Showing posts with label BBC Promenade Concerts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BBC Promenade Concerts. Show all posts

Thursday, August 28, 2014

New music on the Beeb: a reversal of fortune

In The Guardian, Susanna Eastburn, head of Sound and Music (the organisation that advocates for contemporary composers in the UK), has written a fine, to-the-point post asking why the BBC assumes that its audience won't like new music. This results from the exclusion from TV broadcasts - even on the niche BBC4 - of a clutch of premieres including works by some of Britain's leading composers, and equally those from abroad.

Roxanna Panufnik, John McLeod, Jonathan Dove (right), Harrison Birtwistle and the two composers commissioned by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - one Israeli, one Syrian - have all been excised from their Proms and sequestered away on a designated website, where nobody who is not already deeply involved in the notion of new music can ever become aware of their existence.

It took some of us a long time to get into Birtwistle. It took me 30 years, and I had a musical training. But not all new music is as terrifying to the uninitiated these days as he might be. Panufnik, McLeod and Dove, for example, are all eminently listenable and could more than prove that music written today is inventive, inspired, varied, "relevant" (that awful word) and more besides. Yet the subliminal message from this move is that the powers-that-be are somehow afraid of it, simply terrified that the poor dears at home will switch off their TVs if they hear a sound that's unfamiliar because it happens to be brand new. The Birtwistle piece chopped from the Prom on TV tonight - the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain - is all of three minutes long. And Panufnik's Three Paths to Peace was the only thing in the World Orchestra for Peace's Prom, with Gergiev conducting, that really had anything to do with peace.

The funny thing is that if people are afraid of new music in Britain, they may very well be that way because of years of conditioning by...ah. The BBC.

Now, look. I LOVE the BBC. You only have to spend a week in the US dealing with American TV to realise how great the BBC is. We'd be lost without them. We'd be stuck with Fox News. Still, it does seem to have a way of getting things awfully wrong where contemporary music policy is concerned.

When I first worked on Classical Music Magazine as assistant editor, back in 1990, I would often find myself speaking to composers, either for interviews, or on the telephone when they rang up begging for a little attention. I don't know how many were convinced that they had been blacklisted according to some alleged new music policy at Radio 3 in its days under the control of William Glock and Hans Keller. Every neglected composer of tonal works was adamant that their music was not played on the radio because it went against received ideology: new music had to be atonal or, preferably, serialist. Microtonality was OK. Tunes were not. This same ideology had permeated the university I had left a few years earlier, where in the music faculty one scarcely dared utter the words 'Steve Reich'.

This alleged policy at Radio 3 has never been categorically proven, to the best of my knowledge - but if it was indeed there, it certainly dovetailed with the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council as was. New music had to be done; metaphorically speaking, a box had to be ticked, in the way it now must be for education, outreach and diversity. But it tended to have to be the right kind of new music, and most people outside the tiny new-music elite didn't like it. Guess what? Many still don't. And it is very, very difficult to persuade newcomers to contemporary music that some of this stuff is really fabulous. I regard Boulez is the kind of musical phenomenon that comes along once a century if you're lucky, but it took some very great performances - by Barenboim - to produce an epiphany for me at the Proms, as recently as 2012. I find it interesting that composers like Birtwistle and Boulez (left) are both being said, here and there, to have "mellowed" with age.

But in some ways it is not surprising if this former policy, if policy it was, eventually put listeners off new music. Music can hurt you, physically, in a way that visual art tends not to: those sound-waves go straight into your body and bypass the intellect, like it or loathe it. Thus people learned to avoid putting themselves through the pain. It's a case of Pavlov's Dog at the concert hall (or deliberately staying away from it).

The stupid thing is that all that is over: instead, a huge variety of new music is being written, engaging, fascinating, intriguing, communicative music, some of which even dares to be beautiful. But now it's being kept away from the TV as if it is certain to poison us if allowed into our homes? This is ridiculous.

And if the BBC is unhappy about us being unhappy about this, as many of us are, in the end it probably has nobody to blame but its old self.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra - more!

I've reviewed the second of the Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer Proms for The Arts Desk. Two Brahms symphonies, five stars.
About 10 minutes into the Brahms Third Symphony I wanted to check a name in the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme. I dared to turn a page. Bad idea. Such preternatural stillness had settled over the sold-out Royal Albert Hall that the gesture could probably have been spotted from the balcony. A motionless, virtually breathless audience is a rarity even at the Proms, where quality of listening is venerated; still, to hold around 6000 people quite so rapt with attention is an extraordinary skill in orchestra and conductor. But then, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer are no ordinary visitors...
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Must great conductors be control freaks?

After the first of two Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, last night at the RAH, I'm pondering about what a great conductor can teach us about how to run things. Because running things, in general, is not the strong point of the planet right now. As you know, institutions of all kinds are mired in hesitation, disagreement, argument, ideology, trumped-up fears re political correctness, and so forth - a situation that puts our ideals and long-established triumphs (like the NHS and the BBC) in jeopardy. We need some life lessons from music: when it works as wonderfully as this, why does it do so? What are they doing right? What general principles can we extrapolate from that that might give us a helping hand somewhere else?

There is no other orchestra that I run to hear, whatever they're doing, wherever they're doing it. With the Budapest Festival Orchestra I don't look at the programme; I just go. Because it'll be fantastic. And they've never let me down yet. Their founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, has a mesmerising platform presence, like Kastschai the magician, and a feel for both the bigger picture and minute detail that is many cuts above your average concert experience.

