soon raised, however, when Perrin was joined by elder brother Roland for a single-piano duet of G Mass, a fascinating trip through a variety of styles – one moment reminiscent of Nyman, the next Scriabin, or Keith Jarrett – all skilfully blended into a highly original whole. It was also fascinating to see and hear the two Perrins duetting, and drawing such different sounds from the same instrument; Lola’s warm, flowing groove in the bass contrasting with Roland’s spiky stabbing improvisatory style in the treble, in a way that almost shouldn’t have worked, yet entirely did… [read more here]

Programme (all by L Perrin)

Abandon & Julia’s Chorus (from the Silver Suite)
G Mass
Intertitles I
Going East

Performers

Lola Perrin (piano/synthesiser)
Natacha Atlas (voice)
Roland Perrin (piano)
Kate Shortt (cello)
Sarah Watts (bass clarinet)
Alexis Kirke (electronics)
Jonathan Bonnici (writer/narrator)
Phil Maxwell & Hazuan Hashim (film makers)

Another Purcell Room gig where I’ve walked out of the auditorium at the end and immediately bought one of the albums of the artist that they were handily selling at a stall by the door. Ms Perrin was doing a signing, but I didn’t particularly want a personal message (what with not knowing her personally), so just asked her to autograph it. Hope she didn’t think I left off my name so I could flog it on eBay…

Rufus Norris’s new production for the ENO began with what looked like a gang of hooded teenagers in black, with matching T-shirts and sinister masks, messing around with a large coil of electrical wiring. Were they perhaps leftovers from last week’s Halloween revels? That would be contemporary indeed. The ‘hoodies’, when not whirling the blocks of scenery around, appeared to be under the command of Don Giovanni, although quite why Halloween Gang would be doing the bidding of a slobbish 1980s-styled Jonathan Ross lookalike was unclear – the uneradicated power of money, privilege and fame, perhaps. Leporello, in turn, appeared to have stepped out of a time capsule from the 1970s, the epitomy of Northern working class cliché, while Masetto was a 1950s teddy boy. Updated, then, but somewhat inconsistently so. That description could also cover Jeremy Sams’s new ‘translation’ of the libretto, which was, for the most part, strenuously updated to the late 20th century (e.g. Masetto being speared in the “arse” with a toasting fork he’d “nicked” from “bloody bastard” Don Giovanni’s “disco”), but now and then slipping back into the more traditional territory of “wooing” and “ruing”… [read more here]

Performers

Iain Paterson (Don Giovanni), Sarah Redgwick (Donna Elvira), Katherine Broderick (Donna Anna), Brindley Sherratt (Leporello), Robert Murray (Don Ottavio), Sarah Tynan (Zerlina), Matthew Best (Commendatore), John Molloy (Masetto)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Production team

Rufus Norris (director), Ian MacNeil (set designer), Nicky Gillibrand (costume designer), Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting designer), Finn Ross (projections designer), Jonathan Lunn (movement director), Jeremy Sams (translator)

My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 2: Wagner (Die Meistersinger)

To tell the truth, I was unconvinced of the wisdom of spending 6+ hours in a hot tin can, listening to an unstaged concert performance of my least favourite* Wagner opera. However, it was really very enjoyable indeed. Yes, even Act 1, which has the potential to be deathly dull, but was in this case brightened immeasurably by Pogner, or rather by Brindley Sherratt’s special ability in making the most undramatic, static characters’ narratives implausibly gripping.

My other main reason attending this concert was, of course, to hear Bryn Terfel. I’ve enjoyed him in every opera I’ve heard him sing, but particularly in Wagner, and his Hans Sachs was really something special. In addition to some gorgeous singing, his inhabitation of the character brought out the humorous, mournful and contemplative aspects to perfection. Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser was also genuinely funny — a silly and pompous man but without the nastiness he is sometimes given.

The vocal (and physical) acting of the cast made this so much more than a standard declamatory concert performance, and in fact better to watch than at least one staged performance I’ve seen. Dare I say that I also found it helpful not to have surtitles? Knowing roughly what the characters are wittering on about but being spared the exact words left me free to give my full attention to the music; attention which it very much deserved.

