We will remember …

Scotland 9th and 10th November 2018 – RSNO.  I came to hear Poulenc’s Gloria, I left with a sense of poignancy and deep joy – a strange combination.

On paper the programme was a little mysterious until, at a pre-concert conversation between Gregory Batsleer (Chorus Director) and Thomas Sondergard (Music Director) we learned that the Prokofiev had had its premiere in 1918, this was the only weekend they could secure the services of Alexander Gravylyuk; the second half pieces spoke for themselves.   It was the 175th anniversary of the Royal Chorus of Scotland so they had to be featured – the printed concert programme was suitably designed and will make a handsome souvenir of the occasion.

I think I’ve said this before, that I feel I should know Prokofiev, but once again, I listened to his 1st Symphony (the Classical) for the first time this weekend.  He’d set out to bring Haydn and Mozart into the 20th century and he certainly achieved that – but with overtones of what was to follow in his later music.  The orchestra played it with spirit and delight and it was met with a warm reception.

I’ve seen Alexander Gavrylyuk perform before but his publicity photo suggests a less mature person than the one who scurries on to (and off) the stage and I don’t mean that in an ageist way.  He plays with enormous maturity, skill and confidence – seen from the back he reminds me of a demonic organ player rather than a pianist.  The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 starts with a bang – and he certainly gave it some welly on the concert grand – it echoed around the hall and it was a joy to hear.  I would have been disappointed if he’d continued to play with such gusto, but he didn’t; he played delicately, precisely, with beautiful articulation (you could pick out every note of the runs and ‘fiddly’ bits) and when he needed to (towards the end of the final movement) he and Thomas communicated constantly to maintain the correct tempi and brought the piece to a wonderful conclusion.  The orchestra were brilliant in keeping up with him, both in speed, precision and dynamics, loud but never drowning him out, and deathly quiet when he needed to rise above them.  A wonderful performance deserving of the sustained applause (he seemed anxious to get off stage after each of his perfunctory bows to the audience).  The mischievous grin in that publicity photo was obvious then – he was just delighted to be doing what he was doing.  What a joy!  While he gave encores in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, the encore in Glasgow was brilliant – Horowitz’s variations on Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.

Gregory Batsleer introduced the second half.  The Glasgow Cambiata is made up of boys/young men between the ages of 11 and 18 (the same age range as those who’d fought in the Great War), unauditioned who come together to sing.  The pieces – three of them by Ken Johnston and Jim Maxwell – songs about soldiers going to war – the words at times were optimistic and positive – Home before Christmas, Kitchener’s Army and All Those Men Who Marched Away.  The tunes were upbeat, the voices excellent (and all sung without scores or songsheets in front of them) and the diction was perfect, so I had no need to reference the words printed in the programme.  Perhaps it was the introduction from Gregory Batsleer or perhaps it was because I could hear every word sung that I had tears dribbling down my face throughout these pieces in Edinburgh (I was not the only one to do so in my row either).  The (naïve) optimism of the words was tragic to hear, knowing what we now know about this awful conflict (I want to say stupid conflict but that would belittle the losses that were suffered).  I’m sure there were very proud family members in the audiences watching their sons perform so wonderfully, and once again there was sustained applause for the chorus, Frikki Walker (conductor of the Cambiata) and orchestra who seemed happy to be ‘just’ the accompaniment to these songs.   At the Glasgow concert, the members of Cambiata joined the audience for the rest of the performance, and it was great to see the attention they gave to the players and singers on stage – applauding enthusiastically and I can only hope that this experience will open them up to wonderful music making for the rest of their lives.

The last piece – Poulenc’s Gloria – had a personal link to the last – it was a piece I sang in my first choral concert as a 14 year old, and I remember the excitement of standing on a stage (the Brangwyn Hall) looking out at a sea of ‘grown ups’ who were waiting to hear our performance.  I hoped that some of the boys/young men in the chorus had experienced that excitement as well.

As they had filed off, row by row to one side of the stage, the RSNO Chorus filed on from the other side and took their places, almost seamlessly – a polished piece of choreography.  The soloist Elin Rombo had sung in the Dialogues du Carmelites with Thomas Sondergard when performed in Gothenburg a few years ago and he’d been anxious to secure her services for the Gloria.  What a wonderful decision.

As a youngster, I’d assumed any religious piece was centuries old, so was surprised to learn when I sang it again a few years ago that it was so modern and of course my older self can hear the modern-ness of it.  It is an incredible piece to sing (the alto line is just gorgeous) and the rhythms, particularly those in the opening movement, are particularly tricky.  The chorus coped and the overall sound was excellent – great male voices, and strong altos (yes, I notice those more often) and there was not a really weak moment.  Elin Rombo’s high notes came out of nowhere – they were effortless and stunning, particularly at the end, the tenderness with which she soared over the orchestra and chorus means I’ll be checking out cast lists for operas for her name.  The orchestra once again were in fine form, coming into their own for the orchestral interludes, settling into their role underpinning the voices where needed.