Yesterday at the Proms the BFO and Fischer performed a mixed programme of central European fizzy treats - Brahms Hungarian Dances, Strauss waltzes and gallops, a Dvorák Legend and the Kodály Dances of Galanta - alongside possibly the best account of the Schubert 'Unfinished' Symphony I've ever heard. Within the dances, every phrase was filled with ideas, meaning, the essence of its existence drawn out: try the razor-smooth, heart-melting arch in The Blue Danube (the Danube is much more beautiful and much bluer in Budapest than it is in Vienna, btw), or the perfectly poised rubato in the Hungarian dances - true rubato, a delicious lingering and spirited catch-up, time robbed and regained.

The Schubert was dark as night, with hushed tremolandi through which one held one's breath and soft solos peering over the edge of the emotional ravine. Each section of the orchestra is so unified that it sounds like one super-instrument, whether the double-basses - ranged in a row along and above the back of the orchestra, providing a wonderful solid foundation for the sound - or the most delicate of first violin sections, poised in the long notes of the second movement as if hanging suspended in outer space (a notorious bow-shake moment, but not a hint of that here). They even went on to play the fragment of scherzo that Schubert left behind - fascinating indeed, though it proved to be an idea that doesn't share the quality of the existing movements and was possibly abandoned for a good reason.

The control was absolute, as if Fischer were a pianist, playing the ensemble the way a deep-thinking virtuoso would the finest Steinway. The BFO seems to be Orchestra Fischer in the way that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is Orchestra Barenboim: an ensemble so finely attuned to its conductor that every flicker of thought is noted and responded to, the understanding entire and unanimous. When tiny things did go wrong, as happened perhaps once or twice (possibly thanks to the awkward acoustic on the RAH stage, which can take some getting used to), it was audible because everything else was, to put it bluntly, perfect.

Now, this sort of near-perfection doesn't happen by itself. This is a conductor in utter control of every last detail. Only by being, essentially, a control freak can a musician achieve this degree of finesse and unanimity. Take the true greats, like Carlos Kleiber: those who have seen his scores tell me that they are minutely annotated, with phenomenal detail and exactitude. Take Debussy's manuscripts: to create that glorious whole, full of colours and atmosphere, takes vast and analytical precision during creation.

So to do something worthwhile, to say something worth saying, to put across the message that is worth hearing, takes two things: the vision to create it, and the control to make it happen. A great conductor, therefore, is of necessity a visionary control-freak. A benign and hopefully enlightened dictator. One who works his players very, very hard - with players who are willing to work as hard as that. It can't be otherwise if you want the results to be as good as what we heard last night.

More than one conductor has said to me in interviews, when I've asked them about this aspect of their profession, that the idea of a democratic model in musical interpretation just doesn't work. I still hope someone will come along and prove them wrong - later this autumn I'm hoping to visit Spira Mirabilis in Italy, for example, to see how they have built their alternative model.

But until someone can prove otherwise, the evidence is that great interpretations come from musicians of genius, and that if such a figure is to get his/her message through an orchestra, he/she has to persuade the players to give, and to surrender.

I think that is what happens in the BFO. Of course, it is also unique in another respect: its players are mostly Hungarian and share a specific background and training with one another and with Fischer. (There seems to be one exception: a name in the brass section that can only be Irish.) This is the exact opposite of an organisation such as the World Orchestra for whatever-it-is - somehow I can't buy into the Peace thing right now - which now and then brings together players from all over the world who do not usually work together, with end results that can be exciting one-offs in their own way. The BFO, by contrast, is as tight an ensemble as a top string quartet. The two approaches are like the proverbial chalk and cheese.

Conductors of Fischer's calibre do not grow on trees, of course, and he is one of just a handful of living conductors whom I, personally, would run to hear at every possible opportunity (the others are Barenboim, Jansons, Nelsons and Rattle). But can these visionary, galvanising, strong-willed characters set a model for world leadership? Dictators in politics tend to be a very bad thing indeed, because they are rarely benign, rarely functioning as they do for the sake of something greater than themselves. Our maestri have (we hope) the composer's interest at heart, rather than those of their wealthy cronies or crooked party donors - yes, you have to please the sponsors when you're off the platform, and don't we know it, but once you are doing your job, that must be left aside. If you are performing great music, you won't be cornered into using your own strength to push someone else's dubious agenda when actually in the flow of your artistic creation. There's room on the concert platform for visionary thinking and the realising of its finest dreams. We could use something similar on the world stage too: leaders with altruistic vision and control-freakery to devote to making it a reality.

Dream on... But meanwhile, come and hear the BFO and Fischer tonight, when their second Prom involves Brahms's third and fourth symphonies.

You can hear last night's Prom on the iPlayer here for four weeks: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8ny3 (part one) and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8nzx (part two)

And here is the Proms Plus talk in which Petroc Trelawny hosts a discussion of the current cultural situation in Hungary, which is not a pretty tale.

Monday, August 25, 2014

La Nina: no words are enough

My interview with the great Nina Stemme is in today's Independent, trailing her appearance as Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. Because last year she was there to do the Ring cycle and words just weren't enough, either for us or for her.

As Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle at last summer’s Proms, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, she had London at her feet; one critic commented that her final scene in Götterdämmerung “flooded out into the auditorium in an unending stream of perfection. No one who heard it will ever forget it.” How did it feel to her? “I had to use my breath, but it was breathtaking,” she quips. “But I don’t have words to describe it, because it is music, and no expression is imaginative enough.”.....

Read the whole thing here. 

And here's a taster of her Salome from the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockhom, filmed last December. Fasten your seatbelts.




Thursday, July 17, 2014

Little at Large: why our busking day changed Tasmin's life

Over at Independent Towers there's a certain pride in this piece. A few years back, when Josh Bell did his famous busking-in-the-Washington-CD-subway experiment, the arts ed called me and said how about we ask Tasmin Little to have a try.

