Wow – I needed that…

After a month of no new online orchestral music to listen to I had almost forgotten the effect it has on me. I needed these two concerts this week.

I started a second job in January so I’m now working (from home) four days a week. At 5pm on Thursday I walked away from my desk, eyes dry and tired, not sure if sitting back down at 7:30pm to watch a streamed performance was a wise decision. However, doing so (lights out, headphones on) was the best way I could spend an evening – suddenly there was a rhythm to my life that had been missing for quite some time – work for four days, switch off and turn on to the joy of music. Simple. I slept better on Thursday night than I have done in a long time.

So, what did I think?

The Halle were performing in Halle St Peter’s – a converted church space they have now extended and this space has enabled them to rehearse and play during the pandemic. The Church space has been pared back to its essentials – bare brick walls, floors and pillars with a lovely stained glass rose window at one end giving it a lovely look (difficult to judge what the sound would be like in ‘real life’) and enables the musicians to be safely spaced.

SIMON ARMITAGE read out loud his poem “the event horizon” while standing beside a copy of the poem inscribed on a metal plaque in the building – the sentiment is wonderful – that moment when music is about to start and it set the mood for the evening.

I first heard COPLAND’s Quiet City at the digital Proms last summer (boy, does that seem like a lifetime ago!) and loved it then – tonight it was a more intimate performance because of the space, but it was sublime. I was feeling so much more relaxed at the end of this than at the beginning, life was starting to feel a little more normal again.

HANNAH KENDALL’s Where is the chariot of fire? (a world premiere) didn’t touch me quite as much, but I will give it another go, just in case. We were then treated to a discussion between Jonathan Bloxham, Hannah Kendall and Jess Gillam talking about the music and their inspiration for composing or choosing pieces to play.

GLAZUNOV’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone was complex and fast leaving Jess Gillam looking exhausted at the end of certain sections, but she maintained her energy levels and this proved to be a wonderful, energetic piece – I generally like Glazunov whenever I hear his music – perhaps it should be programmed more often.

RAVEL’s Mother Goose Suite ended the concert and it was here that the orchestra really came to the fore – they are excellent all round, the filming and camera work were just right and I felt I was part of the ensemble as we focused in on certain players as they shone in their part. They were led gently through by the conductor and I had a sense of ‘whole’ by the end.

This felt like a ‘normal’ concert – an opener, a new piece, a concerto and a symphony (or tone poem in this case). All that was missing was an audience. The playing was great for all pieces and overarching effect it had on me was that of knowing that my love for live performance is still there.

Friday 15th January saw the return of the RSNO’s digital season. There were some technical difficulties in uploading the concert – I’d logged on early and watched almost all of it uninterrupted until Chris Gough on French horn was cut down in his prime right on the last page of music! After an introduction from Paul Philbert (principal timp) we met Errolyn Wallen, the composer of the first piece who’d been involved in the rehearsal process and James Lowe who had taken control on the podium at last minute (the problems of Covid 19 travel restrictions, quarantine etc).

Often with new music, I get nervous that I’m not going to understand it, or appreciate it, or just get bored by it. In the case of Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River this was not the case. Commissioned to mark the end of the Slavery Act she likened the push to freedom to a river seeking out the sea – and this effect was achieved. The strings kept the momentum going while other sections added colour, depth and moments of interest throughout the journey. It was a lovely, musical piece that was accessible and I hope it fits into the standard repertoire of orchestras going forward.

When I’d seen the original season (you know, the one we all buy seats for) I was so excited to see that Karen Cargill would be singing Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder – one of my favourite song cycles. I just wallow in that music, and I have come to love Karen Cargill’s voice and, in particular, the clarity in her diction. I settled down ready to be embraced by gorgeous music, beautiful diction and luscious singing. I was in bits by the end – it was all those things plus more. The way Karen Cargill’s voice soars so effortlessly up to the top notes, and then drops to an incredible lower register – oh I wish I could sing just 1% as well as this. Just perfect.

Dvořák’s Symphony No9 From the New World is not my favourite because it has so many familiar bits to it that I forget to listen carefully to the less familiar bits to it – a bit like a Puccini opera where the audience is taken from one famous aria to the next without any regard to the orchestral and choral music in between. So this evening I made an effort to listen to the bits in between, taking on board James Lowe’s comments that he thinks of it more as a homecoming symphony with more Czech influences than American, and in that vein I heard more music in the performance than ever before. Thank you.

As always it’s great to see familiar players perform and tonight they were all on form. Lovely French horn, beautiful cor anglais, cello and brass from the rest of the ensemble throughout each of the pieces reminds me how lucky I am to have ‘discovered’ this orchestra to add to my portfolio of artists to watch and listen to.

Watching the RSNO on a Friday night reinforces the rhythm of my old life, and one I long to return to. This also felt like a normal concert, with only the absence of applause at the end to remind me of our current situation. I will continue to watch and support. And when I’m back in the hall, for a socially, or non-socially, distanced concert with players squeezed on to the stage, sharing desks and scores, I will applaud with more enthusiasm, stand and holler ‘bravo’ or a simple ‘wow’, just to try to show my appreciation of the efforts they have made during these odd times.

