Sunday, 15 September 2019

Saved by good musicianship - Last Night of the Proms 2019


Last Night of the Proms 2019 - a wild night out, as usual, where music isn't really the point.  But we still care, and with Sakari Oramo conducting the flagship BBC Symphony Orchestra, we could count on good playing  and some musical excellence. Oramo's good nature makes him a natural communicator, so he's a good compere too (better than most BBC presenters). "In an age of social media attention spans", he said "it's good that audiences can enjoy live concerts". Thank goodness for that. But one wonders if these days, LNOP is not about music at all.

A few years back, Arron Banks, the millionaire with "interesting" non-British connections and no known musical background, tried to swamp the LNOP with free Union Jacks.  Which the Prommers largely rejected,  making their sympathies clear. After all, music is international, and without freedom of movement British musicians couldn't work abroad, nor international musicians enter.  If Parliament can be prorogued to curb the normal process of democracy, can the BBC stand up to political pressure?  Its promotion of Farage did him no harm, whatseover. Rupert Murdoch must be very pleased. This year the stage and balconies of the Royal Albert Hall were festooned with Union Jacks - not placed by prommers but by those who want control.  Patriotism is a good thing but political manipulation is not.  Isn't the Union Jack supposed to stand for Union ?  Don't Scotland, London and indeed millions of others who don't support extremism matter anymore ? A fait accompli, like a coup.

There were some compensations, though. Daniel Kidane's Woke, was actually good as music.  Many LNOP commissions, even by top composers, are somewhat perfunctory, but this had substance.  An inventive sound palette, with exotic sounds, building up to a panorama which felt full of incident and imaginative detail.  Dominant chords gave the piece a firm framework, and distinctive character.  Nice depth of texture, too.  At the top, high timbres flew freely, supported by elusive wind figures, lower winds, brass and strings providing bedrock.  Lots of development too - in the quiet section mysterious background sounds enhance the main theme. The finale was gorgeous, building up to a full throated, affirmative tutti.  Kidane has written about the concepts behind the piece which are perhaps even more important in a Britain that's become increasingly intolerant of diversity.  Woke is good enough that it stand on its own terms.  The real problem with society is that it's based on a system that promotes inequality.  The lack of musical education in school doesn't help either,. Indeed a good school system would help a lot in combatting ignorance.  Instead we now live in times when racism is mainstream. Years ago, I watched Gordon Laing, a great basssoonist, walk towards the Royal Albert Hall, carrying his bassoon case, an object non-musicians might mistake for something sinister. Plus, he was wearing a  hoodie and slouch pants. A white guy might not have worried, but let's face it,  statistically not being white gets you into trouble even when you're doing nothing wrong.  Let us never be complacent.

Oramo conducted an exuberant suite from Manuel de Falla The Three Cornerd Hat, again establishing musical credentials.  Laura Mvula's Sing to the Moon has been heard three times at the Proms, here in an a capella arrangement for the BBC Singers and Chorus. Then, Elisabeth Maconchy's Proud Thames, commisioned for the Coronation: a well crafted piece, horns and winds over swirling strings, and blows of timpani.  A strong current - like the Thames - flowing throughnthe countryside to a London then full of hope and optimism.  It worked well with Elgar's Sospiri op 70 completed on the verge oif the beginning of the 1914-1918 war.  The strings ma y seem peaceful, but as so often with Elgar, there's a underlying mood of tension,which Oramo and the BBC SO picked up on. Though the strings and harps and organ might suggest serenity, the piece isn't subtitled "Sighs" for nothing.

But the "new" Proms priorities came to. the fore with Jamie Barton, for whom the BBC Publicity department seems to have pulled out all the stops. The Habanera from Carmen is so popular that it will always thrill a crowd, as did the hit numbers from Samson et Delilah and Verdi Don Carlos. But one wonders what the reception would be from opera house audiences used to full operas and more demanding standards. Big voices always appeal, but phrasing, controlled vibrato, intonation, and subtlety are important too. When she sang Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz, the RAH crowd went wild, but I kept thinking of Joyce DiDonato, who sang it with such fervour and finesse that her performance felt like a truly historic moment, elevating the piece from song to anthem.  The Triumphal March from Aida restored the balance, extremely well done, especially considering that Oramo and the BBCSO, the BBC Singers and Chorus don't do a whole lot of opera. 

