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.


Time 7.30pm, Saturday 26-Mar-2011

Place St Johns Smith Square, London, London SW1P 3HA, United Kingdom

Amy Dickson plays the world premiere of Jennifer Fowler’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone, plus Mahler and Debussy

Originally from Western Australia, since 1969 Jennifer Fowler has been living in London where she works as a free-lance composer. She has won a number of international prizes for composition, including awards from Britain, Australia, Germany, USA and Bulgaria. Her music is regularly performed in prestigious international festivals and she has had commissions from such organisations as the BBC, ABC, Perth International Arts Festival, the Music Board of the Australia Council and many performing groups. Recent performances have been in Oxford, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Beijing, Angoulême, and Belgrade.

Recognised widely for her remarkable and distinctive tone and exceptional musicality, Amy Dickson has performed in Europe, Africa and Australasia, in venues such as the Wigmore Hall and the Sydney Opera House. She has also performed as a soloist with many orchestras throughout the world including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. An exclusive recording artist for Sony Music, Amy Dickson has now released two critically acclaimed recordings on the RCA Red Seal label.

Fowler Concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra (World premiere)
Debussy Rhapsody for alto saxophone and orchestra
Mahler Symphony no. 7

Amy Dickson, Saxophone
Michael Nebe, Conductor
Whitehall Orchestra

Image borrowed from

Image borrowed from

Good news first, or bad? I was in the Upper Slips again for this performance, (excellent sound but a poor view of the stage) and I’m inclined to think that this was a really good choice of seat, under the circumstances.

Good first, then… People have been recommending Pelleas et Melisande to me for some time, but it’s never got anywhere near the top of my listening list. This is because, although Debussy’s flute parts are always very satisfying to play, and I can appreciate that he wrote exceptionally well for woodwind, I just don’t particularly enjoy listening to his music. It’s pleasant enough, but has never really done much for me. However, this proved to be the exception; it was lovely, gripping, truly moving, and totally knocked me for six. I’d been warned that this opera could be ‘difficult’ to get into, and that it would be advisable to do some ‘homework’ on the music and story beforehand: what complete bollocks! There’s nothing like the thrill of hearing something great for the first time, and the fact that I didn’t actually know how it was going to end only added to the dramatic tension. With Simon Rattle waving the stick, the ROH orchestra sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them (which is pretty damn good). I couldn’t pick out a particular section for specific praise, partly because there seemed to be a greater degree of coherence, creating the effect of a single musical organism.

And the bad… In my personal opinion, the staging was rubbish, the lighting harsh and the costumes ridiculous. Quite why on earth one would want to dress all the singers in white rhinestone-studded fat-suits (an unholy mix of Elvis, Pierrot, and the Michelin Man) which made them look like they all had huge arses, I do not know. This stuffing in their clothes also appeared to be constricting their movements, although that may have just been the stage direction. The set consisted of some large boxes which were twizzled round by stage crew between scenes, then opened up to reveal multiple copies of a selection of objects each chosen to point out what the director thought was the main theme, or symbol of each scene. Hence, there’s a scene where people receive letters, so we have a big box full of letters; a bit about Melisande picking flowers, so we have a big box of white flowers; a bit about Golaud being wounded, so we have a big box of pillows with a blob of red on (although this could also have signified Melisande menstruating, for all I know). One scene, for want of ideas, just had the words ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ in lights, repeated many times. I read somewhere on the internet that this was supposed to be Braille, to signify Arkel’s failing sight; however, I don’t think Braille simply consists of making normal letters out of a lot of dots. Later, there were lots of empty clothes; this actually looked quite spooky, but Satyagraha did it better. Not that I particularly wanted realism in terms of forests, water, etc., but the neon-lit shop-window display look just didn’t seem to go with the music or story. IMO.

Dressing Melisande in a slinky red dress was an interesting decision, perhaps signifying less the ethereal innocent and something more like Carmen, first bewitching one man, then tiring of him and swiftly moving on to the next, with bloody consequences. This would seem to fit with Angela Kirchschlager’s interpretation, which I am lead to believe was unusually ‘gutsy’ (although I cannot make comparisons). Of course, one main difference between the characters is that Carmen is bluntly honest, whereas Melisande blithely admits to deceiving and lying to Golaud. I was thinking that she really is a dislikeable character, totally self-centred and amoral – although it did occur to me later that perhaps this was unfair, and that her unreasonable behaviour sprung from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. While not condoning Golaud’s violence, I can quite see why he got so pissed off with her – although that may have had something to do with the wonderfully expressive, agonised portrayal of the role by Gerald Finley. His sadness, when his repeated attempts to understand her behaviour and to make her happy were ignored or thrown back at him, was moving, and his increasing irritation at her uncommunicativeness, entirely believable. I imagine I would be pretty annoyed if my wife dropped her wedding ring down a well (pool, orchestra pit, whatever) and didn’t think it important enought to mention, let alone actually apologise or express regret at the loss.

One scene that did work very well was the one where Golaud forces his small son to spy on his wife and her (suspected) lover. Finley was in full tortured misery mode by this point (again, utterly believable, and still sympathetic to some extent, despite the growing bitterness), and the boy playing the brat Yniold (George Longworth) was probably the least irritating child I’ve seen on the ROH stage (actually quite high praise, from me). P & M were stuck on chairs halfway up one of the aforementioned boxes, staring at eachother. I know I’m not selling it, but this was good.

One scene that did not work well was the bit about Melisande doing the Rapunzel bit, hanging her hair out the window to her handsome non-prince. As she didn’t have any extra hair to hang down, Pelleas (Simon Keenlyside) was left waving his arms around in some imaginary hair in the air (while also, for some reason, doing lunges). To be fair, he is an excellent actor, and gave it his best shot, but it just looked a bit daft. I decided to avert my eyes for a while, and just listen to his lovely singing (and Mr K is one of the last singers one would expect to be saying that of).

All the singers, in fact, were excellent. In addition to those already mentioned, there was Robert Lloyd as a classy Arkel, Catherine Wyn-Rogers (who I had it in my head I didn’t like – can’t remember why not) under-employed as Genevieve, and Robert Gleadow as the shepherd/doctor.

Silliest moment (apart from seeing the stupid costumes for the first time): Golaud commenting that the lovers were “kissing like a brother and sister” (or similar). Well, no, not unless the brother and sister in question were Siegmund and Sieglinde.