The programme wasn’t full of whiz, bang, wallop pieces that got you to the edge of your seat, but I sat upright throughout, mesmerised by soloists, choruses and players throughout.  An excellent pair of concerts and now I want to persuade my choir to perform Poulenc all over again!



The ugly duckling becomes a swan…

I was in Copenhagen two years ago and other than the wonderful performances I saw, I hated it – cold, wet, windy and roadworks everywhere.  What a difference the sunshine makes.   A new hotel, near Nyhavn, sunshine, good food, good beer, sights to see, and two amazing concerts and I’m in love with the place.

The concerts – Danish Symphony conducted by Thomas SondergardDebussy’s L’apres midi d’un faun, Sibelius Violin Concerto (Janine Jansen as the soloist) and, the reason for the trip, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. 

There doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the DR Koncerthuset and the first performance saw me in the stalls with a fantastic view of the quick finger work of Jansen, and the second I was in the Orkester, right behind the set of gongs, bass drums and other percussion, played by the most enthusiastic big bass drum banging I’ve seen in a long time.

The conducting of this piece was superb – fierce, passionate, precise – and the playing excellent.  I could have sat through each performance twice over – this piece never gets boring, and always sounds so modern although it’s over 100 years old already.

Tips for visiting Copenhagen?  Hope it doesn’t rain, and go to the Round Tower for great views – the walk up the ramp isn’t too bad and the library half way up had a wonderful little art exhibition inspired by the weather – the best 25DK I spent in my whole trip.  And the bonus?  A choir and orchestra were rehearsing in Trinity Church next door so I got almost a full performance of Mozart’s Requiem free of charge (and no, I didn’t sing along, although I mouthed every word!)

A bumpy start but a smooth landing with RSNO …

Gales and floods were predicted in south Wales,  but my plane got off in time to miss them Friday morning.  The landing in Edinburgh was a little bumpy, the weather windy, but I arrived at Usher Hall safe and sound for the RSNO’s second weekend with Thomas Sondergard in charge.

The programme in store was very different this week – Grieg, Ravel and Rachmaninov – composers I think I’m familiar with, but then surprise me.

The orchestra now arrange themselves with violas closer to the audience than the cello section and this seems to give a depth to the string sound – this was very noticeable in the Grieg and the Rachmaninov – and as I have a sneaky preference for the lower strings, it is something I welcome.  These pieces showed the ensemble off very nicely, with few solos, and there is a happy energy present amongst the players.  This emanates from the stage into the audience, and I saw smiling faces and heard good comments from all present, both in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The two Peer Gynt suites were performed, with the order in which they were played changed to give a better musical journey (as explained by Sondergard from the podium).  I’d danced to this music in my living room as a child, (me thinking I was to be the next Margot Fonteyn perhaps?) but it would appear I only ever played the first suite as these were the only pieces that sounded familiar.   I now heard  beautiful, stirring music, with longing in Solveig’s Song, a stirring military sound in Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and an exciting In the Hall of the Mountain King (particularly so when I could see the cues from the conductor to the orchestra to increase tempo).  Throughout the performance I conjured up images to accompany the music from dancing girls to military bands marching through the streets heralding the homecoming of the hero to misty landscapes full of mystery and longing.  Gorgeous music, and it was lovely to have a longer piece to open a concert, time to relish the experience and to forget the outside world for a while.

I was present was Catriona Morison was ‘crowned’ Cardiff Singer of the World in 2017 and have heard radio broadcasts of recitals she’s given recently – impressed by her ‘sound’ and diction, I was interested to hear her sing Ravel’s Sheherazade that had left me rather non-plussed when I’d heard it at the Proms earlier this year.  This weekend, it was ravishingly beautiful.  Her diction was excellent throughout, and her round tone rang out over the orchestra.  My seat in Glasgow leaves me at a disadvantage when listening to a singer, and while some of the words were lost to me in this particular performance, her voice was still clear over the orchestra.  Her tone is rich, but not throaty, and her high notes were bright, but she obviously relished the mid-range parts of the piece.  Thoroughly enjoyable, and a superb performance by this singer.  I must make an effort to see her in opera very soon.

Rachmaninov is a composer I think I can identify easily when hearing a snippet of his work.  His 1st Symphony would catch me out however.  It sounds nothing like Rachmaninov.  I heard more Shostakovich than anyone else.  And at first, in Edinburgh, this made me feel disappointed – I wanted to hear the ‘whoosh’ of romantic overload to come soaring through at some point, but when I just sat and listened to it for its own sake, I loved it.  The deep strings came into their own, and the final movement just blew me away.  It was forceful music throughout with no real let up, and I must listen again to get my head around its shape.  I’m not surprised its first outing was unsuccessful, and that it was only in 1945 at its second performance that people realised how brilliant it was – perhaps a little ahead of its time to really be appreciated.  I want to hear it again – so a plea to all conductors/programmers out there – add it to the repertoire please.