We did; she was, by some miracle, in town and free; and I went along with a notebook and a photographer to document the fun. But what came out was a revelation. It resulted in a light-bulb moment for Tasmin that literally changed her life.

As Tasmin approaches her 20th appearance at the Proms - she is playing the Moeran Violin Concerto on 25 July - I asked her to tell all. here's the full story in today's Independent.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A landmark year for the Proms?

Here is my preview, from the Radar section of today's Independent, about this year's Proms.  Enjoy...




On 18 July the Royal Albert Hall opens its doors for the annual BBC Promenade Concerts, know simply as The Proms: two months of world-class classical music at which standing places cost just £5 a pop. There is nothing else quite like it – either here or abroad. Once you’ve experienced the queues of ‘promenaders’ snaking down Prince Consort Road with sandwich boxes and comfy shoes, sampled the relaxed but excited atmosphere inside the hall and witnessed evenings as thrilling as last year’s Ring cycle – when thousands listened rapt to Wagner’s gigantic tetralogy at the feet of the conductor Daniel Barenboim – chances are you’ll be hooked too.

The 2014 Proms nevertheless marks the end of an era: Roger Wright, director of the Proms for seven years and controller of BBC Radio 3 since 1998, now ends his tenure as both. His successors – the role is to be split – have yet to be appointed.

The news of Wright’s departure broke in a startling way, with an announcement from Aldeburgh Music (the umbrella organisation behind the Aldeburgh Festival and more) that he is to become their new Chief Executive. The very day after this was revealed, there came a BBC announcement that Bob Shennan, controller of Radio 2, is being appointed as overall director of music right across the BBC. The timing struck many as intriguing. Restructuring is inevitable at the BBC in the current climate, but no one with as fine a track record as Wright’s is likely to be too happy if someone else is brought in over his or her head. Meanwhile, whoever takes over Wright’s roles will undoubtedly have to implement funding cuts and deal with whatever may emerge from the new licence fee settlement in 2016.

Wright bids farewell to the Proms after the opening night. “Elgar’s The Kingdom will be the last music I hear as Proms director,” he says. “I’m sad to be leaving the team, of course, but to have had the fun of working with them, and knowing the Proms are in such safe hands, is terrific.”

He does not mince his words, though, over uncertainties in the future: “The Proms has been singled out for reinvestment, so I think there’s a real understanding of their importance, right at the top of the organisation,” he says, “but the biggest question is the future of the BBC funding overall. We don’t know what the licence fee settlement is going to be in 2016-17 onwards. You can’t separate out the future of anything to do with the BBC from those decisions. That’s a question that’s going to arrive very quickly indeed.”

Music lovers not only in Britain but around the world are hoping against hope that that recognition of the Proms’ significance will survive such changes. For generations of music-lovers summer without the Proms has been as unthinkable as Halloween without pumpkins or Christmas without carols. This year marks the series’ 120th anniversary; it has been run by the BBC since 1927 and resident at the Royal Albert Hall since 1941. And it is not as if the BBC has not made a huge effort to extend its reach. Indeed, never before has the Proms been quite as accessible as it is now.

If you can’t get there in person, not only is every concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, but also there are plentiful TV broadcasts and a plethora of online facilities to let you enjoy the performances by a dizzying range of musicians: from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to the Pet Shop Boys. The latter are creating a new work for orchestra and electronics that pays tribute to Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park computer pioneer who took his own life 60 years ago after a 1952 conviction for homosexual activity destroyed both his personal life and his career. A posthumous royal pardon was granted to him last December. 

There is much to live up at the Proms – especially after the last two years. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Cultural Olympiad and featured some extraordinary moments – whether the arrival of the British athletes at the festivities of the Last Night, or Barenboim walking into the Olympic opening ceremony as one of eight great humanitarian figures carrying the Olympic flag, straight from conducting a Prom.

Last year’s Wagner bicentenary season included concert performances of no fewer than seven of his operas, featuring starry casts that could turn the priciest festivals green with envy. And the Last Night proved a landmark, headed for the first time by a woman conductor, Marin Alsop, her podium festooned with pink balloons. That occasion was double-edged since, as Alsop pointed out in her speech, it was hard to believe such “firsts” were still waiting to happen.

Staging these festivals involved both vision and chutzpah, and paid off handsomely in terms of audience figures: last year’s average attendance was 93% and 57 of 75 main concerts sold out completely. But without quite such special events to raise the roof, can this year’s programme match that success?

The agenda contains just about enough celebration to keep the mood upbeat. The 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth is marked with three of the composer’s finest operas: Salome, featuring the Swedish star soprano Nina Stemme (last year’s Ring cycle Brünnhilde), followed 24 hours later by Elektra, in which Strauss creates the ultimate in hair-raising musical Expressionism. Earlier in the season, Glyndebourne brings in the cast and crew of its controversial production of Der Rosenkavalier for a semi-staged concert performance.

The World Cup has not necessarily sparked this year’s focus on international orchestras from sometimes surprising places (and will probably have been quietly forgotten by opening night). Still, a record number of them are converging on London, many demonstrating the rapidly burgeoning interest in western classical music in developing countries. Therefore alongside heavyweight visitors such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a number of ensembles are making their first-ever visits to the Proms, among them orchestras from Turkey, Iceland, China, South Korea, Lapland, Australia and Qatar.