(* Least favourite of the 8 I actually know – also including Ring, Tristan, Parsifal and Dutchman. Haven’t got to grips with Tannhäuser or Lohengrin yet.)

PROM 18: Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich

I found Brett Dean’s ‘Amphitheatre’ pleasant on the ear and atmospheric, but I have to say, I am having some trouble remembering any details about it afterwards. As for the selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while Mahler’s music has been steadily growing on me since university, it’s a slow process, and I’ve made a lot more progress with the symphonies that I have with the songs. Some of them are quite definitely beautiful, but others are somewhat irritating, and those in between I find too short for me to really get a grip on. Nevertheless, Ekaterina Gubanova’s voice sounded gorgeous (right from the back of the circle), and she performed them with such charm and affinity for the music that it would have been impossible not to enjoy.

I have mixed feelings about the second half. Shostakovich 10 is one of my all-time favourites, and I know it very very well. On the positive side, I think this is such a wonderful symphony that it would have to be a poor performance indeed (which this obviously wasn’t) for me not to be moved; on the negative, I couldn’t help picking up various tiny errors that in most pieces I would probably miss. Also, as a result of having performed it a few times, I found myself unintentionally focusing even more attention than usual on the woodwind section, and in particular the piccolo. All clearly excellent players, the micro-section ensemble playing (e.g. the three flutes) was very good indeed, but the and gelling within and between the orchestral sections perhaps less so. In general, the faster, louder passages worked the best — for example, the frenzied second movement was stunning — whereas the sparser passages sometimes could have done with a little more nuance of colour and dynamic, in particular, daring to drop down to a real pianissimo (which only the clarinets really did).

In an aside note, this was a particularly bad concert for selfish, arrogant audience behaviour. There have been various debates in various forums on the old clapping-between-movements chestnut, and although I’m firmly on the side of showing appreciation at the end of a piece of music rather than in the middle of it, I can see why sometimes, after a brilliant cadenza or particularly exciting movement, applause might be spontaneous, and on rare occasions, even welcome. But how can anyone listen to the magical time-stopping piccolo solo that ends the first movement and hangs in the air, and then want to break up the brief pregnant silence before the second movement launches, by slapping their hands together? And if only the clapping was all… While I’m very much in favour of letting children experience orchestral music from an early age, for the sake of other audience members who have parted with their hard-earned cash to hear some music, it might be worth waiting until said child is capable of sitting quietly for more than five minutes at a time. And if Shostakovich had wished the quiet, contemplative moments of his symphony to include the chattering of some teenage girls, he probably would have written it into the score. Yes, I’m touchy about this. But I do think it’s both disrespectful to the musicians pouring their hearts out on stage, and selfish to assume that your conversation is important enough to be worth disturbing the listening experience of the people around you. Anyway, in this case the talkers were sitting right in front of me, so it was not difficult to lean over and politely request they keep their voices down during the music. And then tell them again, less politely. And then administer a quick kick to the seat when they started up yet again.

Rant over 🙂

PROM 21: Berlioz, Wagner

A bit of a mixture, this one. At some points it sounded sublime, at others, frankly, a bit ropey. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the score and shaping of the music was superb, and there were a lot of lovely sounds coming from the OAE, particularly the warm, rounded    tone of the strings. However, Wagner’s woodwind writing can be tricky in terms of intonation, and unfortunately there were moments where this showed; in the brass, there was great enthusiasm, which sometimes incurred the sacrifice of accuracy. (These issues, interestingly, did not show up in the Berlioz at all.)

Of the singers, Franz-Josef Selig was a wonderful rich, dark King Mark, and the other highlight was Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, with a particularly wonderful moment being her voice echoing down from the castle tower (i.e. Gallery). Violeta Urmana’s Isolde sometimes seemed underpowered — although I’m quite prepared to believe this was due to the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic — and unfortunately, Ben Heppner appeared to be in some vocal distress at the upper end of the vocal range; however, they both pulled out all the stops for So sturben wir, the heart of the act, to great emotional effect.