Digital season – week ten – upwards

Tuesday was the Nobel Prize Concert from Stockholm with pianist Igor Levit, conductor Stéphane Denève leading the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert started with Beethoven’s: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” followed by a heart-felt message from Levit. This was followed by Guillaume Connesson’s Flammenschrift, Andrea Tarrodi’s Solus and Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1945).

A programme full of wonderful music, played passionately as if to warm us up on a cold, dark winter’s night. Levit’s playing was, as usual, intense and just beautiful. Not many close ups of his hands on the keyboard which was a shame as I find his hands fascinating to watch, but a great performance.

I was unfamiliar with the next two pieces, but the Connesson reminded me of Stravinsky’s fly away moments, and cued us up nicely for the Firebird Suite. The Tarrodi built up from a whisper to a lovely crescendo, then falling back into lovely melodic outer-space soundscapes. This concert was different to some other streams I’ve seen because it was broadcast live, so you had those awkward moments when the orchestra re-tunes, scores are swapped over all without the accompaniment of applause or audience chatter – but I liked it because in many ways it felt more ‘normal’ like a real live performance, just with a very quiet audience!

The Stravinsky was silky smooth – each player shone in their turn, and while I prefer the full ballet score, the Suite tonight was all that was needed at the end of this very enjoyable concert.

Thursday evening was spent with the Halle Orchestra and their beautifully reflective programme of music. starting with Britten’s Russian Funeral and Arvo Part’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten – both were slow, mournful but in the most loveliest of ways, and then we were treated to Roderick Williams singing 6 songs from George Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad and arranged for orchestra by the singer – the look of delight on his face whenever he sings makes me smile along – his diction is near perfect and he deserved the round of applause from the orchestra at the end – a lovely arrangement that didn’t interfere with the song lyrics or the vocal performance.

Finally it was Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen – I have travelled to a concert just to hear this piece and tonight’s performance was superb with a chamber ensemble sound – the breath of the music was just right – swelling, dying away, swelling up again – just a lovely antidote to the chaos we currently live in. The Halle season has proved to be worth its weight in gold so far.

Saturday saw me sitting down with my family toddler (my mum) to watch the RSNO’s Christmas Concert – we both joined in like idiots, singing along, trying to be like penguins (Davur, the Principal Trombone displayed yet another of his many talents) and it was brilliantly presented by Owen Gunnell. The children’s choruses were great, the soloists delightful and the programme of music – a mix of traditional, slighly left of centre (the Typewriter Concerto) and the new(ish). It was a lovely sunny afternoon where we were, and this concert just added an extra blaze of happiness to a December afternoon – well done RSNO – perfectly pitched (in ever sense of the word) and a wonderful taste of Christmas spirit.

Digital season – weeks eight and nine – on the way up again

So, the sun was out this week and what a difference it makes to my mood. I’m feeling a little more positive and although I didn’t get to listen to a concert until Thursday – boy what a concert.

The Danish Konserhuset came up trumps again and I listened to the live broadcast on P2 with a smile on my face. I’d missed the first half, but the final piece was Shostakovich’s 5th, and I even understood a bit of the pre-amble as they were, as usual, talking about his fears about writing this following the denouncement of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. It’s not that my Danish is getting better, it’s that this story is told every time the symphony is played! However, the interpretation of this music was just superb – slightly unusual slowing down right at the end – but that built up to a wonderful triumphant climax. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a grin on my face at the end of this piece – and this evening was no exception – I sat in the dark, in front of my laptop and applauded loudly and cheered.

Friday morning and I watched the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s performance in Perth from the previous evening. The Anna Clyne piece was sublime, and I found the Britten surprisingly lovely. Allan Clayton’s voice is just stunning – so pure in this piece and his diction excellent (thank you) and the horn was played marvellously by Alec Frank-Gemmell. Pekka Kuusisto is going to figure in my life quite a lot over the next 7 days and it was interesting to see him sit amongst the orchestra to direct. Given that he’s such a mobile soloist on stage it was odd to see him so still on what looked like a dangerously tiny podium! Overall it was a lovely programme that was quite appropriate for a sunny Friday morning.

Monday evening I’d bought a ticket for the Philharmonia with Nicola Benedetti and Pekka Kuusisto and a programme of Beethoven. It was Pekka Kuusisto’s conducting debut and he did a pretty good job, using both an e-score and a baton (periodically); he was in charge and communicated well with the musicians in front of him. There was an air of good humour amongst the ensemble and the music was beautifully played. The intensity of Nicola Benedetti’s playing is obvious, especially when you get up close and personal with a filmed performance like this. Kudos also to the timp player in the duet section. It was well worth the ticket price to see such an intimate performance in the Royal Festival Hall, although the sight of empty seats was a particularly poignant sight this evening.

Wednesday was the digital broadcast of a concert I should have been at in the Royal Festival Hall. The LPO, Thomas Søndergård and Pekka Kuusisto performing Prokofiev’s 1st Symphony, Bach Materia, a piece by Anders Hillborg written with Kuusisto in mind, Schubert’s Overture in B flat and his 5th Symphony. All in all a concert for small orchestra. The Prokofiev is lovely, light, bright and airy and was played quickly and perfectly. The Schubert likewise – I’ve heard the 5th several times during this lockdown period and I’ve now probably heard it enough. I like huge orchestra music – Mahler and Bruckner are my sort of thing, full of complexity and layers; the problem with Schubert and much music of this era is that they are not layered enough for my taste. They are beautiful, pretty and bright but after a few performances, you’ve heard all the layers there are to hear. So while they were performed wonderfully, there was that “oomph” missing that usually gets me engaged with a live performance.