The latter is a case in point. The Qatar Philharmonic has existed for only seven years and its music director is Han-Na Chang, the former cello prodigy and protegée of Mstislav Rostropovich, who has reinvented herself as a force to be reckoned with on the podium. The orchestra, Chang says, includes musicians of some 30 different nationalities; and its mission statement includes assisting Qatar “on its journey from carbon economy to knowledge economy by unlocking human potential”. Their Prom will include a work by the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran. “The musicians are incredibly excited – it’s such a privilege for us to be making our Proms debut,” Chang says.

Ironically, she remarks that “the women conductors issue” was scarcely mentioned when she took up her post; in a country where the orchestral field is so new, western traditional notions of the dominant male maestro have not had a chance to become ingrained. She is one of four women conductors at this year’s Proms, along with Sian Edwards, Rebecca Miller and a return visit from Alsop – not a lot, but a gentle shift in the right direction.

Women are relatively well represented among this year’s composers, notably with a Proms debut for Roxanna Panufnik, a new BBC commission by Judith Weir, London premieres for Sally Beamish and Helen Grime and works by Unsuk Chin and Dobrinka Tabakova. Not least, a late-night Prom is devoted to an appearance by the singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, who has crossed all boundaries with apparent ease. Parity for women composers and conductors remains a long way off, but these are noteworthy steps nonetheless.

Commemoration rather than celebration is the order of the day where the music of World War I is concerned. The tragedy of war has inspired numerous musical masterpieces and the Proms, besides scheduling some of the most famous, such as Britten’s War Requiem, is also airing rare gems such as the Elegy for Strings In Memoriam Rupert Brooke by the Australian composer FS Kelly, who died at the Battle of the Somme, and songs by the much-loved poet and composer Ivor Gurney. One Prom is themed around War Horse, with a visit from the National Theatre’s Handspring Puppets.

British music has long been an enthusiasm of Wright’s and beyond the works associated with World War I there is plenty of it to enjoy, including the Violin Concerto by E J Moeran, a surprise recent hit in the classical charts. The range of UK composers extends from Elgar and Walton to the gritty modernism of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, both turning 80 this year.

It has not escaped the notice of the Twitterverse, though, that what the BBC Proms seems to celebrate above all this year is – well, the BBC. Quite a few events draw upon the broadcaster’s wider brand, including a Sports Prom and a CBeebies Prom offering the under-fives early experience in concert-going. Traditionalists have, predictably, been snorting about such things – to say nothing of the bile that still greets the occasional presence of pop musicians in the country’s premier classical festival.

Contrary to those critical of apparent self-aggrandisement in the BBC brand, Wright says that he sees the trend as “hugely positive” in terms of reaching new audiences. “After all,” he points out, “it’s the BBC licence fee payer who pays for the Proms. The range of the audience becomes greater and greater the more we can play in to the Proms reaching different audiences. The Sports Prom is a great example: for a Prom to be live on R5 Live for the first time is a really big deal, as is the late night Battle of the Bands – looking back to the Swing era of the 1930s-40s – which is on Radio 2. It’s always been the agenda to reach new audiences for classical music. That’s absolutely what the Proms do.”

For the moment, it’s time to put any anxiety about the future aside and get ready to enjoy the music. All you need to enjoy the Proms is open ears, an open mind and comfortable shoes.

BBC Promenade Concerts, Royal Albert Hall, opening 18 July. Box office: 0845 401 5040



TOP 15 PROMS CHOICES

Prom 1, 18 July, 7.30pm: Elgar, The Kingdom
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Erin Wall (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass-baritone).
Elgar’s biblical oratorio gets the Proms season off to a celestial start in the grand manner.

Prom 4, 20 July, 7.30pm: World Orchestra for Peace, Valery Gergiev (conductor). This designated UNESCO Concert for Peace involves a Proms debut for British composer Roxanna Panufnik, music from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Mahler’s Symphony No.6.

Prom 8, 23 July, 10.15pm: Pet Shop Boys, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Dominic Wheeler (conductor). Featuring world premiere of A Man for the Future, a tribute to Alan Turing by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

Prom 10, 25 July, 7.30pm: BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Tasmin Little (violin). A British programme featuring Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, Moeran’s Violin Concerto, the London premiere of David Horne’s Daedalus in Flight and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Prom 16, 29 July, 6.30pm: Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Daniel Hope (violin). Turkey’s leading orchestra in its Proms debut, including the world premiere of the new Violin Concerto by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei).

Prom 21, 2 August, 7.30pm: Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, featuring the John Wilson Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. The fizz of this classic musical should build on the success of musicals at the Proms in past years.

Prom 33, 10 August, 7.45pm: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Edward Gardner (conductor), Louis Schwizgebel (piano). The UK’s finest youth orchestra in a dazzling programme of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Birtwistle and Lutoslawski, with the dynamic Ed Gardner on the podium and rising star pianist Louis Schwizgebel as soloist.

Prom 42, 17 August, 7.30pm: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor), Allan Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone). A World War I tribute programme featuring music by Rudi Stephan, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and the searingly beautiful Elegy for strings, in memoriam Rupert Brooke by FS Kelly.

Prom 46, 20 August, 7.30pm: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Barenboim returns to the Proms with his famous orchestra that brings together Arabic and Israeli musicians. Along with music by Mozart and Ravel they perform the UK premieres of works by Kareem Roustom and Ayal Adler.

Proms 52 and 53, 25 (7.30pm) and 26 August (7pm): Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor). The sleek, sophisticated and fresh-thinking Budapest ensemble return for two Proms: a mixed programme including Schubert, Dvorák and Kodály, and the next night an all-Brahms concert.

Proms 58 and 59, 30 and 31 August (7.30pm): Strauss opera weekend - Salome and Elektra. Nina Stemme stars as Salome, with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and conductor Donald Runnicles. For Elektra the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Semyon Bychkov are joined by a cast including Christine Goerke in the title role, Johan Reuter and Dame Felicity Palmer.