More good music after the interval, too, with the Overture from Offenbach Orpheus in the Underworld (wonderful violin !)  and Percy Grainger's Marching Song of Democracy for wordless chorus which is a novelty for good reasons, I suspect.  At last, Sakari Oramo introduced the party part of the Last Night of the Proms. "Let's go !". The perennial Fantasia on British Sea Songs (arranged by Henry Wood), played at gloriously manic pace, Thomas Arne's Rule, Britannia! arranged by Malcolm Sargent, 

Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March (Land of Hope and Glory)  and Jerusalem in Elgar's arrangement of Hubert Parry, with the National Anthem arranged by Benjamin Britten. .No matter how many times we've heard these same pieces, they come alive again when performed as well as this. 

 

Friday, 13 September 2019

Science and Mahler - Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra season opener

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra- photo : Oddleiv Apneseth
Opening concert of the new season at the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, combining music and science. An intriguing concept, but done so well it worked.  Scientists talking science but in such a way that ordinary peopole get drawn in by their enthusiasm.   Science can be fun!  I can't imagine English language audiences being able to cope with intellectual stuff like this without gimmicks and dumbing down. Before the concert, the discussion was in Norwegian, a language that's not even on the radar for English monolinguists, but I listened anyweay, just enjoying the sound and syntax.  (It helps if you're a voice person and communication skills are what you do).  In the interval, the speakers switched to English.  More casual, but sincere and natural - none of the faked staginess of BBC Proms interval talks, (especially the ones with New Generation Thinkers who don't think).

Thus the mood was set for Eric Whitacre's Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of our Universe. Again, this worked extremely well because of the way it was presented, against an abstract backdrop with projections of images of the cosmos, star clusters, space stations and so on, with occasional fades back to the orchestra.  Whitacre writes planetarium music, yes, but very relaxing and atmospheric. Normally I'd run a mile from Whitacre but I enjoyed this presentation a lot.  Magical sounds from the  Edvard Grieg Kor and Youth Choir.

What science and the cosmos had to do with Mahler's Symphony no 4, I'm not sure. The Heavens, I guess, though the vision of Heaven here is decidedly non-factual. But with Markus Stenz conducting it was a worthwhile experience, not the most memorable either way, rather slow, but well played.  I was glad to listen though in order to hear Caroline Wettergreen.  After a succession of disappointing soloists in this   symphony this year, what a pleasure it was to hear Wettergreen negotiating the lines with agility, judging her phrasing sensitively.  She has a flexible voice which is clear and pure yet has character.  Though the protagonist is a child, this is a child who has suffered in the past, and thus can exult in the joys of physical life. 
Next Bergen Philharmonic livestream : 18th October - Brahms Double Concerto and Brahms Symphony no 4 with Erward Gardner. 

 

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Semyon Bychkov Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Prom : Smetana Tchaikovsky Shostakovich

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic - credit Marco Borggreve for the Czech Philharmonic


Just as the Second Night of the BBC Proms 2019 was the real First Night of the Proms in terms of musical quality, (Please read my review here),  Semyon Bychkov's Prom with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was probably the real Last Night of the Proms, since the official Last Night of the Prom is party time, when everyone has a good time, enjoying lighter fare, and so it should be !  But Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra reminded us that good music, well performed, represents the vision of Sir Henry Wood. The Last Night we know now only dates from Malcolm Sargent.