However, the Hillborg was different. A soloist and string orchestra, and a part-time conductor. There were three sections for solo improvisation, leaving Thomas Søndergård redundant on the podium for short periods, but not disengaged from the performance taking place at a safe distance from him. He was in constant touch with what Pekka Kuusisto was playing and brought the orchestra back into play perfectly. It was an odd piece – but I think I liked it. I heard jazz influences, there was some lovely work from Seb Pinnar on the double bass along with the soloist and the orchestra seemed to be happy to be on stage listening until it was their turn to play again. I enjoyed the use of what looked to be drumsticks on violin strings by the whole section, I enjoyed Pekka’s singing and whistling, and while The Times reviewer thought this self-indulgent I thought it bore similarities to what jazz soloists do on stage when they’re in the spotlight. PS – Saturday – just listened to the concert again using headphones – just brilliant. The Hillborg piece warrants a second or third listening and it was just superb and this performance of the Prokofiev had lovely new bits for me to pick up compared with previous performances/recordings.

I usually like the lighting effects with this series of concerts, but in this one I found the search lights blurred my view of the musicians and therefore of their intricate finger work on the strings and there were frequent focussing issues, which was a shame. It was also a shame that for the second week in a row, there were issues with getting the stream out on time via – I eventually was able to watch this at 9:15 rather than the schedule 8pm – and as this is a substitute of a ‘live performance’ I do like to sit down and make it an event, so the delay was frustrating and might have coloured my overall impressions.

Thursday was to Bridgewater Hall for the Halle, Sir Mark Elder and three pieces. I’ve not been to the Hall itself so it was interesting to view it and to see some of the players and conductor talking to camera about what it meant to be back playing live. Huw Watkins’ Fanfare opened the programme – a good blast to wake us all up, and then it was Wagner’s suite from Der Meistersinger and Brahms’s 1st Symphony. These two are familiar pieces and with almost a full sized orchestra on stage, that heft I’ve been missing was certainly there. They were played admirably and it was a pleasure to hear a rich orchestral sound again. Overall, it was a good, solid performance which shows that it can be done. I look forward to the rest of their digital season (I’ve bought my subscription!)

Friday and the RSNO’s digital season – a change of conductor to Cornelius Meister and a change in programme – so after Penderecki’s Adagio for Strings we heard the world premiere of Christopher Gough’s Three Belorusian Folk Songs with soloist Aleksei Kiseliov (both members of this orchestra). Written with the current unrest in Belarus at the forefront these compositions/arrangements were lovely – especially the third Kupalinka – very moving. All beautifully filmed so we got very close and personal to Aleksei as he played this piece -everyone involved should be very proud of this performance and I hope these pieces make into the repertoire of the orchestra going forwards. The final piece was Beethoven’s 6th Symphony – I have mixed views on this because of both fine and lacklustre performances. This performance falls into the former category – a lovely, nuanced performance by excellent musicians, led ably by Cornelius Meister.

Sunday night and it was back to the Royal Festival Hall, with the LPO and Thomas Søndergård performing Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, Bent Sørensen’s Evening Land and Schubert’s Symphony No. 6. This concert had me engaged from the first downbeat to the last. The Ravel was lovely – slippery music to start and very evocative to end, the final movement was particularly beautiful. The Schubert was much darker than the 5th I’d heard earlier in the week, with that richness of sound that I’ve been missing, but the stand out piece was Sørensen’s Evening Land. It was utterly gorgeous and challenging in equal measure and the depth of the orchestra was highlighted as each section came to fore in different sections throughout. Taking us from a quiet twilight to a cityscape at evening time with its rush hour noise and back again – this is another piece I’ll be watching again, with headphones to make sure I’ve captured all its detail. The conducting was energetic and the delight on the players’ and conductor’s faces at the end was testament to the effort they’d put in to rehearsing and performing this. Well done to all involved.

Digital season – weeks six and seven – dipping in and out

It’s been an odd couple of weeks – personal circumstances have meant I’ve been distracted so no major live streams of concerts, rather a dipping in and out of recorded sessions when the mood has taken me.

A few things of note though.

I watched/listened to the opening night of the London Jazz Festival online while I did other things in the same room – but my attention was grabbed by a wonderful soulful alto voice. It was Luca Manning – the name sounded familiar and I rewound and watched. Then googled the name – I was right. I’d seen Luca perform several years ago on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May with the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra. I’d only bought a ticket because my flight didn’t leave Glasgow until late that evening and I wanted something to fill my time. Not only were the two ensembles brilliant, but I was introduced to two lovely young talents. Alan Benzie, a piano player and composer now has several CDs out with his trio and others and I’m proud to say I helped to crowd fund one of them – it’s mellow jazz and great for listening to when I need to relax. One day I hope to catch him live. Luca Manning was the other young talent – he was probably right at the start of his career and to say he’s blossomed into a beautiful performer is underselling it a little. Please check out these two young artists, as well as the youth jazz players – they’re well worth the time.

