Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sibelian surprises

So, review from Friday night continued: Susanna Mälkki conducted Sibelius 1 in the second half (after Beatrice Rana's glorious playing in the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto in the first).

Susanna Mälkki. Photo: Simon Fowler
About halfway through I opened my programme to check something. I was wondering if it might be a different version of this symphony - an early draft, or perhaps an unknown revision? - because I was hearing things that I'd simply never noticed before. But no, it was Sibelius 1 through and through; it's just that Mälkki (who is herself Finnish, was principal cello in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for several years, and studied conducting with Jorma Panula) took an approach that was light years away from the heavy-duty baked sponge pudding that we so often chew through in this work. All manner of detail became audible; the tempi didn't hang about, because they don't need to; and the pacing of the energy worked a small miracle in the finale.

Sibelius's First Symphony is often, very often, compared to Tchaikovsky - and certainly there are similarities. But Tchaikovsky, well performed, can pay tribute to that composer's passion for Mozart; and here, too, one became aware of the music's classical-era roots: the taut organisation of the four movements, the light-footedness of the lightning bolts near the start, or the timpani-led scherzo. I can't remember how many times I've heard the slow(ish) movement played as a dirge dragging its way through snowy darkness as if it's got frostbite, or the said scherzo thundering along like a herd of elephants. Not necessary; and not so for Mälkki.

The rhythms danced through that scherzo, the energy let the music fly rather than sticking its soles to the ice, and in general the up-tempo approach kept everyone on their toes - while some details that in other hands are blurred emerged sparklingly clear with spot-on ensemble from the good ol' LPO. The finale's big tune is so often milked for every last shred of intensity from its first appearance; instead, it came out warm, strong and dignified, but didn't let rip until the music had built convincingly up to its ultimate appearance third time around, when Mälkki let it go straight for the jugular. This made absolute sense, as well as a superb shape.

But above all, one could hear the layers of texture that make the symphony shimmer from within: the throbbing cross-rhythms at the bottom of the orchestra, destabilising anything that might even consider becoming four-square; the florid harp details lending unexpected glimmers in different cross-rhythms against that Big Tune.

This wasn't a Deeply Tragic View of Life or a Violently Romantic Vision Plunging Into Permafrost Gloom. This was a thrilling first step into the symphonic world by a composer who was going to break extraordinary new ground and was already well on his way. Brava, Mälkki: it was like hearing the piece for the first time.

She has recently been appointed principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and starts there in the 16/17 season. They're on to a very, very good thing. Meanwhile, here's hoping she comes back soon.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it on the iPlayer for another 28 days, here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beatrice Rana: A Star is Born

Meet the 23-year-old pianist from Puglia who is sweeping to stardom. She's on the latest cover of PIANIST magazine (my interview with her is inside) and last night she took the RFH by storm in her concerto debut there, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2 - one of the darkest and most emotionally daunting in the repertoire.

Beatrice met its challenges with seemingly effortless virtuosity. She caught an ideal mix of intense expression and mercurial modernism, rising cool-headed to the challenges of the giant cadenzas and the perpetuum mobile scherzo. Fine rhythm, grace, elegance and huge reserves of fire all had their place in this performance, which brought the house down and sparked a vivacious Bach encore (the Gigue from the B flat major Partita).

I was amazed, talking to her for the interview, that she was so young. She's mature beyond her years, ferociously intelligent and mentally well organised. She went to a high school in her native Lecce, Puglia, that specialised in science. Question: if you weren't a pianist, what would you be? Answer: Space Woman! I'd love to be an astronaut or an astrophysicist. Her parents are both pianists, her sister a cellist and her grandparents makers of that fabulous strong south Italian red wine that she remarks is "not for aperetif!" And she says her dog tends to leave the room if she's not playing well.

Last year she entered the Van Cliburn Competition because she wanted to see if she could "upgrade" her career. She duly downloaded silver medal and the audiences' hearts and now she has recorded the Prokofiev, along with Tchaikovsky 1, with Tony Pappano conducting, for Warner Classics. It's a stunner. After last night, I can only urge you to go and catch her if she comes to a hall near you.

Last night's concert was conducted by Susanna Mälkki, of whom more later on...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

How do you get to Symphony Hall?

Practise, practise, practise, of course. But in the meantime, just follow the cello... You'll find it on the CBSO's Facebook page.
If you're heading to our concerts soon, you might want to know there's now a different route from the train stations to Symphony Hall. We made a little video to lead the way - follow the cello! Find out more at
Posted by City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, 26 November 2015

Music Into Words, 2 February 2016

Delighted to have been invited to join the panel for this interesting evening, devised and presented by pianist, teacher and writer Frances Wilson (who blogs as The Cross-Eyed Pianist). It takes place in the Court Room of the Senate House, London, 2 Feb, 7pm. Tickets are £5, and it's free to students. Further details and booking here.

Is writing about music really like "dancing about architecture"?
An event exploring the wide variety of writing about classical music today
Concert and opera reviews, academic writing, music journalism, programme notes, blogging and musicians who write about music
  • Guest speakers - including author and music journalist Jessica Duchen, academic, writer and blogger Dr Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London), blogger Simon Brackenborough (who blogs as Corymbus), and The Guardian's Imogen Tilden.
  • Q&A and discussion session 
  • Networking opportunity
Tuesday 2nd February 2016

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Arts funding cuts would be a "false economy" - Osborne

There've been some surprises of the better kind in the chancellor George Osborne's autumn statement. Here's what he said about the arts today.

Please note, the small print that follows in the days after these "good news" statements often contain other surprises: how the ACE will decide to divvy up its allocation remains to be seen. Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the ACE, has apparently described the funding settlement as "astonishing" (according to the BBC's arts correspondent Will Gompertz).
Britain’s not just brilliant at science. It’s brilliant at culture too.
One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport.
£1 billion a year in grants adds a quarter of a trillion pounds to our economy – not a bad return. So deep cuts in the small budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are a false economy.
Its core administration budget will fall by 20%, but I am increasing the cash that will go to the Arts Council, our national museums and galleries.
We’ll keep free museum entry – and look at a new tax credit to support their exhibitions and I will help UK Sport, which has been living on diminishing reserves, with a 29% increase in their budget – we’re going for gold in Rio and Tokyo.
The Right Honourable Member for Hull West and Hessle has personally asked me to support his city’s year of culture – and I am happy to do so.
The money for Hull is all part of a package for the Northern Powerhouse which includes funding the iconic new Factory Manchester and the Great Exhibition of the North. In Scotland, we will support the world famous Burrell Collection.
While here in London we’ll help the British Museum, the Science Museum, and the V&A move their collections out of storage and on display.
And we will fund the exciting plans for a major new home for the Royal College of Arts in Battersea.
And we’re increasing the funding for the BBC World Service, so British values of freedom and free expression are heard around the world.
And all of this can be achieved without raiding the Big Lottery Fund as some feared. It will continue to support the work of hundreds of small charities across Britain.

Here is the DCMS's response to the statement, which all looks pretty positive. It points out: "Less than 1 per cent of total government expenditure goes to culture, media and sport; sectors which account for almost a sixth of the UK economy." It does not contain one word about a new concert hall, which is also interesting.