Bychkov's appointment as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic was unexpected, though it was clear that the government and the management wanted someone who would please the public, recording companies, foreign organizations and the Ministry of Culture. (Please read what I wrote at the time).  Given that the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's reputation is based on its unique mastery of Czech repertoire, this signalled a departure.  Not without precedent : In 1991, Gerd Albrecht the then governement imposed on the orchestra, hoping that that would increase its international profile and sell more records. Though Albrecht was a very great conductor, the match was not made in heaven. Controversially, the orchestra was split into two. The Prague Philharmonia (PK) still thrives and is very good.  If the governemnt again wanted a big name and recording contracts, that's what they have with Bychkov. His advantage was that Decca sponsored Bychkov's Tchaikovsky Project, "Beloved Friends", which has been around for years. He conducted the Project with several different orchestras many times (including at the Barbican, a good series with Kiril Gerstein, but which somehow didn't sell despite massive advertising).  Bychkov took the Czech Phil on a highly publicized tour of The United States (with two stops in non-major venues in London and Vienna).  Not really an "international" tour.  Bychkov is good (though his WDR Köln were somewhat uneven) , but he's developed iunto a truly great conductor of repertoire closest to his heart -Tchaikovsky, for example, and Russian repertoire, and outstanding opera.

A wonderful performance, geared around Bychkov's strengths, the Czech Philharmonic playing with animated enthusiasm.  Acknowledging the orchestra's grand traditions, Bychkov started with extracts from Smetana's The Bartered Bride - the Overture and three of the dances : the opera in miniature. Wonderfully vivid,  bursting with energy. Though the plot is folkloristic, there's far more to the opera than pastoral kitsch . It's an explosion of  energy and high spirits  : the burgeoning of Spring and new growth (which is why marriage matters to peasants).  The lovers see off those who willl trade them off : they remain uncowed and independent.  Bychkov's tempi were fast, and he kept pushing, forcing  his players forward.   They are so good that they didn't miss a beat. Just as dancing is a physical workout, so should this music evolve.  The tension between punch and lyricism was suitably tight, emphatic timpani setting a strong pulse, from which the freedom  of the dance figures flew.  At moments the brass had an almost "alpine" atmosphere -  there are mountains in Bohemia, and the peasants are hardy.

With the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Bychkov was in home territory. In concert performance, the soloist Elena Stikhina was impressive enough, but the orchestra excelled.   Bychkov has conducted Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, with them in the past.

More core Bychkov repertoire with Shostakovich Symphony no 8 ("Stalingrad") Op  65 (1943) another very good performance, the orchestra playing with great alacrity : sharply defined staccato, drum rolls and brass fanfares, crashing cymbals, a forbidding hum in the strings. The cor anglais rose like a spectre, like smoke from the ruins of battle, ominous strings (celli, basses, later violins and violas) groaning in its aftermath.  The Allegretto and Allegro function as scherzos. In the first, impish figures screamed, and woodwinds rushed into manic dance. In the second, whirring sounds, pipes and pistons, evoking at once an infernal machine, yet also, perhaps a sly reference to the relentless state machinery of the Stalinist era - the worship of technology in Soviet Realism taken to extremes.  Hence the mock gaiety of the brass and percussion, in mimicry of  military parades. A restrained, but moving finale, the "hollow" nature of the brass reflecting the "machinery" that  had gone before.  Perhaps this will be a new direction for the Czech Philhramonic Orchestra. But pray that they don't lose what they do best of all, even if it's not "international-friendly".

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

British Tone Poems vol 2 - Bliss, Fogg, Howell, and more


British Tone Poems Volume 2 from Chandos with Rumon Gamba conducting then BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.  The first volume (please seee my review HERE) focussed on some major discoveries, like Ivor Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody. There are treasures to be found in this set, too, such as Eric Fogg's Merok, Arthur Bliss' Mêlée fantastique,  Patrick Hadley's Kinder Scout and Dorothy Howell's Lamia.  