PROM 35: Ligeti, Tchaikovsky, Langgaard, Sibelius

“Countless thorns: silence. My silence: the beating of my heart … Night.” So began tonight’s concert, with Ligeti’s setting of Sándor Weöres’s poem Ejszaka (Night). Introspective in feel, and with every word of the text described in the harmony and texture, it set the scene for what at times was quite an other-wordly evening of music. While this short piece and its companion, Reggel (Morning) show the young Ligeti exploring tone clusters and harmonic layering, they provided opportunity for the double choir to display a variety of tone colours, dynamic changes and rhythmic vocal effects.

As Night segued smoothly into Morning, so did Ligeti into Tchaikovsky. With only the tiniest of pauses, Thomas Dausgaard directed his attention from choir to orchestra, Henning Kraggerud appeared as if from nowhere, and before anyone had had time to even think of coughing, shuffling or clapping their hands, the concerto had started. This was more musically effective than one might have expected, perhaps due to the Ligeti ending on the notes D and A, and the violin concerto being in D major… [read more here]

PROM 41: Scriabin, Stravinsky

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. And that would have been a mistake, because it was absolutely wonderful. However, at some point during the afternoon it occurred to me: LSO – Gergiev – Firebird – er, what were you thinking? So after my meeting I jumped on the tube, legged it down to South Ken, and totally prommed it like it was the 1980s. By that I mean, up in the Gallery (with a cooling breeze and loads of personal space), lying down on the floor with my eyes shut (because I have no need to look at another orchestra – I see orchestras all the time and they usually look much the same), alone (because when I was a teen I knew even less people who shared my taste for 20th century orchestral music than I do now), and even with some chocolate and a detective novel for the interval. Great stuff.

And brilliant music, yes. I didn’t know a note of the Scriabin, so think perhaps I won’t even try to go into any descriptive detail – I just allowed myself to be swept away by it. Firebird, though, I know well – it was probably the first piece that really turned me on to Stravinsky, but also it’s one of the orchestral flute parts* I’ve spent the most hours practising, as it is bloody difficult. (Well, it was difficult for me – daresay it’s a piece of cake for Gareth Davies!) Anyway, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of it: that so-important precision of rhythm and ensemble, coupled with equally-important fire, energy and fluidity. Also, while it can be impressive when sections blend smoothly (e.g. at last week’s DNSO concert), for this kind of music, each of the instruments must have its own character that stands out from the rest, and this was very much the case here – and throughout the orchestra from top to bottom, too. However, deserving special mention… some absolutely stunning oboe playing from  Emanuel Abbühl** (and I’ve heard a lot of very good oboing in my time) and gorgeous molten lava firebird-ing from Gareth Davies, particularly in their Pas de Deux (ok, technically Ivan and the Firebird’s P de D). Sparks flying from Sharon Williams on pic,  contrabassoons like a bad tempered lion waking up after a heavy night at the oasis***, and if I go on I’ll end up listing the whole orchestra. LSO are ace, and so is Gergiev, and so is Stravinsky. And all for £5! It’s times like these I love London.

* Suite (1945 version) in a 2008 Whitehall concert

** Couldn’t see a damn thing from where I was, so assuming all woodwind soloists were as indicated in programme. Please let me know if inaccurate.

*** From the LSO’s entertaining and informative blog

PROM 43: Pärt (St John Passion)

Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.

Large portions of the text – those narrating the unfolding events – rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field… [read more here]

PROM 46: Mosolov, Pärt, Ravel, Scriabin

This concert was a little different from the others in that I didn’t know any of the pieces well, and the composers are not favourites of mine, but all in the I-should-probably-listen-to-more-of-their-stuff-as-I-might-quite-like-it category.

If you want to get an audience’s attention right from the start, Mosolov’s The Foundry is a good way to go about it. Great fun. My companion’s comment was “This piece should be played at every concert – it’s brilliant.” Me, I’m wondering about hire costs, and if I can get it onto the programme for one of the orchestras I play with?