Proms Chamber Music 7, 1 September, 1pm, Cadogan Hall: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano). The gifted young British pianist performs music by Chopin, Mompou, Ravel and Gounod/Liszt, and the world premiere of Judith Weir’s new BBC commission Day Break Shadows Flee.

Prom 66, 6 September, 7pm: Berliner Philharmoniker, Berlin Radio Choir, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Eric Owens (bass). An all-star performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Prom 67, 7 September, 3.30pm. Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Han-Na Chang (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano). The phenomenally gifted Han-Na Chang, cellist turned conductor, is at the helm for this young orchestra’s Proms debut, featuring music by Behzad Ranjbaran, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

Prom 74, 11 September, 10.15pm. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright joins forces with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Johannes Debus for a late-night Prom of his own brand of ‘baroque pop’













Saturday, March 29, 2014

Who'll replace Roger Wright?

Bombshell from the Beeb this week as we heard that Roger Wright is leaving the controllership of Radio 3 and the directorship of the Proms to be chief executive at Aldeburgh.

Filling both these rather distinct roles at once is a tall order - especially at the moment. One job looks like the biggest toy box in the western world (OK, in reality it probably isn't - but who wouldn't love to dream up their perfect Proms season?). The other...doesn't; on the one hand, whoever runs Radio 3 will probably have to wield a sharp-edged axe, but on the other, the recently appointed director general, Tony Hall, is the most sympathetic to the arts in many a long year. Who could be in the frame to take over?

In the spirit of fantasy football - for none of us have much idea which way things might go - here is my personal shortlist for the headhunters' reference.

The director of the Proms needs the experience, the knowledge, the contacts, the drive, the ambition, the personality and the thickness of skin to reach for the stars. It is high time, of course, that the Proms was run by a woman. It's been run by a man for over 100 years. Radio 3, of course, has never been run by a woman either. Chances are probably limited, given the male weighting within the station and its listeners, but you never know; stuff could yet be swayed. Here is a 50-50 selection in no particular order, plus a little thinking outside the box. Some of these names have been bandied about a lot; others haven't, but perhaps should be.

GILLIAN MOORE. The Southbank's head of music has a simply staggering breadth of knowledge about the classical repertoire, not least contemporary music - and commissioning the latter is a vital part of the Proms role. She's also stupendously creative in programme planning. Witness last year's The Rest is Noise.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER. The editor of The Guardian is a passionate music lover and clearly has the cool head, steady hand and strength of personality to carry off the joint post and all it entails. After dealing concurrently with Snowden and learning the Chopin G minor Ballade, he might find it a tempting piece of cake.

JOHN GILHOOLY. Running the Wigmore Hall is something that nobody would want to stop doing - unless they wished to be let off the leash with a bigger place and programmes to match. He has an impeccable track record as chief exec and artistic director of the Wiggy and head of the Royal Philharmonic Society. (PS - John, when you get this appointment, please can I have the Wigmore job? Thanxbijx.)

KATHRYN MCDOWELL. As CEO of the LSO she is accustomed to dealing with Gergiev, so probably most other jobs will seem a picnic. She's maintained the orchestra's position at the top of the UK's orchestral tree while keeping discretion, valour and a level head.

TOM SERVICE. The critic and broadcaster is virtually a walking musical encyclopaedia - and is a brilliant communicator, too. His soundness, enthusiasm and conviction would be invaluable assets in the role. Nicholas Kenyon went to this job from being a critic and broadcaster, so precedent exists.

FIONA MADDOCKS. The Observer's music critic, she is a former editor of BBC Music Magazine and along with the necessary breadth of knowledge she has managerial experience, a razor-sharp brain and a scrupulous attitude towards fairness and balance.

...Anyway, I know who I think should get the job, but we are not yet off to the bookies to place bets.






Monday, July 29, 2013

A very spoilt opera lover's home thoughts from abroad

So last night, here in Munich, I heard Don Carlo with Jonas Kaufmann sounding perhaps the best I've ever heard him (and you know how good that is), Anja Harteros sounding like a platinum-plated Maria Callas only possibly better, Rene Pape sounding like King Marke as King Philip II and a baritone new to my radar, Ludovic Tezier, as Rodrigo sounding like a presence who will dominate his repertoire to very fabulous effect for years to come. How many great voices can you have on a stage at any one time? It occurs to one that - perhaps unusually for a Verdi performance - one could reassemble the same team for a certain thing by Wagner to fine effect, one named Tristan und Isolde...

But oh dearie dearie dear... I went and missed Barenboim's Gotterdammerung at the Proms, and today have been inundated with messages full of overjoy, overwhelmedness or plain old Schadenfreude from those who were there, or heard it on the radio, or who are calling for a Ring cycle to become a regular feature of the Proms, please, something I will second with all my heart (provided it's done by the right performers). After a 20-minute ovation, Barenboim made a speech declaring that what the audience had been through with him and his musicians was something he had never even dreamed of. Can't manage to embed the code for some reason, so please follow this link to hear it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ddfdr

Extra plaudits for the Proms this year for having made me seriously question the wisdom of taking a summer holiday abroad while they're on.



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dragon-slayer: Lance Ryan IS Siegfried

Here's my write-up for the Indy of last night at the Proms, where things are turning seriously steamy in the Ring. A slightly less packed turnout for this one, perhaps because the temperatures in the hall have been in the news, but hey, there was more air for the rest of us as we rushed back for episode 3. If this is what happens in a Wagner anniversary, please can we have another next year? I mean, he'd have been 201 - isn't that worth celebrating too?