There was another offering of Beethoven from the LPO which I watched/listened to in bits over the week – It was a lovely concert. I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate for long so have had to compromise a little by splitting things up into bite sized pieces. I know this means I lose the impact of ‘performance’ but again, it’s better than nothing.

However, towards the end of the week things began to improve and I was over-joyed to discover a new composer. Radio 3 on in the other room and as a male chorus started up and sat up and took notice. It was Aino by Robert Kajanus – a Finnish composer and conductor who championed Sibelius. I instantly thought of Kullervo and sure enough, on further investigation, Sibelius had written that not long after Aino had been published. Kajanus is a composer whose work I’ll be seeking out (I love Sibelius’s work, so I’m likely to like Kajanus), as well as some of his recordings of Sibelius which are apparently definitive versions as he worked so closely and was great friends with the composer.

Friday night was an RSNO digital concert – Jorg Widman conducting and playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, a piece of his own and Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony. He’s a lively performer and played exquisitely – my attention was grabbed. The Mendelssohn was much darker than expected, grander, and I loved it. He led the orchestra through the performance in a lively manner and it dawned on me that perhaps I was out of the slump I’ve been in these last couple of weeks.

An interview with Alistair Mackie on BBC Scotland Sunday evening made me chuckle as he told of the problems of getting artists into Scotland to be able to perform as planned. I had visions of Thomas Søndergård being smuggled into Sweden in a box just to be able to fly into Scotland to conduct – I know he didn’t say those words, but I had a mental picture of an Ealing comedy!

Great – my sense of the ridiculous is back as well – I’m looking forward to the week of music ahead.

Digital season – week five – a perfect mix of old and new

Week five of my planned digital seasons and the start of the second week of Welsh lockdown. I’m missing my morning coffee by the seaside, but the weather has been lousy anyway, so it’s doubtful I would have made it there in one piece. Seeing empty chairs that should be full of chatty people, greeting friends, joking with hard working hospitality staff, sneaking food to their dogs underneath the table, is making me a little sad because it reminds me of empty seats in concert halls that I love so much. I’m grateful that orchestras are plugging that gap in my life, and keeping their musicians and support staff working, but each day I long to be able to plan to change my clothes early evening and head out to a real, live performance, bump into old friends, curse at the queue at the Ladies, give my “look” to the couple chatting across the aisle, and be brought to the edge of my seat by a spectacular performance of a favourite piece. That won’t happen for a long time, so digital seasons will have to be my source of pleasure in the dark nights to come.

Week five was off with a bang – Bluebeard’s Castle from the LSO, Karen Cargill and Gerald Finley filmed a couple of months ago in LSO St Lukes. Wow! This is a wonderful piece that I like more each time I hear it, and these two singers were just fantastic together. Both have lovely rich voices that meld together, and complemented each other throughout. I’ve heard both singers live and they seem to improve with age – just like good red wine. It was a semi-staged affair that worked well in this space, the orchestra supported them excellently throughout and of course, with Sir Simon on the podium, what could go wrong? In this instance, nothing. Catch it on YouTube if you can – it’s well worth the 75 minutes – I’ll probably watch again.

Wednesday evening too me back to the Royal Festival Hall and the London Philharmonic’s Memory and Renewal concert. Directed by Thierry Fischer and with Pieter Schoeman violin and Kristina Blaumane cello we were treated to Vivaldi’s La stravaganza, Schuberts’ Symphony No. 2, Thomas Larchers’ Ouroboros for cello and orchestra and Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 132.

Three of the pieces were new to me and so it was an evening of discovery. The Vivaldi was taken at a brisk pace, with the excellent camera work honing in on the speedy fingers of Schoeman. It was a great opener for the concert as it woke you up and grabbed your attention.

The Schubert opening movement was lively and it was watching this, with a small orchestra on the stage that made me realise how quickly I’ve got used to seeing an orchestra socially distanced on a stage. Thierry Fischer had a gentle, elegant way with him, ushering in sections of the orchestra, rather than pointing his baton towards them but always there with a clear beat to maintain the swift pace of this piece.

Thomas Larcher’s piece – Ouroboros – a relatively new piece and, to me, sounded angry especially when compared to the preceding pieces. It was mysterious and rhythmic and had lovely moody moments and the cello parts were gorgeous.

Finally Reger’s variations was interesting and darker than I associate with Mozart’s music. Overall a good concert that introduced me to pieces I might not have otherwise heard if I’d had to buy a ticket and get there – the positive flip side of digital offerings.

Thursday 5th November. My sanctuary from neighbours’ fireworks came with my headphones and DR2 (Danish radio) broadcasting a live concert from the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto played by Isabelle Faust was phenomenal and full of its own fireworks. It really lifted my spirits and put a more relaxed smile on my face. I’ve seen her play live, and I liked her style then, but the finale of this concerto was taken at breakneck speed and with a ferocity that was very satisfying. The second half was taken up with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – a monster of a work. With Fabio Luisi on the podium there was an operatic tone to it and the orchestra produced a lovely rich sound throughout, although the brass sounded a bit off towards the end.