Pärt is definitely a composer I’ve been meaning for a long time to investigate further, but although I very much enjoyed his St John Passion on Tuesday night, his 4th Symphony left me a little cold, although it had some lovely passages, and it seemed most of the audience were in raptures. Will give it another go on iPlayer, but I expect I’ll like it better when it’s complete, and he’s added all the brass and woodwind parts. Or perhaps he wrote them, but the printer ran out of ink halfway, and they thought because it was the UK premiere, nobody would know any better.*

I expect Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the pieces familiar to everyone but me. Frankly, half the notes in the fast passages could have been wrong and I wouldn’t have known (although I’m assuming they weren’t), but it was, again, a lot of fun, and performed with great energy and a fair dollop of showmanship by Bavouzet. From our East Choir seats we had an excellent view of his left hand flying up and down, which was very entertaining, although perhaps made me listen to the music in quite a different way than I would have with no view. Thinking about it, I probably even listen differently to musicians if I’m watching them from the front or back: sitting behind an orchestra makes me feel like I’m a part of it, and with a conductor face-on I watch him or her too closely, catching myself filling my lungs on upbeats, etc., so it’s not unreasonable to suppose different parts of the brain might be activated by the different views. I also noticed for the first time how intricate Salonen’s hand and finger movements are when conducting – interesting, but I don’t necessarily want to be observing and analysing in this way at concerts.

My only prior relationship with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was that I once had to sight-read the 1st flute part, and was concentrating too hard on the rather black pages to be thinking about whether I actually liked the work or not. Fortunately, it turns out I do like it. And despite my reservations about watching music being played rather than devoting myself entirely to the auditory experience,  it did also benefit from the visual spectacle of all the speed-blurred fingers and bows, a conductor practically dancing on the podium, and the will-they-won’t-they precarious wobbling of the giant tubular bells whenever the percussion chap gave them a wallop with the hammers (which was frequently and energetically). In fact, the Philharmonia percussion section were particularly impressive throughout the concert, with other stand-outs being the trumpet(s), horns, and cor anglais.

* I feel the need to point out that this is not meant seriously. In the interval, we were making tongue-in-cheek comments about members of the percussion section having an easy job, just hitting a big drum with a stick now and then while the string players had lots of different notes, and got a telling off from a nearby audience member who happened to be a percussionist, righteously indignant about any perceived dissing of his section.

‘I thought, “why don’t I just start my own orchestra?”, then I’m not going to have these hypothetical discussions about what is possible and what isn’t – just do it!’, wrote Nigel Kennedy in the programme notes for this, the largest-scaled concert of the Southbank Centre’s Polish Weekend. Juxtaposing compositions by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) and Duke Ellington (1899-1974) two masters of harmony, melody, and – importantly – improvisation, and performing them with a group of performers from classical, jazz, and other musical backgrounds, it certainly promised to be an interesting evening.

The details of the program not being available in advance, it was something of a disappointment to realise that we were not to hear whole Bach pieces, but to be served up mostly single-movement snippets, Classic FM-style. After a lengthy introduction to the band, the Bach half began with the first and second movements of the Violin Concerto in E. Shortly after the start of the piece, an unexpected rattling sound could be heard, which I first assumed to be some kind of technical malfunction before realising that the drummer had decided to join in too. On further observation, it became clear that the Quintet were to provide an extra continuo group to supplement Bach’s orchestration; while the addition of pizzicato bass was pleasantly effective, the tappings and scratchings of the drum kit were just irritating… [read more of my actual review here]

And yet… I can’t help feeling there’s a back story to the subject, that doesn’t sit comfortably in a formal review context, and is better suited to a blog post. So, a companion piece, of sorts.