Eric Fogg (1903-1939) was a youthful prodigy, so well regarded that the British Music Society presented 25 of his works in concert when he was just seventeen. Merok (1929, published 1934) proved so popular that it was heard at the Proms several times during his lifetime.  Fogg died young, in circumstances still unclear. Merok is a town at the head of the Gieranger Fjord in Norway.  Rustling strings introduce a simple, melody, defined by oboe. This melody is taken up by flute, then violin, then cor anglais, and oboe once again, each variation flowing lyrically with graceful eddies, before a mysterious, hushed coda. Once more the oboe sings, its timbre now graver and more mysterious. The initial inspiration might have been landscape, but the effect is magical, almost hypnotic. It feels timeless, as eternal and impenetrable as the cliffs and forests looming above the fjord.  Vernon Hadley recorded Fogg's Merok in 2005, but this superlative performance by Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic should put it firmly back on the map. 
Patrick Hadley (1899-1973) was a Cambridge academic, but his Kinder Scout (1923) evokes the Dark Peak,  the highest point in the Peak District, rising above the moors, which affords panoramic views as far as Manchester and Snowdonia, when visibility is good.  Long string lines stretch, setting context for a theme on cor anglais. The probing strings repeat, suggesting endless vistas. A surge wells up in the orchesta, heralded by horns. At the conclusion, a solo violin, leading the strings to soar upward.  Perhaps Hadley's Kinder Scout was influenced by Delius's A Song of the High Hills, which Hadley knew well, though, being the work of a very young man it is far less ambitious. It's moving, nonetheless, and a finely-honed miniature. 

Dorothy Howell (1898-1982)'s Lamia (1918) was premiered at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in 1919, and repeated several times, as recently as August 2019, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.  In the poem by John Keats, Lamia is a siren, half woman, half serpent, who lives in the ocean.  She falls in love with a mortal, and he with her, but their love is doomed.  The "maritime" character of Lamia is described in swelling lines, which surge and retreat like the tides. There are erotic undertones, too, vide Tristan und Isolde. Sparkling figures - Lamia playing on the waves ? - give way to murkier undercurrents. The second section is more turbulent, underlined by dramatic brass and rumbling percussion.  Then an interlude of delicately scored reverie, winds singing above hushed strings, a brief respite before the full orchestra surges once again - very high timbres in the strings and winds, before a poignant diminuendo, where a violin plays, alone. The pace picks up, drawing together different threads - elusive figures, surging lines, stronger cross currents - before dissipating into gloom, from which the violin plaintively calls.

Fogg, Hadley and Howell were all young when they wrote their respective pieces heard here.  Hadlery went on to write other works such as the cantata The Hills (1934), but Fogg died early and Howells retired from composing.  Given this context, the inclusion of  very early work by Ralph Vaughan Williams gives perspective. Harnham Down, the second of Three Impressions for Orchestra, dates from 1904, but was later withdrawn, receiving its first recording only in 2013, through the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society's specialist label, Albion. As Lewis Foreman notes, this piece contains "the composer's fingerprints, already reecognisable : the spacing of the string orchestras in its earlier   entry, the woodwind solos and the poetuc fade-out at the end".  It's also relevant that  the score was prefaced by a stanza from Mathew Arnold  which would be referred to in An Oxford Elegy, and that the evocation of Wiltshire would find fruit in Vaughan Williams' Symphony no 9.

Also on this recording are three other short tone poems : John Foulds' April-England  Op 48 no 1 (1920, orch. 1932), Eugene Goossens By the Tarn Op 15/1 (1916)  and Frederic Hymen Cowen's Rêverie (1903), but the set concludes with Arthur Bliss Mêlée fantastique (1921, rev. 1937) . In his youth, Bliss was avant garde, responding to the creative liberation of the 1920's and to developments in European music. Please see my article Things to Come - Arthur Bliss and Futurism. The influence of Stravinsky is clear in the rhythmic daring and pounding staccato. This is music meant to be danced to, its energetic verve feels "physical", as if crying to be choreographed. Each section is brief, yet distinctive, as in a ballet, the larger tutti segments suggesting a corps of figures leaping and running. Fanfares and exuberance, contrast with swirling strings.  Low timbred brass and winds introduce darker textures, cut short by forceful single strokes on timpani.  Bliss wrote Mêlée fantastique in memory of his friend Claude Lovat Fisher, a painter and theatre designer, influenced by designers like Leon Bakst and the clean lines of modernism, who died young, hence perhaps the terse ending.  Vivid performances all round from Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic.Orchestra, very much in the innovative spirit of these works from the years of change, around and after the Great War. 