Friday 6th – RSNO, Boris Giltberg on piano and Tabita Berglund as conductor. It’s difficult to say anything about specific about this programme – Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto, with an encore of the final movement of Beethoven’s 30th piano sonata and then Sibelius’s 7th symphony- because it was practically perfect in every way. The whole presentation of the programme was just right with personal messages from those involved. It was well filmed, and edited, and the sound quality was just great (although there were a few glitches in the signal which I put down to Friday night congestion). The message requesting donations is simple, and it brought my week to a close in the most sublime way – with Sibelius’s rich, thick sound.

Digital season – week four

Sunshine to start the week – literally and figuratively.

Monday morning started with a lovely news story on BBC Breakfast; Paul Harvey a piano teacher with dementia had improvised a tune based on four notes, this was picked up by BBC Philharmonic and orchestrated and played this morning. He’s a fan of Stephen Sondheim who congratulated him via a video link and a single is being launched just in time for Christmas. I was heartened to see a story on the news about the power of music.

Monday evening I was ‘at’ Wigmore Hall to watch and listen to Pavel Kolesnikov play a lovely selection from Aleksandr Skryabin, Liszt and Schubert before finishing off with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata – ‘Tempest. He’s a young pianist and has a beautiful touch on the keyboard. Often mouthing words to himself (thoughts, images, aide memoires – who knows) he was very much in a world of his own at times, but then would half swivel to face the audience just to acknowledge their presence. The audience were mesmerised.

I’m noticing audiences are much quieter now than the last time I was a member – not only have the coughs gone, but the other shufflings, dropped water bottles and so on are no longer there as if they are giving more value to the experience, realising how lucky they are to be able to be present. I really do envy them. (It was day three of Welsh lockdown and I was missing my freedoms). The applause at the end was long and enthusiastic and Pavel was then presented with award from the Critics Circle for his outstanding contribution to music by young talent – after tonight’s performance it was well deserved.

Thursday evening I listened in to the performance from the DR Koncerthuset, with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting Schubert’s 3rd Symphony which was lively, and moved at speed, Mendelssohn’s Die Shone Melusine sung beautifully by Felicia Moore (soprano) and an arrangement by the conductor of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung orchestral sections, arranged, he said, to avoid the stop/start nature of just playing the orchestral parts of the opera. It was a lovely start with good deep brass. It was great to hear a full orchestral sound and big music. The soprano had a great Wagnerian heft to her voice and it was a rich tone. The audience sounded smaller than usual although as enthusiastic as usual.

The same evening I caught BBC National Orchestra of Wales offering which was John Woolrich’s – Ulysees Awakes – led by the principal violist Becky Jones with 10 other string players. It was mellow and wistful and the players produced a lovely sound. As Jonathan James (Discovery Guide for BBC NOW) points out in his notes, it’s a rather fragile piece and provided a welcome bit of calm in this chaotic world.

Saturday was my first visit to the Berlin Philharmonic via the Digital Concert Hall. Kirill Petrenko conducting Norman, Strauss and Shostakovich. The first piece had originally been written for a string trio and the composer had orchestrated it for a string orchestra; it was a very tender, thoughtful, almost hypnotic piece that led beautifully into Strauss’s Metamorphosen. For this the players were sitting (I’ve often seen it performed with them standing) and it was sumptuous, luxuriant and silky smooth. Being able to see the individual players up close as they took the lead in the piece was lovely and it was over all too soon.

I always find Petrenko interesting to watch – facially. He is mischievous, funny, emotional and totally engaged with the musicians. These features came to the fore in Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony which I found lively and almost humorous, but also grotesque as the composer takes a lovely little tune and twists it during its repetition, taking you off in new directions. The bassoon was wonderful as was the piccolo.

The audience were highly appreciative. There had been prolonged applause for the orchestra as they took to the stage for the Shostakovich – so much so that they stood and acknowledged the applause before Petrenko joined them on stage (this may be the norm for the Philharmonie) and again loud applause at the end, with lots of vocal encouragement and I thought this a fitting end to a wonderful performance. However, it was not over.

An announcement appeared on the screen – as new restrictions force the closure of the Philharmonie on 2nd November, the orchestra had an extra piece to perform for the audience. Petrenko returned to the stage and took his place on the podium for John Cage’s 4’33” arranged for orchestra.

It was incredible. I had no idea how you could conduct four and a half minutes of silence, but Kirill Petrenko managed to do so with emotion and involvement. It was symbolic for the silence that will now fall on German concert halls, and the silence that is being heard all over much of the rest of the world at the moment, and gave pause for thought.

The silence was deafening.

Digital season – week three

A varied week for watching and listening but one ending with a flourish.

Sunday saw me searching for something to watch – I needed to see something new. And as conductors are my “thing” I found Paavo Järvi conducting the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich – recorded in June but released earlier in October. He’s a delightful conductor to watch and I had never seen this orchestra perform before. It was a tonic. Paul Dukas’ Fanfare for La Peri with solid brass, followed by Stravinsky’s – Dumbarton Oaks; Strauss’ The Citizen as a Nobleman was the final piece. It was a lively performance to an empty auditorium, with players paying close attention to Järvi’s direction and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As he’s their Music Director, their website has now been bookmarked for future performances.