Back story

In 1989 I was doing GCSE Music (yes, that ages me) and the main set study work was Winter from the Four Seasons. Although I listened to what I imagine to be a damn sight more orchestral music than the average 15/16-year-old, I found the Vivaldi boring. In retrospect, the recording we had of the Four Seasons was deathly slow and duller than most ditchwater, but this is the problem – if the only performance of a given piece one has heard is a bad one, there is little incentive to seek out alternatives. Putting effort into learning to love music which doesn’t have instant appeal is a skill usually learned later in life, if ever. Then my father brought home a CD (yes, we had them back then) of said Vivaldi concerto performed by some young chap with silly hair called Nigel Kennedy, that everyone in the music trade was apparently talking about. By half an hour later I had decided that Vivaldi was well cool, and so was Nigel. By the time my GCSE Music essay paper came round, I knew Winter so well that the invigilator had to take my script from me while I was still babbling on about Vivaldi’s use of diminished 7th harmonies over a C pedal (and why the slow movement is better when it’s not too slow). *

My next Kennedy purchase was the Bruch/Mendelssohn CD, which is particularly associated for me with age 16-18. Although my teens were by no means unremittingly miserable, I had some periods of great stress, adding to and drawing from severe insomnia. During stressful periods (A-level exams, university auditions, romantic disasters, etc.) I got into the habit of listening to the Bruch on headphones in bed every night before trying to get some sleep. For some reason, it had an unusual power to calm me and temporarily make all seem well with the world. At university I used the (1991) Brahms concerto in the same way. It seems obvious in retrospect that orchestral music (both performing or listening) should be such an important part of my life, be able to give me intense enjoyment when happy, and keep me sane in times of stress/illness/heartbreak/etc. – I can’t imagine it any other way. Of course, I could make a long list of favourite recordings by Nigel and other favourite artists – but there is no doubt in my mind that these three are not only tied to particular points in my life, but played a special role in my developing relationship with music.

At university, for a while I had a poster of Nigel on my wall, to the general derision of non-musical friends (for the bad clothes) and fellow music students (for being populist), but remained unapologetic. Given that I was at that point mostly immersed in the 2nd Viennese School and the development of total serialism, the idea of me liking something because it was popular was somewhat unconvincing; besides, now and then things become Very Popular because they are Very Good. And someone wearing a tie-dyed shirt topped with a waistcoat (yes, this was the early 90s) has no business commenting on anyone else’s sartorial choices. For the record, I might mention that the walls of my student residences also featured Simon Rattle, Philip Glass, Arthur Brown and Jim Bob (although I drew the line at Ian Anderson). Visual appearance is irrelevant in my musical allegiances (although looking nice never did anyone’s popularity any harm, and yes, I mean you, Emmanuel Pahud), as, frankly, is anything they have to say for themselves. This is not to say that it’s not absolutely fascinating to hear some musicians talk (including some of the above) – just that it’s a bonus, not a requirement.

So, I’m brought back to Saturday night, and the unusual experience of  – in the context of what was overall a very enjoyable concert – being bored and irritated several times by one of my all-time favourite musicians. During the boring rambling monologues between pieces, and during the boring prog rock solos (and on the tube home) I spent some time questioning my attitudes to orchestral concerts in general, and whether I am in fact just a stuffy intellectual-snobbish stereotype of a classical muso who can’t bear anything a bit different. I didn’t come to any definite conclusions about my stuffiness or otherwise, but I did decide, as a general rule of thumb:

(a) I really don’t like hearing little snippets of larger work – something some of my operatic friends describe delightfully as ‘bleeding chunks’ recitals (albums, etc.). A concerto (symphony, opera, etc.) is a single entity, and to play a single movement is like opening a lovely bar of chocolate, snapping it along the helpful moulded divisions – and then chucking half in the bin. In fact, it’s worse than that, because each chunk is part of a more complex structure, and becomes less enjoyable when taken out of context –  like (desperately trying to keep the chocolate analogy going) eating just the icing but not the cake underneath – a quick rush, perhaps, but ultimately unsatisfying. Additionally, irrespective of cropping, it’s much harder to maintain one’s concentration in a concert made up of a lot of little pieces than a couple of long ones, which goes against the received wisdom that the ‘MTV generation’ need everything in 3-minute bites. Good music transports the listener and changes one’s experience of the passage of time; it does so less effectively if every time you start flying away, you’re swiftly brought back down to earth with a thump and the spell broken.