The weather had calmed down by the time my flight left Edinburgh on Sunday afternoon – my only regret was that I hadn’t been able to add Aberdeen to my Scottish trip this weekend – I’m sure the third performance was equally excellent.

RSNO off to a fine start under Søndergård…

A monster weekend in every sense – three concerts, three cities, three train journeys, two plane journeys – and it was all worth it to be witness to a magnificent start to the 2018/19 season for the RSNO under their new Music Director Thomas Søndergård.

The programme – a new(ish) piece by Lotta Wennäkoski called Flounce, Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto (played by Francesco Piemontesi) and Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  A lovely programme on sight, and by the third performance in Glasgow, I was beginning to enjoy Flounce.

However, the Beethoven and Mahler got me in the first hearing (in Dundee), grew on me (in Edinburgh) and blew me away (in Glasgow).  Listening to the same programme in three such different venues is interesting – balance, acoustics, energy from the audience – all feed into the experience.  I love the open-ness of Caird Hall (and my perfect seat right behind the last desk of the first violin section); I enjoy the round, rich tones in Usher Hall and the very polite audience, but I have to confess a sneaky preference for the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, especially when I can snag a seat in the ashtray over-hanging the first violin section.   This gives a bird’s eye view of the orchestra, sight of the pianist’s hands and a clear line to the podium where I can observe every grin, grimace and grief-laden expression on the conductor’s face.

Thomas Søndergård always wears his heart on his sleeve when he’s conducting and that’s magical to watch as he interacts with soloists and individual members of the orchestra throughout a performance – a broad smile beaming across his face as a passage is executed perfectly, or a solo piece rings out across the ensemble.  And there were many perfectly executed passages, and stunning solo pieces over the three nights.

Flounce grew on me – but five minutes was enough.  Francesco Piemontesi – a name I know, but as far as I recollect, this was the first time I’d seen him live.  His slow, tender playing was exquisite, although I wasn’t always convinced in the faster passages.  However, the skill with which he snuck in a few bars of Happy Birthday in the first movement cadenza on Thursday in Dundee (in a nod to the conductor who was celebrating his 49th birthday) was polished and led to a ripple of applause at the end of this movement!  He performed encores in Edinburgh and Glasgow which showed off his skill at the slow, quiet playing I liked so much.  From the back he reminded me of Stephen Hough (short hair, square shoulders, upright stance) and his playing of these tranquil moments was also reminiscent of him, but I remain to be convinced he’s a performer I’ll be running to see again.

Mahler’s 5th – there is nothing more that can be said about this piece other than WOW!  It is just a glorious and gorgeous symphony – full of everything – humour, noise, cacophony, glory, and romance and downright joy.  Dundee the performance was excellent; Edinburgh they raised their game especially in the final movement, but Glasgow was just on another planet.  Even I yelled out ‘Fantastic’ to my seat neighbour as the applause commenced (and I NEVER yell out).  The adagietto was just exquisite, slow but not dragging, romantic but not schmaltzy or too sentimental.  The solos from Chris Hart (trumpet to open) and Chris Gough (horn in 3rd movement) were spot on, the clarinets were fantastic and the timpani were brilliant (under the sticks of Paul Philbert).  It was wonderful to watch as the melody was passed between various sections of the orchestra (and this could be seen clearly from my perch in Glasgow) and it was wonderful to hear the lower strings so prominently in parts.  It was a night it felt just jubilant to be alive.

I spent most of the weekend on the road (or rails) between cities leaving me with little time for sightseeing.  But I did find time to visit the new V&A in Dundee on a sunny Friday morning – the Ocean Liners exhibition was well curated and full of interesting bits and pieces (especially the furniture and wall decorations), well spaced out with enough seating to take time and simply soak up the displays around you, and the internal space of the museum is expansive, warm and welcoming.  The outside is stunning and so photogenic – especially with the autumn sunlight twinkling on the water nearby.  If you get a chance, visit it – I’m looking forward to my return trip there in February.

BBC NOW 18/19 Season’s fiery start…

A sunny day in Cardiff saw the start of the 18/19 season in Hoddinott Hall with Mexico as glue that kept it together (almost).

The orchestra were in great form along with the Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto – there was obvious chemistry between them, and many smiles on the faces of the ensemble (and audience by the end of the concert).  I preferred the second half to the first – but both were excellent introductions to what looks like an interesting season ahead.