Monday, 9 September 2019

Oramo Prom : Judith Weir, Sibelius, Mussorgsky, Andriessen

Judith Weir

Two modern works bookended by two standards in Sakari Oramo's Prom 67 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - Louis Andriessen's The Only One (2018, UK premiere) and Judith Weir's The Forest (from 1995, recieving its Proms premiere) with Mussorgsky A Night on the Bare Mountain and Sibelius Symphony no 5.  The "Henry Wood Novelties" tag imposed by BBC Proms management is increasingly threadbare, but the connections between the pieces were deep enough to make this a coherent programme on other terms.  Nature, and the human response to Nature, and to powers beyond the conscious ? While there's no programme in Sibelius 5, there is one in A Night on Bald Mountain, not that it matters all that much since the music's so compelling. There's no actual programme in Judith Weir's The Forest either,  but so much of her music expresses deep connections to landscape and "earth magic".

At a push, Andriessen's The Only One, based on poems by Delphine Lecompte, might suggest animal instincts in a "forest" of sound, but it's not one of Andriessen's most distinctive works. It's music theatre  - De Staat for non-demanding club performance. In that sense it connects to the ideals of the 60's and 70's  when "art for the people" was a watchword. But "art for people" can mean many things - from De Staat to Luigi Nono to Henze and much more.  The Only One perhaps speaks to a world where "the people" whoever they are, want validation, not radical change. A sad commentary on present times, not on the composer.  As music theatre, The Only One is a far cry from, say, The Seven Deadly Sins : the protagonist starts out young and playful, but gradualy gets absorbed into corporate anonymity.  Though there's plenty of vocal tricks, I suspect part of the impact lies in the costume changes and cutesiness. Nora Fischer (daughter of Ivan) was the soloist and quite pleasant, but I can't think Hannigan, the Komsis or Claron McFadden would have gone near this.

Judith Weir's The Forest ,on the other hand, feels natural, evolving from very deep sources, growing organically, endlessly renewing iutself. In the broadcast Weir speaks of the "wooden" instrumentation. That's so true - string instruments resonate when air vibrates against wood : and  string techniques use the very resonance of wood when they make sound without strings.  Murmuring and mystery - swathes of strings against woodwinds, again wood resonating with breath control.  Textures at once dense and tantalizing, drawing the listener in further and further.  Flashes of brightness - shining brass - and dark murmurs, timpani suggesting danger. And suddenly, silence.  If this was "music theatre" perhaps we've been absorbed into the forest by the earth spirits that might lurk within.  Judith Weir is one of the great British composers of our time, and very individual.   Talent has nothingb to do with gender. Weir is good because she's good.  Why doesn't  BBC R3 policy give her the prominence she is due ?  There has been some shamefully bad music this season, seemingly picked to fulfill artificial quotas. But Weir is the genuine article.

A rousing Sibelius Fifth. Oramo and the BBCSO have this imprinted in their genes, so to speak. A satisying and intelligently put together Prom all round.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Elbphilharmonie Gala - Gilbert connects Brahms and Varèse via Bernstein, Ives and Unsuk Chin

Alan Gilbert with the Elbphilharmonie


The Opening Concert of the 2019-2020 season of the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, started with typical flourish, Alan Gilbert conducting Brahms's  Symphony no 1 in C minor op 68, Unsuk Chin Frontispiece for Orchestra Bernstein's Symphony no 1 "Jeremiah", Charles Ives The Unanswered Question, and Edgard Varèse's Amériques.  Not a programme for the faint of heart, but executed with great panache! He certainly   seemed relaxed and in his element.  He came to fame conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon and first conducted this Hamburg orchestra, now called the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, 18 years ago. Gilbert has always belonged in Europe, even though he conducts a lot of American repertoire. With the NDR Elbphilharmonie, he can reach audiences who are open minded enough to pay attention.   This programme was also intelligently planned, with enough musical knowledge holding it together, even though it might have seemed sprawling in theory. Yes - plenty to connect Brahms with Varèse !