(b) I don’t like too much (ok, any) talking about the music or the musicians during concerts. I work with some conductors who like to talk a bit, and, to be fair, know some audience members who like to hear it, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what programme notes are for. I’ll (generously!) make an exception for new or rare works, concerts where the composer is present to conduct or perform their own work, and a Phil Brit concert I did a while back where they got an actor to read some interesting selections from Mozart’s letters interspersed with the pieces composed at that point in his life.

(c) Crossover. Fusion. Terms which are rarely used in a complimentary manner, but this is mostly because a great deal of genre-blending music is vile – not at all the same thing as disapproving of it on principle. The most heinous kind is when ‘classical’ music is fused with pop, in a deliberately dumbed-down Easy Listening nightmare of cheese; however, apart from that particular kind, I’m all for cross-genre experimentation. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Duke Ellington, who resisted any classification of music other than ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but musical categories are certainly not clearly-defined, and there’s considerable blurring and disagreement around the boundaries (although, for that matter, no two people could agree completely over what would fall into Ellington’s two categories). It’s all a question of how well it’s done – and that, again, is very much down to personal taste.

I think that’s quite enough self-indulgent rambling from me. I don’t blog very often – does it show? Still, you didn’t pay any money for it and could have left any time you liked without anyone knowing.  Congratulations to anyone who got this far! Please consider leaving a comment below and telling me where I’ve got it all wrong.

* Edit (2013): Doing a bit of research for an article, it seems my dates above don’t add up, and this blogpost may contain historical inaccuracies. Whatevs. That’s how I remember it.

I’ve been asked to review some of the Proms for other websites, which is nice, but they don’t allow me to publish the same material anywhere else, including here. So, opening paragraphs and then links to the rest, which I believe is not infringing anything.

PROM 8: Vaughan Williams, Wigglesworth, Stanford, Harvey, Weir, Saint-Saëns

The University of Cambridge turns 800 this year. Believed to have awarded the first Bachelor of Music degree (in 1464), the university is also the connection between all the composers, conductors, soloists and choirs in this concert. The Cambridge connection is stronger in some cases than others: of the composers, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Harvey and Weir are alumni, Wigglesworth is a lecturer, and Saint-Saëns once conducted a concert there (although he was awarded an honorary degree for his efforts). Davis, Keenlyside and Trotter also all studied at Cambridge, and the chorus was conflated from the choirs of various colleges. Some critics have questioned the BBC’s decision to centre a concert around one single university – will all universities in the UK be offered a Prom concert for significant anniversaries? – but in truth, for many of us in the audience, this was irrelevant, and the draw was simply an interesting programme combining the new (Wigglesworth, 2009) with an old favourite (Saint-Saëns).

Vaughan Williams wrote the score to Aristophanes’ The Wasps for a 1909 college production. The overture mixes the modal patterns of English folk music with contemporary French influences, and requires quite a firm hand from the conductor and superb ensemble playing from the orchestra to maintain structure and avoid dissolving into mush. Fortunately, these were both present, Davis conducting with a steady tempo but a light touch, so the piece moved along well; the strings perfectly together during the pizzicato and spiccato passages. The woodwind blended seamlessly, with individual parts unobtrusively emerging for solos, such as Daniel Pailthorpe’s gentle woody-toned flute… [read more here]

PROM 20: Stravinsky, Schumann, Mendelssohn

Pulcinella was the hero of many comic episodes from the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition. The ballet Pulcinella was originally the idea of Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev and his protégé, the dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, who became fascinated by the half-comic, half-tragic character after encountering him in Neapolitan puppet theatres. For the music to this ballet, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to arrange and orchestrate a recently-discovered trove of music by 18th century composer Pergolesi (although it later transpired that a substantial proportion of this had been misattributed). Stravinsky read the music and “fell in love” with it, and so his neo-Classical period began. Diaghilev may not have been altogether pleased with Stravinsky’s melding of 18th century melodies with his own subtly distorted harmonies and distinctive irregular rhythmic patterns, but to a contemporary ear it is this blend which is of such interest and appeal – a blend of styles brought out well by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This was the young Nézet-Séguin’s first appearance at the Proms, and in his enthusiasm for the occasion he quite made up for the lack of ballet dancers by positively dancing on the podium, spending much of the time on tip-toes, sometimes crouching almost below his stand or, on expansive sweeping gestures, with his feet leaving the ground entirely. This supremely high level of energy was infectious, judging by the lively and full-bodied playing of the orchestra throughout the performance… [read more here]