Manuel de Falla’s ballet – El amor brujo started proceedings, with the mezzo Clara Mouriz performing the vocal part – both sung and spoken.  She has a deep husky voice, perfect for this piece, and there were allusions to flamenco in both the orchestra in her vocal presentation.  I was a little disturbed by her walking in and out of the concert hall between her contributions (why not sit?) but in this small space, perhaps that was more practical.  The piece was a wonderful way to test out the orchestra and it was good to hear they’re in fine form, led by Nick Whiting, and conducted by a very passionate Prieto on the podium.

Next came the only non-Mexican related piece – William Walton’s viola concerto played superbly by Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad.  He looked a little uncomfortable at first, but as he took time to gaze out to the audience, exchanging smiles now and again with us, he settled down and played brilliantly.  It’s lovely to hear a viola centre stage – I love its more mellow tones, more akin to a human voice, and I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, although quite why it was programmed along with the other pieces, remains a mystery.  I am just glad I had the chance to hear it.  The encore was the second movement from Bjarne Brustad’s Fairytale Suite – a virtuoso piece if ever I heard one.  It was technically brilliant, but out of context of the rest of the suite left me feeling a bit flat – however, I’ve since listened to the whole suite (courtesy of YouTube) and it’s a wonderful piece of music – check it out.

After the interval, during which I could catch up with friends (audience and orchestra members) we sat down for a south American feast, where Cuban influences on Mexican classical music were brought forth.  First it was Silevestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya – based on a poem about the ritual killing of a snake – low and deep with superb playing from the tuba – and primal in nature.  I was sitting near the front at ground level and you could feel the vibrations from the orchestra through your feet and seat – this just added to the impression of being somewhere other worldly.  This was followed by Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2 – which I love.  It’s exciting, building up to wonderful crescendos.  The orchestra were playing and almost dancing in their seats at times – as much taken by the music as the audience were.  This feeling continued through to Jose Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango prior to which Carlos Miguel Prieto spoke passionately about the link between national pride and culture in his home country.   It was a wonderful final piece to a happy, satisfying afternoon.

However, we weren’t finished – and it was now time for the wonderful percussion section to really come into their element – the encore was the intermezzo from Gimenez’s La Boda de Luis Alonso – a lilting, ever so slightly familiar piece and we saw a new musical instrument being used – a well used frying pan and wooden spoon (wielded brilliantly by Phil Hughes) to signify the start of mealtime – the concert was concluded with whoops of delight from both the conductor and orchestra swiftly followed by whoops of delight and applause from the audience who left with grins on their faces, enthused by fantastic music making and with me personally looking forward to the season ahead – the ensemble look eager to what lies ahead, and that can only be a good thing.

Practically perfect in every way…

7pm 31st August to 10pm 2nd September 2018 – just 51 hours – but it feels like a lifetime of Proms magic.

Composers – Ravel, Berio, Stravinsky, Dukas, Prokofiev, Schmidt, Mahler, R Strauss and Beethoven.  Conductors – Bychov, K Petrenko, Nelsons.  Artists – BBC Symphony, Berlin Phil, Boston Symphony, Yousson nDour and Le Super Etoire de Dakar, and Yuja Wang

I’m exhausted – I made it in time, with only minutes to spare for an extra Proms – BBC SO with the Rite of Spring as the highlight – well worth the rush up the M4 (and the early mornings I had to do to get away from the office early).  The percussion were superb and watching Bychkov conduct was a joy – engaged, precise and very much part of the ensemble.

The Late Night Prom – full of colour, sound and rhythm with Youssou nDour and his band, including an enthralling dancer on stage encouraging those a little stiffer in the audience to participate – watching a bunch of ageing Prommers wiggle along with African rhythms is quite life enhancing and what the Proms is all about – music is a universal language.

Saturday – my first encounter with Kirill Petrenko – WOW.  I loved him and connected instantly with his style – precise, passionate, totally committed – the chemistry between him and the Berlin Phil was clear to see, hear and even feel.  Yuja Wang proved to be an excellent soloist (not a case of style over substance – she can play) even if she indulged herself a little in the second encore – but hey, she gave a SECOND encore.  She played intensely, with passion and considerable technical ability.

Schmidt’s a composer I’ve never heard of – and I left the concert wondering where has this man been all my life – Strauss and Mahler combined with influences from others of his time – his Fourth Symphony was excellent and romantic and beautiful – I will be listening to more of this composer – well worth checking out.

Sunday afternoon – The Boston Symphony with Andris Nelsons on the podium for Mahler’s 3rd (and longest) symphony.  I enjoyed it, although I felt it was a little untidy at the start – Nelsons was great to watch, and chatted to the front desks of the cellos between movements – 100 minutes passed quickly – and I didn’t zone out as I had done a few years ago when I heard Haitink conduct it – perhaps that’s a sign of my maturity as a music listener.