Shock confession: this is the first time I have actually enjoyed Siegfried. The first act can be heavy going and unless you have a top-notch chap in the title role, so can the rest. It needs to be done very, very, very well, all round, to succeed (at least where my ears are concerned). This one...just flew by, with laughter, tears and suitably raised consciousness. Where's it been all my life?

If you were wondering whether to go to Gotterdammerung on Sunday, but hesitated: stop thinking and just go. I can't, as I'll be in the only other place an opera buff (never mind critic) should be just now, which is in Munich, listening to Jonas in a spot of Verdi. But even with that to look forward to, I am sick as the proverbial parrot about missing the last night of this Ring cycle.

Left, Canadian Heldentenor Lance Ryan as Siegfried (not as he looked yesterday, of course). He simply owned the role and thus the evening.

Wagner would have loved his operas being done at the Proms: to a huge crowd of passionate enthusiasts in the arena who have come from far and wide for the occasion and pay just a fiver to get in. He wanted admission at Bayreuth to be free. It didn't prove very practical, of course, but that was the original idea.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bristol calling

As a techno-twit, I've been trying to get my head around the dizzying digital heights of the Bristol Proms. Fascinating chats with Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic and the brain behind the series; Max Hole, chairman of Universal, which is throwing its weight behind the series; and Clare Reddington, digital suprema of Bristol's Watershed. All in the Independent, right now.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/an-ear-to-the-future-bringing-classical-music-into-the-21stcentury-8728936.html

Meanwhile, here is my review of Barenboim's very steamy journey up the Rhine at the (London) Proms on Monday night, and I am just busy writing up last night's Die Walkure...

Saturday, July 06, 2013

On your feet! It's Proms time


The sun is shining, Andy Murray's in the final and next week it's time for the Proms to begin. This season is stuffed full of Wagner operas and I have just one word to start you off: footwear. My guide to how to make the most of the Proms is in today's Independent, along with my personal pick of ten unmissable events. And yes, there will be Korngold.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/on-your-feet-for-the-2013-proms-8687389.html

Friday, April 19, 2013

Proms 2013: Hear 7 Wagner Operas for £5 Each

You'll need sandiwches, water, strong shoes and even stronger legs - those operas are loooong - but where else in the world can you go to the complete Ring cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim and starring Nina Stemme, plus Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser and Parsifal, each with major Wagnerian superstars at the helm, and stand just a few metres from the performers, and pay only £5 a time? Yes, the Proms are back and this is one great whopper of a Wagner anniversary season.

There's some Verdi - though no complete operas (apparently this is down to it's-just-how-things-turned-out, rather than any Wagner-is-best conspiracy, before you ask). And a more than fair pop at Britten, including Billy Budd from Glyndebourne. Fans of Granville Bantock, Walton, Rubbra, George Lloyd and Tippett could also be quite happy with this year's line-up.

The glass ceiling is shattering nicely as Marin Alsop takes the helm for the Last Night, becoming the first woman ever to conduct it. Better late than never, and she is a brilliant choice for the task.

Guest artists on the Last Night include Joyce DiDonato and Nigel Kennedy. Nige will be appearing earlier in the season too, playing the good old Four Seasons with his own Orchestra of Life plus the Palestine Strings, which consists of young players from the Edward Said National Conservatories of Music. Lots of piano treats as well - soloists to hear include Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the terrific duo of Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott, Daniil Trifonov in the rarely-heard Glazunov Piano Concerto No.2 and Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis playing Schubert's Grand Duo for piano duet in a late-night Prom.

There's one thing, though, that sent me into meltdown. Leafing through the listings, one turns to 6 August and out leap the words KORNGOLD: SYMPHONY IN F SHARP. I've waited 30 years for this. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's one and only full-blown symphony is coming to the Proms at long, long last. It is being performed by the BBC Philharmonic under John Stogårds. And guess what? I'm supposed to be away on holiday on 6 August. If that isn't the Law of Sod, then what is?

Meanwhile we're promised more TV coverage of the Proms than ever before, and plenty of stuff online, and the invaluable iPlayer to help with catching up. But really, there's no substitute for being there. If you've never been, get a taste of it in the launch film above. Book your tickets now.

Full listings here.








Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Historical: Cage and Cunningham

This interview with those long-time partners and collaborators John Cage and Merce Cunningham - composer with choreographer - is about half an hour long. Make yourselves comfortable. Enjoy. And don't miss the John Cage centenary Prom tonight: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2012/august-17/14218




Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Benjamin goes for gold

The Prom was packed out last night for Benjamin Grosvenor's performance of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2. "HEAVE!" shouts the arena as the piano lid goes up. "HO!" responds the gallery. Then the leader of the Royal Phil presses the A for the orchestra to tune up and everyone claps and claps and claps.

Now, different leaders respond to this little Proms tradition in different ways. Last year, the concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra had a field day on encountering it and looked ready to continue with an impromptu piano recital. Duncan, though, kept his back firmly turned upon the audience and stayed put. Perhaps he was trying to make the note heard amid the din. Could it be that it was, er, drowned out?

The concerto opens, as you know, with a cadenza - that florid, organ-like toccata that leads into the far-flinging first subject (which was kindly donated to the composer on request by his star pupil, one Gabriel Fauré, who'd dreamed it up for a Tantum Ergo he'd left unfinished). Then in came the orchestra...about an eighth-tone sharper than the piano.