PROM 37: Glass (Violin Concerto No.1, Symphony No.7)

There is always a special atmosphere at Late Night Proms. Starting after 10pm, they tend to have a relaxed, laid-back feel, and although generally less well-attended than those occurring at a more conventional hour, attract the devoted fans of the non-mainstream composers featured. Of course, in this case, it would be a stretch to describe Philip Glass as non-mainstream, as, particularly thanks to his film scores, he is probably one of the most famous and instantly identifiable of contemporary composers – a fact reflected in the high turnout to hear this performance. However, minimalism has not been featured heavily at The Proms, and this is the first time they have devoted a concert to Glass’s works. In a special bonus for fans, the 72 year old composer himself attended the concert, and appeared on stage at the start. Welcomed warmly, Glass spoke for a few minutes about the Violin Concerto, historically one of his most popular works (and which should now properly be called the Violin Concerto No. 1, as a second has recently been composed, and will receive its UK premiere next year). Telling of how the piece was dedicated to his deceased father, who had a particular affection for violin concertos, he added “When I was asked to write a violin concerto I decided to do a piece that I thought he would like, and I hope I succeeded; there seem to be a lot of fathers who like it, so..!” [read more here]

PROM 50: Beethoven (Fidelio)

This concert performance of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of conductor Daniel Barenboim and writer Edward Saïd’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Although Fidelio is generally a well-loved work, its choice for performance by this particular group of musicians has a special resonance and symbolism: not only was it the result of a long and bitter struggle by the composer himself – in his own words, “Of all my children . . . this is the one that causes me the most powerful birth-pangs and the most sorrows” – but the subject matter is the fight against tyranny and political injustice, and the human spirit’s capacity for love and passion for freedom. Ten years ago, at a time when Israel had severed diplomatic links with Syria and Lebanon, and tensions were growing in the Middle East, Barenboim invited music students from these regions to a workshop combining orchestral playing with intercultural exchange, complemented by lectures and discussions. There are currently musicians from Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Spain (the current host nation for the workshops), and where possible, on each desk an Arab player is paired with an Israeli. It cannot be easy for the young players to put aside political and cultural differences, but Barenboim insists that a symphony orchestra is the perfect template for democracy, involving expressing oneself while simultaneously listening intently to the voices of others, adding that he does not see his creation as an “orchestra for peace” but an “orchestra against ignorance”… [read more here]

PROM 65: Ligeti, Mahler, Schoenberg, R Strauss

Although this concert was not billed as a ‘themed’ Prom, it did not go unnoticed that the first and last pieces achieved a great deal of their widespread fame through inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the programme pieces are also linked by Mahler, who supported Schoenberg in his early career (as well as giving this orchestra its name), Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, which influenced Mahler and Strauss, and the compositional emphasis in all these works on timbre and tonal colour. There can be few composers more fascinated with the timbre than Ligeti, and Atmosphères is a showcase for the huge range of timbral combinations possible from a symphony orchestra. Although the piece is nearly fifty years old, and instantly recognisable, the close tone clusters of the opening, and shimmering micropolyphonic textures in the strings still sound truly unearthly. Complete continuity of sound, poise and serene intensity are vital for its successful performance, and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were quite capable of providing these. The different instrumental groups shifted in and out of focus seamlessly – including the one singularity in the structure, where a rising piccolo cluster gives the illusion of asymptotically ‘going off the top of the scale’, only to re-emerge as a growl in the double basses – until the last brushed piano-strings whisper… [read more here]