Sunday evening – back for Petrenko and the Berlin Phil.  I’m wary of reputations preceding artists and attend ‘hot events’ with a degree of cynicism.  But there was a buzz that was palpable and from my bird’s eye view from seat 1 in row 1 of the choir I was able to sit forward and eyeball Petrenko – I couldn’t help but grin, smile, grimace along with him.   The Strauss was exquisite and seeing him reminded me of why I fell in love with seeing a good conductor at work.  He lived every note of the music.  And after the interval – well – he raised the bar even higher.  He literally knocked it out of the park, using his baton at times like a baseball bat to emphasise the ferocity with which he wanted his players to play – and they responded – every single time.  They were smiling, I almost laughed at times – it was almost funny it was so good.  Beethoven’s 7th must be bread and butter repertoire to this orchestra, but they played it as if this was the first performance they’d ever given (and rehearsed almost to perfection) – I rocked and rolled in my seat and danced along (just with my shoulders of course).

I drove back down the M4 with energy in my body, and joy in my heart – a wonderful weekend of music making and some wonderful times spent over food and drink with friends – both new and old – life affirming, food for thought about what’s important in life and so very, very happy.



Exuberance of youth…

Sunday morning, 11am, South Kensington – 19th August 2018 – it was a magical performance by the European Union Youth Orchestra – large in number, full of life and vitality and an varied programme.

Agata Zubel’s ‘Fireworks’ was just 8 minutes long but full of interesting sounds – not something I’m likely to hear again, but I’d happily listen to if I could – and a perfect vehicle for a youth orchestra who approach playing any music afresh – not yet jaded by overplaying a ‘classic’ piece of repertoire.

Gianandrea Noseda was on the podium – a delight to watch – precise in his time keeping for this new piece and displaying a happiness on his face, which transmitted itself to the orchestra.

Seong-Jin Cho came to the piano to play Chopin’s 2nd piano concerto – brilliant technically, and seemingly emotionally involved – he was polite and bowed to the orchestra and audience and performed Chopin’s Polonnaise with aplomb as his encore.  This was a slightly show-off piece and the tone of the piano was bright (as it often is when chosen by a young player).

The second half was given over to Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony – and it was brilliant.  This gave me a chance to observe the conductor more closely in what would be familiar territory for him – and he didn’t disappoint.  He gave clear leadership, encouraged soloists (and the horn solo was superb – the best I’ve heard in a long time) and whipped them into emotional engagement with the music.  The sound was stunning, even from my seat in the choir stalls (being this close to the brass section can distort the balance a little, but in this instance, that was not overly noticeable).

The joy on their faces, the energy they played with, and the real friendship that was evident between desk partners, members of the same section was lovely to witness.  The conductor left the stage looking like an emotional wreck.

An encore was played (the march from Faust) and hugs were exchanged – which got a lot of ‘aahs’ from the audience present.  I left to join the queue for the loo, but was dragged back to the auditorium by the sound of brass – the orchestra were on their feet, instruments in hand, dancing, playing, weaving in and out, ‘mocking’ conductors’ movements by crouching as they played pianissimo, jumping in the air to accent parts – audience participation was encouraged and it was just quite wonderful to see.  Real passion and enthusiasm and a sense of completion and wellbeing.  It was a privilege to witness.

This was the middle of three concerts I attended this weekend – neither of the other two matched this for sheer enjoyment.  The LSO with Rattle for a Ravel  programme – beautifully played, well sung (soloists and choir) but the humour in L’enfant et les sortileges felt contrived and the voices were a little drowned by the orchestra (again maybe because of my seat position in the choir seats).  It was unfamiliar music, and I’m not champing at the bit to hear it again.  Competent, elegant and polished.

The last of the three was the BBC Scottish with Thomas Dausgaard replicating a concert given by Bernstein and the Vienna Phil in 1987 to start the week long build up to the composer’s 100th ‘birthday’.  I like the orchestra, I want to like the conductor – he champions new composers and programmes in an interesting way – but I just don’t feel comfortable watching him;the Mozart clarinet concerto played by Anneliene van Wauwe felt repetitive, and Mahler’s 5th, which I’d heard only a couple of weeks ago and fallen in love with all over again, felt long and tedious.  The horn solo was good, the trumpet pretty good, and the whole ensemble were great.  There seemed to be a little messiness in some of the timings, and who can blame them, I don’t think I saw a downbeat throughout the evening – just a lot of emoting and swaying and face contortions.

Luckily the drive home was easy and I arrived just over three hours after I’d got into the car.

A wonderful weekend in Wales…

I’ve sung in a youth choir – there’s nothing quite like the thrill of spending a week with a group of people, learning a piece of music and then performing it to an appreciative audience.  My first choir course took place in 1979 and the first piece we sang was Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.  I haven’t heard it performed live since then.  So I looked forward to yesterday’s afternoon performance of the same piece by The National Youth Choir of Wales, accompanied by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales.