Johannes Brahms is an emblem of the Elbphilharmonie. Though he went on to fame and fortune elsewhere, he remained at heart a Hamburg homeboy, retaining a no-nonsense North German spirit.  Even in Vienna, that tough Norh Sea/Baltic soul made him individual.  He began working on what was to become his Symphony no 1 when he was twenty-two, completing it twenty-one years later, as he matured. Thus the influence of Beethoven,  Gilbert's approach emphasizing the classical structure and poise.  Horns called forwards, as if reaching out towards distant horizons, before passages evoking hymnal, which develop into fervent anthem, growing richer and more emphatic as the work proceeds. From early Brahms to Unsuk Chin, with whom Gilbert has been associated for many years (he's probably one of her finest interpreters). This was the world premiere of her Frontispiece for Orchestra. It's spiky, bristling with incident. In the second section, Chin's exuberance gave way to stillness, strings stretching languidly, the whole gradually growing  more affirmative - darker, circular figures rolling with forward movement.  Gilbert then conducted  Leonard Bernstein's Symphony no 1 "Jeremiah". This first half of the concert thus formed a cohesive arc - Brahms's first and Bernstein's first, both experimental in their own way, both composers finding themselves, influenced by their backgrounds. Based losely on the Book of Lamentations, the first movement, "Prophecy", suggests foreboding, fulfilled by the second, "Profanation", which is wild and tubulent, unruly figures led by woodwinds, whipped into frenzy by staccato figures and wailing brass.  In the final "Lamentation", the soloist, here Rinat Shaham, intones in Hebrew, her voice rerverberant with vibrato (properly employed).  In the last page, portent is replaced by greater lightness - the voice lighter and purer, textures open ended, with strings shining, supported by winds and brass. A melody (violin and strings) draws the piece to conclusion. 

Chales Ives's The Unanswered Question the first part of the Two Contemplations, is more frequently performed as a stand alone,  as it was here, as "frontispiece" before Varèse's Amériques.  Like so much of Charles Ives’s work, it's extraorinarily experimental, especially considering that it was originally written in 1908 by a composer who rarely got to hear his own music performed.  Though the instrumentation is spare, the work opens out, like a Tardis. There are three separate mini-orchestras, a string ensemble, a woodwind quartet and offstage solo trumpet : a prophecy of Ives's masterpiece, anticipating hs  Symphony no 4.  Beginning and ending in silence is part of the concept - music without boundaries. It's not really a miniature, but leads on to other things. In this case, the pairing with Varèse's Amériques was inspired. This was effectively the composer's opus one, marking his arrival in America, decisively indicating "new worlds".  Here, Gilbert conducted the better-known 1927 version,  rather than the crazier but fun 1921 version Simon Rattle did recently in London.  It's a mistake to think of Varèse's Amériques as little more than noise. There's method in its apparent madness. The cacophonies represent the sounds of modernity and freedom : sounds put tohgether in collage, to create a sense of the teeming energy of a big, modern city (that's where the klaxons come in), Structually the piece operates in large blocks, each section operating on multiple levels, all of them in motion.  Think of skyscrapers, with many storeys, filled with people and machines, below the streets, trains and infrastructure, above, in the skies, moving objects of many kinds. Varèse's Amériques is a seminal work, connecting to futurism, cubism and other innovations in Europe, while breaking completely new ground in terms of music. Its influence cannot be overestimated.  Ives would have been thrilled to have his music side by side with Varèse - both of them prophets unacknowledged in their time.  A bit like Jeremiah !  Listen to the concert HERE.