Still not totally satisfied, I found LSO’s live performance from St Lukes and came straight in the middle of Strauss’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, the same piece I’d just been watching from Zurich. A coincidence, but I suspect this season will introduce me to pieces I’ve not come across before simply because they’re more suitable to smaller orchestras. Then we heard Hannah Kendall The Spark Catchers and Bartók‘s Dance Suite concluded matters. The space where they performed is lovely – and they were beautifully led by Kerem Hasan on the podium. One thing to note here is that the players were encouraged to applaud each other at the end of the performance. It felt like an outpouring of joy, as if they’d enjoyed not only giving the performance, but also listening to it – and that felt like the right emotion. There is nothing wrong in celebrating a job well done.

Monday was almost back to normal – there was a change of programme at Wigmore Hall that evening, and I happily sat down to watch a brilliant performance by Llyr Williams. After a few shorter pieces where his fingers almost hovered over the keyboard, we were treated to a powerful performance of Mussorsgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I love the orchestral suite with its earworm of the walk between paintings, and I remember seeing a televised broadcast of Ashkenazy playing the piano version so intensely that you forgot that the orchestra was “missing”. This performance was very different – but equally brilliant. Simple, raw, intense, with that mischievous smile to the audience as the last note fades out – an excellent start to the week.

Thursday evening saw me listening to a great concert from the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen, led by Lahav Shani (a substitute conductor) with Yulianna Avdeeva playing Chopin’s 1st piano concerto (lively) followed by a very brassy Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. It was well received by an enthusiastic Danish audience, and once again, I wished I’d been there.

I also picked up BBC NOW’s weekly offering – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s nonet – I don’t like small ensemble music very much – the sound isn’t ‘thick’ or ‘dense’ enough for me, but nine players was enough to give the sound a richness I’m used to with this orchestra and with it lasting almost half an hour it was long enough to get my teeth into. Played beautifully, it was good to see more of my local players performing again.

Then it was to the event of the week for me. Having bought the digital season subscription the RSNO’s bi-weekly performances are special – I make it an occasion by sitting down in my concert seat, headphones on, lights out and try to pretend I’m at a concert. Tonight it was Beethoven’s 1st Symphony and his violin concerto. Midori was the soloist and Thomas Søndergård on the podium. The symphony was superb – it started off rather slowly, but then took off and flew along – it was lively, spritely and with some period instruments, the balance of sound was just right. Midori is a very intense player, seemingly unaware of the orchestra around her other than a quick glance towards the podium now and again, and her tiny fingers look too small to reach the far end of the finger board – watching the orchestra watch her and the conductor was a lesson in communication though and the combination worked well to provide a beautiful performance. The enthusiastic “bravissima” from Thomas Søndergård at the end just summed it up perfectly.

And so ends another week in digital land – unfortunately it’s starting to feel normal to sit in front of my laptop each evening to sample great music performances, live, live-recorded or just recorded. A Wales lockdown started yesterday so I have no options about my musical consumption. I can just keep saying a very loud thank you to those organisations who have helped me through another week, and I stand and applaud you very loudly.

Digital season – week two

I was out of sorts this week, restless, so my viewing habits were piecemeal and full of recordings rather than listening or watching performances as they took place. But there were some interesting offerings out there, and I did finish on a pretty good note.

MESSIAEN Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht

First off were two recordings on Marquee TV by the LPO. This is one of the streaming services I’ve signed up to so I can work through the archive as and when I need to. I’d missed the LPO on 7th October, so watched this on Saturday. A concert of Messiaen and Schoenberg – something I never thought I’d ever voluntarily watch, listen or go to. But I watched, listened and enjoyed in many ways.

Firstly, the brass, woodwind and percussion were set up in the lower stalls for the Messiaen – imaginative use of the space they had available, and from the low rumblings from the start, through to the woodwinds and brass and the long silences between the movements, tension was built up effectively. The cor anglais provided a mournful sound in the second movement and there was complex percussion. The third movement was full of tolling bells, low brass and crescendos from the percussion. the fourth movement had jazz influences and it was in this movement I noticed how closely the musicians kept an eye on Edward Gardner who was conducting from the stage. The final movement conjured up, for me, a march of Roman soldiers returning from battled, victorious, and here the transition between chords seemed smoother.. I don’t know much work by this composer, and while I will listen again, I’m not sure it’s really for me.

The second half belonged to the string section who were arranged on the stage for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – it was superb and much more tuneful than I thought it would be (not sure why I have this impression that he didn’t write melodies as I’m frequently surprised I enjoy his music!) Overall it was a yearning sound, almost romantic in nature and at times my thoughts turned to Mahler. Another composer to be added to my list of “I must listen more”

What marked this viewing experience out for me was the theatricality of it all – the LPO have made a decision, it would appear, to use lighting to great effect (kudos to the lighting designers) and to set the atmosphere of the piece of music. In the first half, musicians were spotlit (spotlighted?) whereas in the second half, the auditorium was lit in green and this gave a colour saturated look to the musicians on stage, reminiscent of an MGM musical.

NIELSEN Violin Concerto
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7

This trend continued in this week’s offering on Wednesday under the baton of John Storgårds, the first piece by Julian Anderson – Van Gogh Blue was performed by a small ensembe, with royal blue lights (alluding to the title of the piece, no doubt) giving quite an out of world feel to the visual performance. Moving through five episodes each provided a different mood and I enjoyed some parts more than others. this was followed by Simone Lamsma playing Nielsen’s violin concerto – a lovely piece, the stage now lit pretty conventionally – great bit of listening/watching.