I was not disappointed and had to fight hard not to sing along.  Carlo Rizzi conducted it at a brisk pace and the young voices were perfectly poised to keep up with him.  The diction was excellent, the tone of the choir as a whole was wonderful and mature and the soloists were great – lovely in both tone and clarity.  The counter-tenor solo – a large part and very exposed, was excellent.

The concert opened with a chamber piece – Strauss’ Serenade for Wood Instruments – this showed the confidence the players had in their abilities – walking on, taking their seats and commanding the hall as they played, no conductor, no introduction.  Just wonderful.   All thoughts of this being a ‘Youth’ ensemble were left to one side – this was fantastic.

The highlight for me was Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  The orchestra were big in number, although some of its members were so tiny I’m not sure their feet could touch the floor – but again, once they started to play you soon forgot this was a youth ensemble.  I think of Mahler as being for an older audience (not sure if this is true) as it encompasses all that life has to offer, but the players on stage played as if they understood every nuance of the music, and the 4th movement – the Adagietto – was just gorgeous.

Carlo Rizzi is a delightful conductor to watch (I’ve only seen him in the pit conducting an opera before where it’s difficult to see him clearly) – his passion for the music was clear, his support for the players was obvious, his encouragement for the choir was excellent and his enthusiasm for young music-makers was vocalised in a short, but heart-felt speech to the audience at the end of the concert – essentially, please don’t let this orchestra die by not encouraging young people of all backgrounds to explore and discover music making for themselves.  Being part of an orchestra or choir like this is good, not just for music making, but for all other aspects of life.

We left the (very full) hall in excellent spirits with me humming and singing half-lines from the Chichester Psalms.  I suspect I know what CD will be in the car next week.

And so it ends…

This year the only Proms concerts I can attend are at weekends, and this was the first of four I’m spending in SW7 in 2018.  So why the title?  This weekend marked the last concerts Thomas Sondergard would conduct the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as its Principal Conductor.  The end of a wonderful 6 years of music making.  What a shame they let him go, or couldn’t offer him what he needed to make him stay.

The first concert, Friday evening was all about Youthful Beginnings.  I went to the pre-concert talk a little reluctantly, fearing it might be dry and boring.  It wasn’t.  Rhian Davies and Steph Power proved to be excellent interviewees to Petroc Trelawney’s professional questioning.  Morfydd Owen, one of the female composers being performed this evening had an interesting life split between Wales and turn of the century London, moving in eclectic circles.  I hoped her music lived up to the interesting, promising life she’d led.  The other female composer being performed was Lili Boulanger and her two pieces opened the evening.   The first D’un matin de printemps was a jolly, light little piece and my seat in Row 4 of the side stalls afforded me an excellent view of the violin scores and a chance to feel I was being conducted along with the orchestra.  The second of the two pieces D’un sortie triste was longer, deeper and darker and I really enjoyed it – I will listen to more of her music in the future.

The orchestra were on fine form although there were a few new faces in its ranks – perhaps resting the others in preparation for Prom 11 in two nights’ time.  Then it was on to the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto – Number 1.  Bertrand Chamayou was tiny (even compared to Thomas Sondergard who’s no giant) and he started swiftly needing to be reigned in a little (much to the amusement of the aforementioned conductor who seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself throughout this concert, a grin spreading across his face on many occasions).

The playing was superb – light and bright and the encore, a Liszt arrangement of a song by Mendelssohn quite appropriate to the evening.

The second half opened with Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne – a piece that reminded me of so many other composers of the era including Wagner and I kept thinking it was going to develop into something I knew.  It didn’t – but that wasn’t important – it was intriguing to wonder how her own style would have developed had she lasted past her 27th birthday.  There was obvious talent there, but you can’t live by ‘what ifs’ – we can just enjoy the ‘we haves’.

Finally Schumann’s 4th Symphony, played through without any breaks (so no chance of the controversy over clapping between movements to raise its ugly head – I don’t like to clap because I think it spoils the mood for me, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself because a movement might end on a high!).

I’ve noticed with Thomas that he gives music of this era an excitement, a vitality that might have disappeared over the years when it has become familiar or cliched.  He’s done it with Beethoven for me and tonight he did it with Schumann – not a composer I know very well, but again, this performance might get me to listen to more.

The audience were appreciative and I left very happy – one Prom down, 13 or 14 to go.

The following evening was the World Orchestra for Peace, led by Donald Runnicles – the first left-handed conductor I’ve seen – it was odd to watch at first, but I soon forgot and enjoyed the results.