Benjamin went for gold, unperturbed by the hit-and-miss noises going on around him. The best is the enemy of the good, and of the vaguely OK. It is, even more, the enemy of the seriously naff. Amid a rigid, why-bother-with-rubato accompaniment (come on, Maestro Dutoit, it's not illegal to let your hair down), abysmal intonation and all the usual balance problems of the RAH, the pianist's voice shone out as a sliver of truth: genuine, unsullied 100-carat musicality. The work's ferocious technical challenges flew past as though effortless - the concerto's popularity and the catchiness of its tunes somehow mean that its exposed writing, chock-full of finger-whirling yet melodic passagework, is not always appreciated. He took the closing tarantella at a terrific lick, and the gorgeous central scherzo barely touched the ground.

Though sporting a scarlet shirt, Benjamin isn't an overt showman - he has a modest air and no pretentions. Instead, the energy of his virtuosity goes where it needs to, straight into the piano. You use your ears first to appreciate it, and so you should. I sometimes call this syndrome 'Heifetz Face'. That great violinist gave away nothing in his facial expression and indulged in no physical histrionics while performing. He stood and delivered, highly concentrated, directing the energy into the music - and what came out sounded perfect. A lot of the finest musicians do something similar. Visit your local Alexander Technique teacher for a fuller explanation about the channelling of physical energy.

I can't help foreseeing a day - 15 years ahead, perhaps? - when Benjamin might wish to put together an orchestra of his own and start directing from the keyboard. Last year at the Proms, too, he had to perform with a sort of golf handicap in the form of a boxed-in conductor ill at ease with the romantic rhetoric and grand gestures of the work in question (that was Liszt No.2 - and Liszt was a prime influence on Saint-Saëns). And yesterday, once again, it was down to the encore - Godowsky's transcription of 'The Swan' from Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals - to show what the pianist can really do in terms of limpid ebb and flow, songful, natural voicing and flowering musical instinct. It was pure magic.

Benjamin's half-hour of world-class pianism was sandwiched between a rarely heard Delius orchestral work, Paris: The Song of a Great City (pleasant, curious, rather forgettable) and a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony so crass that several times I thanked heaven that I didn't have to review it for the paper. I am through with being nice to poor old orchestras because they're doing their best under difficult circumstances and all that. I've heard the RPO do a lot better than this on many occasions, so I know they can. Cringeing in the back row, I wished they would.

This wasn't a happy night for Team GB in the orchestral world. Up at the Edinburgh Festival, the LPO's Usher Hall concert - an ambitious bells-themed programme with Vlad at the helm - was cancelled at the last moment due to a massive power failure (Edinburgh's, not theirs). They spent a relaxing evening in the pub.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Last Night looms

It's the Last Night of the Proms today. What's the matter with everyone? Why are people not jumping up and down, shouting about disgusting jingoism?

Several possibilities.

1. We're all looking forward to it a lot, especially to hearing Susan Bullock and to witnessing - if it's filmed - Lang Lang's dizzy dash from park to platform.

2. We need something to celebrate at the moment, the Proms are worth celebrating and this is how they are traditionally celebrated. This has been a vintage year, to put it mildly.

3. The country is becoming more nationalistic as times grow harder.

4. The Last Night is finally being recognised for what it truly is: a bit of good old harmless fun to raise the spirits.

Which is your favourite explanation?

My music column for Standpoint's September issue is all about how special this year's Proms have been: virtually every concert was a talking point and a mini-festival in its own right. (This was written well before certain events last week, incidentally.)
Did you know that people care this much about classical music? They do. And in a world full of cyber-chatter, talking about what you care about has never been easier — or more important in spreading the message about its existence. Talking points at the Proms have been the festival's best marketing tool in years.
Read the whole thing here. There's a very snazzy pic of The Dude on site.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Double Brahmsfest: Haitink and Abbado go head to head

Another Friday, another Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 given at a great music festival by legendary performers. Honest to goodness, it's quite something to hear it in Lucerne with Abbado at the helm one week and at the Proms under Haitink just seven days later. Last night's Prom was a Brahmsfest par excellence - and the first of two, since tonight the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax follow it up with the Piano Concerto No.2 and the Symphony No.4.

Yesterday opened with the Third Symphony (which steamed into first place as my favourite of the four while I was on tour with the LPO and Vladimir last December) - the most intimate of them, it's the one you can turn, while listening, into the middle-period piano sonata Brahms never wrote, or the finest of his chamber works. In Haitink's hands the solid centre radiated the orchestration's golden glow; the playing was faultless, the tempi spot-on-delicious, the beauty and reflectiveness balanced out with certain touch and vast affection. Brahms 3 doesn't get much better than that. It was so good that there's almost nothing to say.

As for the concerto, Manny Ax was everything that last week Radu Lupu unfortunately didn't manage to be. I don't know what happened to Lupu in Lucerne, but he wasn't on form - technically the concerto was all over the shop, and there were some alarming moments where he and the orchestra seemed to be on different planets - the passage in the final movement just before the fugue, where the piano duets with a French horn off the beat, was a case in point (one pitied the poor horn player). What remained was Lupu's characteristic sound, a palette like an Odilon Redon pastel, dusky, velvety and radiant all at once. Ax, by contrast, was rock solid, dynamic, shining, thoughtful, humane.

And Haitink v Abbado? Telling, dear friends. Very telling. Haitink is a conductor whose work I've revered for donkey's years. There's something pure about his approach, free of egomania and point-proving, setting out simply to convey the truth of the music as he feels it and thinks it through. In the past his Ring Cycle was what turned me on to Wagner, his Ravel Daphnis left me exhilarated and his Mahler Nine sent me home speechless. And this Brahms 3 was, as I said, pretty much perfect.