I watched this concert in two halves (my restlessness) and Beethoven’s 7th got me through early Thursday evening. the stage now lit in gold and mid-blue lights highlighting the organ pipes, a well spaced orchestra and we were off into that wonderful romp of a piece. I find it infectious and end up almost dancing along to it in my seat. It was a great performance and I enjoyed the fact that John Storgårds encourgaged the musicians at the end to applaud themselves – they richly deserved it.

The rest of Thursday evening was taken up by BBC Orchestras. I found BBC NOW’s offering depressing – a small ensemble playing works by John Dowland sung by James Gilchrist. I have to admit I turned off after a few minutes – I needed to uplifted, not made to feel any sorrier for myself than I already do in not being able to attend live performances. It may have been fine as part of a longer concert, but BBC NOW are just putting up short performances rather than full concerts. I can try it again when I’m in the mood for it.

LINDBERG Aventures
PROKOFIEV Symphony No.1
TIPPETT Fanfare No.1 for Brass

I opted, instead, to watch the season opening concert from BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra which had been performed live on Radio 3 and their website a few weeks ago. It was just the tonic I needed. Alpesh Chauhan conducting at Glasgow City Halls and Kate Molleson’s voiceover from Radio 3 – a full length concert with a couple of short pieces punctuating two symphonies. The Lindberg was brilliant – referencing parts of Stravinskys’ Rite of Spring, followed by Prokofiev’s 1st Symphony – a lovely light and bright piece, then it was Michael Tippett’s Brass fanfare played from the gallery, and finally Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony.

This was a piece I don’t think I’ve heard before but there were moments of familiarity within in – a grand piece and it was excellent. It was lovely to see familiar faces in the orchestra (familiar from previous TV appearances only) and I enjoyed watching Alpesh Chauhan on the podium. There was good communication between him and the players, with smiles all around throughout and at the end of the performance. I go to Scotland frequently in normal times, perhaps I’ll add the BBCSSO’s performances to my schedule.

This week’s experiences has reinforced the benefits of the digital seasons – I can try music I would normally shy away from, watch orchestras whose performances I don’t normally attend, and in doing so, become familiar with them, which might result in me buying tickets for real performances when that day comes. These seasons are a great marketing opportunity for orchestras, an opportunity to capture new audiences either by performing in an imaginative way (as the LPO are doing) or playing it “straight” but with full, and interesting programmes of music like the BBCSSO. All power to them.

Digital season – week one

Oh boy, digital seasons are going to get quite exhausting if this week is anything to go by. I’ve been to London a couple of times, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Cardiff – without leaving home. I’m saving money on travel and accommodation yes, but I’d happily pay for all that to be in a concert hall, sitting next to concert buddies, nodding to familiar musicians and putting up with coughing neighbours, rustling sweet papers and those annoying people who insist checking their mobile phone between movements in a symphony. Digital seasons will be second best in terms of my experience, but not in terms of the quality of music I’ve heard and seen.

This week I’ve visited Wigmore Hall twice. Monday lunchtime was Llyr Williams with a beautiful lunchtime piano recital. I find Llyr engaging to watch; he seems to be oblivious to the presence of an audience, until a quick glance in their direction at the end of piece suggests he was playing with us and for us all the time. He has a gentle touch and with Brahms, Schumann, Liszt and Chopin on the menu there was nothing not to like and it set me up for a lovely afternoon of home baking.

I returned to Wigmore Hall on Thursday – Igor Levitt had stepped in at last minute and this time I sat with my mum in awed silence to watch this incredible pianist at work. His involvement in the music is clear to see – he appears to be conducting an orchestra (only visible to himself), singing or speaking to himself, smiling with pleasure at the sounds of a particular phrase and generally enjoying himself. A Brahms and Beethoven concert was well received by the audience and having company to watch it at home made all the difference. We applauded lout and long. That’s the lovely thing about this Wigmore Hall series – the applause at the end – it’s a sound I really miss.

Thursday was a busy day – in the evening the BBC NOW started their digital offering with a 9 minute video of them playing Warlock’s Capriol Suite in Hoddinott Hall. It was lovely to see all the string players being led by Lesley Hatfield in this lively piece. It was lively, with lots of variety in the mood – I just wanted to hear more. I managed to fit this in during the interval of a concert I was listening to from Copenhagen which featured Kavakos, with the Beethoven violin concerto and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, this performance had a rawness that I liked. Once again it was great to hear real people applauding and stamping, asking for more.

And then came Friday 9th October; the higlight of the week. It was the start of the Digital Season from RSNO. I’d bought my subscription to the season and this gave it an aura of being special, an event to look forward to. And the whole team at RSNO did not disappoint. Recorded in their rehearsal space, socially distanced from each other, all in black with Thomas Søndergård  in his tails giving it an air of being an occasion, I sat down to watch and didn’t move for until the end.

An introduction from Peter Dykes (oboe) who’s become a familiar face during lockdown, and Alistair Mackie, CEO and then into Haydn’s 82nd Symphony, The Bear, followed by Joseph Bologna’s violin concerto played beautifully by the Orchestra’s Principal Violin Maya Iwabuchi and then finished off by Beethoven’s Eroica. It was superb. I felt I’d been to a concert – a whole, wonderful, beautifully programme concert. This was a real evening out – the quality of the playing was brilliant, there was the usual level of communication between the players and conductor, great camera work and sound balance and it was lovely to get up close and personal with some of the players who are often out of my sight line in the “real” concerts in Scotland.