The Proms Youth Choir opened with an unaccompanied world premiere – Shadow by Eriks Esenvalds – stunning.  The choir’s diction was perfect, the sound very mature and round for a youth choir which can sound quite brittle at times, and it received a rapturous reception – I suspect many choir singers in the audience (myself included) will be adding this to their ‘wish list’.

Next on to Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem – commissoned by the Japanese but then banned by them.  I’ve only recently warmed to Britten’s music, but each time I hear a piece I think ‘okay then, so it’s not so bad after all’.  I preferred the second and third movements, but while it didn’t become an ear worm, I suspect I’ll listen to this one again.

The orchestra, put together specifically for this performance had a few familiar faces (the harpist from BBC NOW and a second violin player I’ve seen in a few UK based orchestras) – the women were in colourful dresses, rather than plain black, and some of the men sported coloured bow ties under their black suits, but again I quickly forgot this, initially unusual sight, and was overtaken by the music making.  All expert players the sound was rich and round.

After the interval – the big piece – Beethoven’s 9th.  Last year, the performance was by BBC NOW and surrounded by controversy over Brexit with EU flags being smuggled in and unfurled during the last movement.  This year there was none of this other than a couple of people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with pro-EU slogans.  So any tension had to be music-related.  And I’m sorry to say, I didn’t feel any, other than one spine tingling moment towards the end as the chords and voices soared upwards.  It was expertly played, section leaders having changed from the first half line up (all very egalitarian) and obvious signs of collaboration – wonderful, that’s what this orchestra is all about, but this was at the expense of an edge to the music (and I do like this, particularly with my Beethoven).  There was a slight sense of anticipation ahead of the final movement, but the crescendo built slowly, but smoothly and I felt no sense of uneasiness that I like about this piece.

Of course, it was brilliant; the soloists were very good – I could even hear the Mezzo (Judith Kutabi) over the bright notes of the soprano (Erin Wall) – not always a given in this piece and the applause was rapturous.  Speaking to a fellow concert goer the following evening he thought it had been better than last year’s performance, so I suppose it’s all subjective.

Donald Runnicles, a conductor I haven’t seen live before (not that I remember anyway) was good, kept everything together and displayed the passion and enthusiasm that Beethoven’s 9th, no doubt, stirs in many people.

Sunday was my ‘wild card’ Proms – an organ recital.  I go to the free ones in Kelvingrove Museum on Sunday afternoons when I’m up in Glasgow and there is a camera trained on the feet so we can all witness the complexities of playing such an instrument.  I wish we’d had one today because then the talents displayed by Iveta Azkalna would have been made obvious.  She was a tiny figure in a white suit sitting commanding, driving this beast of an organ.  More than once did I get a mental image of a demonic figure in a silent black and white movie playing the organ as the world reached an apocalyptic end.  Some pieces were familiar on the organ – Widor’s Tocatta for instance, some I knew in other forms – Faure’s Pavanne, and variations on a theme by Paganini (some of which she appeared to be playing with foot pedals only – really? – perhaps an illusion) but the one I enjoyed most was a new piece by Thierry Escaich, Deux Evocations – lyrical in the bottom of the register and sounded much more orchestral.  I think organ players are incredibly talented, and this venue is perfect for such a concert – it’s just not my cup of tea – given me a symphony orchestra every time.  But I’m very glad I tried it.

Bring on Prom 11 – Mahler’s 8th – BBC NOW and Thomas Sondergard’s very last performance as their Principal Conductor.  5 choirs (taking up the whole of the choir seats, plus a few extra rows), and augmented orchestra (taking up a fully extended stage) and 8 soloists (one off stage).  I’d met up with a Proms ‘buddy’ prior to the concert and we’d exchanged seats – each wanting the other’s location – so I ended up again in the side stalls, only 8 rows back, directly in line with the podium – almost perfect (for me) thanks to Bob.  Yes, it affects the balance, yes, I can’t see all players equally, yes I had to turn to see the choir on the west side – but I didn’t care.  I was part of that amazing orchestra for the evening, and of course most of my attention was taken by watching Thomas conduct these massive forces.  He sang for most of it, mouthing the words the choir sang, delight on his face as he articulated the words along with the children’s chorus, supporting each of the soloists, leading the orchestra through their finest moments, and seemingly oblivious to the paramedics who had to escort a man out (he’d collapsed right in the middle of the arena – hands went up, stewards were alerted, the para medics soft-shoe-shuffled to the man, did their job and most people were none the wiser for it).

At the end of the first movement – 25 minutes in and exhausting to listen to (let alone play/sing) – no applause – deathly silence – and what an effect.  As the performers relaxed you could hear audible sighs of relief as the tension dissipated, water drunk, shoulders shaken out and sitting positions adjusted, ready for the next movements, all played without a break.  Maybe there were technical problems with some of the music making (I didn’t notice any but I’m sure someone somewhere would have played a bad note at some point during this evening – odds are that they did) but to my ears this was a near perfect performance.  The sound was enormous, seamless between the elements of choirs, soloists and orchestra – led expertly through by Thomas, a passionate performance by him, turning red in the face with exertion, grin breaking out at the joy of the music, perhaps a passage completed well that had been problematic in rehearsal?  All his trademark movements and signals were there, but this was a man with a mission and he achieved – 100%.