 

Friday, 6 September 2019

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Gothenberg Symphony season opener





Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra (Götesborgs Symphoniker) season opener with Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting Lief Ove Andsnes in Edvard Grieg Piano Concerto, Shostakovich Symphony no 5 and Jennifer Higdon Loco. Rouvali's been appointed Chief Conductor at the Philharmonia, taking over from Esa-Pekka Salonen : a seriously important, high profile position. but no surprise at all to those who have heard him, in Gothenberg and In London. Outstanding recording of Sibelius Symphony no 1. When it comes to conductors, he's the genuine article - very music focussed and clear sighted.  And so is the Götesborgs Symphoniker who  punch way above their weight - much livelier and more enthusiastic than many bigger orchestras. I also like their hall, which is so small that the piano is placed on a special platform but this scale seems to give performances a very personal, intimate feel. Listen to more on GSO replay on the orchestra's website and mark your calender for 26th September when Rouvali leads the orchestra in Sibelius Symphony no 4, Nielsen Symphony no 4 and Magnus Lindberg's The Accused with coloratura Anu Komsi. It's good - please read more about it HERE.  





Below, last night's concert :

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Bernard Haitink's valedictory 90th Prom, Royal Albert Hall

Bernard Haitink's farewell to the Proms  -photo credit Peter Le Tissier

Bernard Haitink's 90th Prom and his official farewell to London, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Emmanuel Ax in Beethoven Piano Concerto no 4 op 58 and Bruckner Symphony no 7. Haitink did the same programme in Salzburg on Saturday (still avalable here on Takt1).  On Friday, he conducted it again from Lucerne Festival (audio only link on NPO Radio 4)   The programmes might be identical but the emotional experience was so strong it din't matter in the least.. I've been listening over and over this week, can't bear to stop. Words aren't sufficient to express the intense feelings Haitink's farewell awakes.  For many of us there never was a time when Haitink wasn't a presence in our listening lives. Some of us can remember when he was young !  My heart tore, as he walked off the Royal Albert Hall stage, gently accompanied by the Leader of the Wiener Philharmoniker.  There went a giant, though he looked so old and frail.

And yet the musicianship was as powerful, and personal as ever.  Such fluidity and poise, such elegance and emotional depth.  Bruckner shone : as if infused by the composer's faith in life as much as in God.  Such freedom of spirit and energy !  Please read Colin Stuart Clarke's review here on Robert Hugill's blog, it's beautifull written).

Haitink conducts favourite pieces over and over again, always looking for some new insight, some new way of engaging with the composer and the work. That's what true artists do. As Mahler said "The music lies not only in the notes". The differences might be imperceptible, but every performance is individual. Just as we all change day by day without hardly being aware, performance is a form of connecting to life and to the creative power that is music. Earlier this year, in Munich, Haitink was so unwell that he only conducted the second half of the programme, Beethoven 9, which he could probably conduct in his sleep, but Haitink does not do autopilot..  Tired as he looked, once the music got going,  it seemed to invigorate  him with renewed energy : the flow of the music like the flow of life through one's veins.  (Please read more about that here).

In March at the Barbican London, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he has been associated for decades, in two concerts - Mozart Piano Concerto no 22 with Till Fellner, and Bruckner Symphony no 4. (Please read my review here) and  Dvořák Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 (B.108),with Isabelle Faust and Gustav Mahler Symphony no 4. (Please read more about that here). This last Prom at the Royal Albert Hall was valedictory - his 90th Proms appearance, probably a record of some kind for a non BBC conductor.  Memories of past Haitink Proms flooded back, indelibly etched in the memory.  Please scroll down to the label "Haitink" below for other performances).  He's conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam 1500 times, and many times the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic orchestra, where he began conducting way back in 1954, to which he returned when he could.  And of course, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Lucerne, Salzburg and so much else !  In London, we've been extraordinarily lucky to have had him as Chief of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1967-79), a frequent and much loved guest at the London Symphony Orchestra, with the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra from 1978, (where he was spotted in the audience this summer) and at the Royal Opera House. I remember the world's slowest Parsifal - but it worked, since the Grail Comminity is semi comatose part of the time.  the world will not be quite the same without Haitink's understated brilliance and depth.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini Prom - JE Gardiner


Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini Prom at the Royal Alberrt Hall, London, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique . A stirring performance, bursting with Berliozian brio !  Robert Hugill, writing in Opera Today (please see full link here) says it had "a rhythmic tightness and brilliance which belied the music's complexity and Gardiner's speeds certainly took no prisoners so that the Carnival scene was completely dazzling in many ways as choir, soloists and orchestra articulated Berlioz' busy and complex rhythms whilst keeping the whole sparkling and fun. The finale, with the casting of Perseus, was equally devastating".  I'd absolutely concur. Benvenuto Cellini is a big, big beast which thrives on energy. No stodge, please. 