But last week Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived riding a different variety of phoenix. Things went wrong - plenty wrong - if this was only Lupu's doing, I just couldn't say. Yet that opening orchestral exposition wasn't only strong, but revelatory. Abbado's detailed emphases lit the opening motif like a shaft of sidelight in a Caravaggio; the phrasing of the second theme's descending scale linked it at once in the mind to the melody of the slow movement. Risks were taken, all of them in the service of dear old Johannes, and when they paid off they did so spectacularly. Haitink and Ax took few risks: what resulted was the solidity of the ideal just about realised. Yet despite all its problems, it's the Abbado-Lupu performance that I suspect I'll still remember in 20 years' time, assuming my brain is still in reasonable working order by then.

One other little grumble involves the RAH acoustics. For me, Ax's performance fell foul of The Echo. Apparently this phenomenon is well known at the Proms. It's not something I normally encounter in the usual press seats around door H, but this time we were by door J, further round the circle, and each piano note seemed to sound twice in rapid succession. Others have tweeted that they too experienced this, one from the centre of the arena, another from the other side of the stalls, so it's clearly not specific to seat 52 in row 7. Some say it does not detract from their enjoyment of the music, but I found it immensely bothersome, especially in the fast passages where at times it felt like seeing double. Please could someone investigate whether anything can be done about it?

Meanwhile, read more about my trip to Lucerne in yesterday's Independent, here.

And here is a taster of the performance last night from BBC TV - accessible only to UK readers, I'm afraid (that's not my doing, folks).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wagner was here...


I've just been to paradise, aka Lucerne. This Swiss lakeside city has got to be one of the most beautiful spots in Europe (and its KKL concert hall matches that point for point).

Wagner must have thought so too, because he lived here, at Tribschen (above) - a beautiful, good but gentle walk along the lakeside from the hall, the house is in a location second to no other. And it was here, on the stairs, that he assembled an ensemble of musicians to play the Siegfried Idyll to Cosima - who was upstairs in bed - on her Christmas Eve birthday. The view from the house is really not bad.




The only thing in Lucerne to convince you that you're still in the real world is...cost. With the Swiss franc among the world's strongest currencies at present, and the dear old pound plummeting, you pay, for example, more than six quid for a frappuccino and about seven for a reasonably decent sandwich. When I have written my 25th bestseller and all the other 24 have been filmed starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, I shall consider moving there. More about the concert I attended soon, but for now, suffice it to say that it was the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Abbado...

Meanwhile, I wrote a piece about the agony and ecstasy of film music, for The Independent - it came out on Friday in time for the film music Prom and pays special attention to that desperately underrated centenary boy of 2011, Bernard Herrmann. Couldn't post earlier as was on the move, but here it is.

Yes, Korngold is in it too, but he would be - and I'm also delighted to say that next year I'll be doing a Radio 3 Building A Library broadcast to choose the finest available CD of the Violin Concerto, which is good news because it's a sure indication that now there are plenty available.





Friday, August 05, 2011

COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE DUDE



Here is my exclusive interview with Gustavo Dudamel for today's Independent - the interview that most of the music business said I'd never get in a blue moon.

"I think we have to make everyone understand that it's important to have a future for the people. It's important to give the best level of art, the best level of culture and the best level of music to ALL the people, not only to one part of the community. This is the message of El Sistema..." 

He and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra are at the Proms tonight doing Mahler's Second Symphony. "Resurrection is happening every day," he says. "It's the resurrection of hope."


Remember my Fred & Ginger clip the other day? This is what it was all about... "They laughed at me, wanting The Dude, said I was reaching for the moon...But ah, he came through - now they'll have to change their tune..." 


Here's what happened last time they came to the Proms. You've seen it before. See it again. If you can't get to the show tonight, it's live on BBC Radio 3 as usual and on TV tomorrow.




Wednesday, July 27, 2011

And the winner is...

Congratulations to STEPHEN LLEWELLYN, winner of the JDCMB 'Chacun a son gout' competition. Yes, bizarrely enough, that is indeed the same Stephen Llewellyn who was the proud champion of Miss Mussel's first #operaplot competition. Stephen, you will be the lucky recipient of the new CD by Joseph Calleja, 'The Maltese Tenor', which will be sent to you straight from the offices of Universal Classics.

The correct answers: 'Chacun a son gout' is featured prominently in Johann Strauss II's opera Die Fledermaus. And it is sung by Prince Orlofsky. I am impressed that everybody who entered the competition - and there were lots of you - got it right.

The prize draw took place last night in the concertmaster's dressing room at the Royal Albert Hall, just after the London Philharmonic had completed its 'Vladothon' all-Hungarian Prom, which involved Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist, and to end, Liszt's Faust Symphony.

We asked the orchestra's one actual Hungarian violinist, Katalin Varnagy, to select the winner's name from the many entries that mingled in the violin case... You can see the very glam Kati talking about her Hungarian musical heritage in the Prom interval when the concert's televised on Thursday evening.



Then, since the occasion was also Tomcat's birthday and, besides, marked the 25th anniversary of him joining the LPO (odd, as he's only 21...) everyone came along for a drink, including the adorable and stupendous Mr Bavouzet...




 













...and also Vladimir Jurowski and concertmaster Pieter Schoemann (pictured below - l to r, Vladimir, Tomcat, Kati and Pieter). The flag is Hungarian - there's a green stripe at the bottom.


I'd just like to reassure any Hungarian Dances fans that the characters of Karina (semi-Hungarian) and Rohan (South African) were not actually based on Kati and Pieter. It's all pure coincidence, honest to goodness, guv. These things happen with books sometimes. Life imitates art. It does.

Quite a late night. Please excuse the JDCMB team while it adjourns to the kitchen for extra coffee....