As bows were taken to loud, ongoing applause – one disappointment – Thomas did not take a solo bow.  He only bowed with the soloists, chorus masters and orchestra, often standing back to allow them their glory.  I was in tears (music related, not sadness at his departure) and in shock – it had been glorious.

As I left the hall, almost speechless, but with an exultant grin in my soul, it was good to see B Tommy Anderson and Stephen Hough at the Stage Door waiting for Thomas – it was good to know he had friends who, no doubt, were going out to help him celebrate a wonderful career at BBC NOW and to wish him well as the new Music Director at RSNO.

I turned off the car stereo for the first 20 miles down the M4 – I needed to soak up the memory first before replacing it with my usual Sibelius.  I think I must have flown home – no road works, no diversions and a clear run – midnight – lights out.  Thank you for the music.

Could do better…

Friday 15th June – Swansea Brangwyn Hall – last concert of the season in Swansea for BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  The programme promised fizz and joy, and fireworks.  What we got was more of a damp squib – and I’m still trying to figure out why.

The AV was awful – it was being broadcast live on the Radio so was set up for that – the presenters had hand held mics, which seemed to be in conflict with the radio mics – so the voices were muffled beyond understanding (to the extent someone called out from the audience to tell Nicola Heywood-Thomas that they couldn’t hear!).  The preconcert talk had been a conversation between Jon James and Eric Stern, the conductor and they’d had the same problems, so had talked without mics (so perhaps the audio team had time to sort out the problem, but failed to do so).

The audio problems left me feeling unsettled and while the conductor had filled me with confidence during his passionate conversation with Jon James, his performance on the podium reminded me he is still a Broadway conductor, not a classical orchestral concert conductor – one is not better than the other, each has its place, but I’m happier with the latter.

I think the programme was the wrong way around – starting with familiar pieces – Bernstein’s ‘On the town’, ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ and ‘Take care of this house’ – the first was almost toe tapping, and the two songs were sung well by Emily Birsan, a very good ‘Broadway’ singer who performed and acted each of the songs perfectly and her diction was very good, when not drowned out by the orchestra.  Speaking to a friend during the interval, it would appear that John Wilson when conducting similar programmes, has the singer amplified over the orchestra as the music (and its dynamics) are written for them sitting in a theatre pit rather than behind the singer on the same stage.  This might have been a solution here as well.

Before the interval we also had Annelien van Wauwe play Bernstein’s clarinet concerto (okay), and Coplands ‘El Salon Mexico’ – apparently fun of sound pictures of drunken sailors in Mexican bars – I think I missed these references.

Some of us commented during the interval that the orchestra seemed a bit ‘flat’, they didn’t look happy (and normally this orchestra is full of energy and spirit).  The second half didn’t reassure us either.  We had ‘Candide’ – at least that was up to their usual standard of enjoyment, Sondheim’s ‘Night Waltz’ from ‘A ‘Little Night Music’ and Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be Gay’.  All good, but all a bit ‘yeah, right, what’s next?’

The final piece was Bernstein’s ballet music for ‘Fancy Free’ the same story as On the Town but with the sailors staying in a bar all day rather than exploring New York – it was an earlier piece in his career and you could hear later themes here and there.  I am unfamiliar with this piece, and as a final to the whole season it left a lot to be desired.  The orchestra looked relieved that it was over (there were smiles, but they looked forced) and I think the orchestra (and the audience) were short-changed this evening and I really don’t know why.

The audio problems started things off badly (especially as there continued to be introductions between the different pieces, so we were constantly reminded of the issue); the concert was ‘bitty’ with many shorter pieces and nothing to really get your teeth into throughout the whole evening; I’ve heard the orchestra play jazz – Gershwin and Duke Ellington – and there are several musicians who were on stage that night who can really ‘swing’ – but that feeling was not there tonight; the orchestra can play very difficult, discordant, ‘ugly’ music so should have been fine with the less familiar pieces, but they weren’t, and they are excellent sight-readers so should have had no problem ‘learning’ a new piece – but it just didn’t gel as an overall performance.  I think I felt the same during the Christmas concert which again showed a mismatch between the presenter and the audience.

There were obviously Bernstein fans in the audience, some of whom I’d never seen at a concert before, and I hope they enjoyed themselves.  But I don’t think it was the orchestra’s finest hour (especially when compared to the previous week’s performance in Cardiff).  What a shame – the season had ended not with a bang, but a whimper.