I got used to the distance between the players, seeing the “spit buckets” for brass and woodwind players (I have no idea what the correct term is – sorry guys) and seeing so many wires, stationary cameras and recording microphones. The music and playing took my mind off these potential distractions. I clapped as loudly as I could, grinned in time with the musicians, and rocked away in my chair without disturbing any seat neighbours. The whole presentation was just brilliant – thank you team RSNO. I have another 9 concerts to go in this digital season and I can’t wait for the rest – however, I can relive this one for months.

That is the positive thing about these digital offerings – if I feel I’ve missed something because I was distracted by noisy kids playing outside, loud stereos in passing cars, needing to answer a call of nature – I can watch again. And again. And again. Throughout lockdown I’ve heard a greater variety of music than I normally do because I’ve been able to try a concert without having to commit to going there, paying to travel and stay overnight; I’ve heard different types of music because there’s been nothing on the TV to watch so I’ll try an evening of baroque, for instance (and I thoroughly enjoyed it); I’ve seen soloists I’d never heard of because I’ve tuned into the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, or listened to P2.dr radio broadcast the Thursday night concert from the DR Koncerthuset; I’ve become a little more adventurous in the music I try. I have donated as often as I can, and will continue to do so, and I will buy digital single tickets to some concerts where there is perhaps only one concert in the season I want to listen to, but I will continue on my musical journey, supporting these incredibly talented people (on stage, back stage and support staff) so that when the time comes when I can return to the concert hall there is something to return to. And when I can return to live performances as an audience member, I will be more adventurous, I will applaud loudly and yell in joy just to let those on stage know that they aer very much appreciated.

Autumn gazing…

Normally at this time of the year my calendar is full, with travel plans, hotel bookings, concert details. And of course, this year is different. But because of the creative thinking of creative organisations I have something in the diary. It’s just different stuff.

I have dates for online, streamed performances, radio broadcasts I don’t want to miss, subscriptions to streaming services, a note to donate to online performances, and my diary is full. Last Thursday I had five separate options of concert performances to watch or listen to – I was literally spoiled for choice.

Wigmore Hall was first out of the blocks with its announcement of 100 concerts between September and December with a suitably distanced audience. I renewed my Friends membership to get a chance of a ticket through the weekly ballot. So far, I have watched a few performances, dipped in an out of others, listened to some in the background on the radio and thoroughly enjoyed all of them – the sound of applause at the end really makes it feel special. I’ve donated to those concerts I would have attended if I could and with a local lockdown in my local area, I will now be unable to enter the ballot as I don’t know if I can travel to the concert should I get a ticket. I’m a little envious of those lucky Londoners for whom this will not be a problem – just clap loudly please.

RSNO have announced a digital season through until the end of February – normally I travel up for the Søndergård Series; this year I’ll be able to witness the orchestra play under different conductors – and that will be to my benefit. I’ll happily set myself up on a Friday evening, turn the lights down low, put on my headphones and wallow in the sight and sounds of what has recently become my ‘local’ orchestra. I have come to know the players well over the summer months with their brilliant engagement programme of different digital offerings and feel part of the RSNO family. Their development of the digital output will never replace live performances where you can smell, taste and feel the atmosphere in a concert hall, but the Friday Night Club came close, and I was actually excited to see the Digital Season announcement – it felt like a normal year – for a moment or two at least. I will be applauding loudly at the end of each of these digital concerts – neighbours – you have been warned!

Other orchestras have announced digital seasons as well, and I’ve signed up to a couple of streaming services where I’ll watch some live, and explore the archives at other times. There are some who still provide free streaming (thank you) and seek donations (I will), and of course there was the Proms offering in the summer – I thoroughly enjoyed the Last Night – more so than in former years as I was able to concentrate on the music rather than being distracted by the high jinks of the audience (no political comment for me here – this is all about music). I will listen to or watch concerts online I may not have chosen to buy a ticket for and that again will be to my benefit.

My diary is also full of cancellations – some because the event was cancelled, others because I was bumped out of the concert hall due of over-capacity in the newly distanced seating plan. There are a couple of concerts I long to go to in December, near my birthday, but I can’t risk buying a ticket just in case travel restrictions are still in place. I took long enough to get all my flights refunded from those I’d booked for the early summer and autumn concerts I’d hoped would still go ahead, and can’t afford to take the chance.

I get angry at the way culture seems to be treated like a second class citizen in the way financial support has been given and my heart goes out to any musician (or other artistic professional and associated staff) who finds themselves in the position of considering leaving the profession and with venues facing closure. It’s not like any other job – it’s a vocation surely? I admire the resilience of those who’ve thought creatively and out of the box to ensure they get some income and exposure and wish them luck. If it breaks my heart on a Friday evening to be sitting at home watching a concert instead of being there in person, I can’t imagine how many hearts and spirits are broken for who this is their living, their life. I can only do a little bit to help by subscribing, donating, watching and spreading the word about those performances in the hope that one person I know, clicks through, likes what they see and donate as well.

There is a way ahead this autumn, it’s just not the route I would have chosen. I will however, endeavour to enjoy every single minute.