Gardiner's use of period instruments and period-informed practice paid off well. "The narrow bore brass, including cornets as well as trumpets, and an ophecleide (!) made a strongly characterful impression without overbalancing in the way can happen with modern instruments and the period wind (with four bassoons) were similarly characterful and colourful. And it was this sense of a wider range of colour that we took away from the performance, something that Gardiner seemed to relish. The period strings were lighter in colour and far less dominant in the busy passages, making the whole full of lovely detail, which meant we could appreciate the sheer skill of all the performers."

Good singing, good playing and above all, an electrifying sense of theatre, even semi staged. 

Monday, 2 September 2019

"I learned revolution in Hong Kong" - Dr. Sun Yatsen

Sun Yatsen at Loke Yew Hall, 1923
"The people of Hong Kong think of Sun Yat-sen as great even though he failed more than hesucceeded. They will not go back to the time when only the winner is acknowledged to be king and the losers are declared as bandits. Their historical mindset has changed. Thus they will respect leaders not by success alone, but by their ideas, vision and personal qualities".

So wrote Professor Wang Gungwu, the historian and former Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University many years ago, but his words are totally relevant today.  Dr Sun, who studied medicine at what was later to become Hong Kong University, was the figurehead who drew together many different threads of reform and modernism, which led to the overthrow of the imperial system in 1911, and the foundation of the Chinese Republic. Dr Sun's San Min Ju I,  the "Three People's Principles"  are based on the unity of a nation of many different peoples,  on the principle of democractic participation in government, and the concept that the welfare of the people should be the goal of good governance.  But overturning four thousand years of feudalism in the largest nation in the world cannot possibly come without a price.  Sun wasn't able to contain the many factions that evolved, and China descended into decades of civil war.  Nontheless, Dr Sun, the "father of modern China" is respected by most Chinese, whatever their different affiliations.

In 1923, Dr Sun returned to Hong Kong University, and gave a famous speech " I learned revolution in Hong Kong".  For the full text and background, please follow this link.   Now that Hong Kong is facing great changes, way beyond the comprehension of the western media, those who care about the people and the region other than as pawns in global geopoltics would do well to remember what Dr Sun stood for.  The motto of Hong Kong University (where Dr Sun studied before it was incorporated as a university) is "Sapienta et Virtu" - Wisdom and Virtue ie Integrity.  Wisdom does not come in an instant : people make misjudgements,and  things go horribly wrong.  That's only human. but without "virtu", ie ideals, there's no meaning. Better to strive, even in wrong and self destructive directions, than to believe in nothing.  

There have always been people in Hong Kong capable of public service and civic responsibility, but there was little outlet.  Dr Sun's words influenced my life. I heard about Dr Sun's visit to HKU and his famous speech when i was quite young, from my uncle and Dad, who heard it direct from their uncle, who had attended the speech.  Similar ideas shaped his life, too.  After graduating HKU Medical school in 1912, he was elected as head of the Sanitary Board in Hong Kong in 1916, at the age of only 24.  The Sanitary Board was the only public body with any form of elected representation. Later it evolved into the Urban Council, which also remained the only outlet for which people could vote in Hong  Kong until 1997.  Hong Kong never was "democratic" by any means.  The Sanitary Board was responsible for public health but social conditions were so appalling that its purview cold be stretched to social reform, working conditions and so on. Dangerous stuff, then and maybe even now.   My great uncle died young, not "successful" in the eyes of the world, but greatly loved. When he died, his funeral was attended by many big names in town, and the community raised money for the much photographed white marble gravestone in the middle of the cemetery that's now on the tourist trail.  "If they'd paid their medical bills", someone quipped, "He wouldn't have died young and poor".