The Promming miracle…

Each Proms season I’ve traditionally set myself a challenge – attend one concert where I don’t know the conductor, soloist, composer, orchestra – a challenge to myself to broaden my mind. In a normal year, last night’s Prom would have been that one. A new conductor for the Philharmonia. I hadn’t been able to get a ticket in the initial sale, but had decided to try on the morning for a Promming ticket in the choir stalls. When it was announced there would be a replacement conductor as Santtu-Matias Rouvali was unable to be there due to travel restrictions, I was delighted to see that the man standing in for him was Paavo Järvi – he’s in my ‘favourites’ group.

I got a seat – row 3 – in the choir stalls and set out from home at 2pm, thinking I’d get there in time for a stroll up to the park, eat my picnic tea, and take my seat. The road traffic management powers that be had a different idea. It would appear that the M4’s average speed is now about 50mph, and with a whole junction closed off and a diversion through the middle of Slough on a Saturday afternoon, I parked up at 7pm. However, I was soon in my seat – the queuing system, Covid Pass, ticket and bag checking procedures in place were fine – and to my relief most people were wearing masks, at least in the corridors. The guys either side of me were not, but one put his on whenever talking to me!

The stage is huge and at first I was worried about the sound from my seat. I needn’t have done so. Although I could hear the French Horns and woodwind a little more clearly than usual because of their proximity compared to the rest of the orchestra, that didn’t matter as they were superb.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, ‘Classical’ is my favourite piece by this composer and it danced away, opening up the concert in a beautiful way. It was light and bright, Paavo Järvi looked happy to be on the podium, and the orchestra very happy to be there.

I’d heard good things about the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson but his programme choices gave me cause for concern. It is well known by those who know me, that I really don’t ‘get’ Bach. This man’s playing of the Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 changed my mind. It was exquisite – and I knew that from the first couple of bars. I think the term ‘tinkling the ivories’ was invented for this man – and not in a bad way. His touch was so delicate that it reminded you of the tinkling of raindrops – the quiet moments made you hold your breath so as not to disturb him – his strength at the lower end of the keyboard – quite magnificent. And when he wasn’t playing, he was constantly surveying the players ranged behind him to listen to their contribution as if he was part of them, rather than the soloist.

The interval was followed by Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491 – I thought I knew the piece, but recognised very little of it. But again, the playing was superb. the audience were not going to let him go so easily and we were treated to two encores – Andante [Adagio] from J. S. Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528 (transcr. Stradal) & Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.

Víkingur spoke to the audience before the encore – I couldn’t make out every word, but he did take the time to thank Parvo Järvi for standing in, and I think he referred to him as a superstar (I wouldn’t disagree), and he came across as someone who was genuinely pleased to be on stage and to engage with the audience.

The final piece was Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 in E flat major and it was here that the conductor and orchestra came into their own. A much bigger ensemble appeared (while the piano was skilfully rolled off stage) and you knew you were in for a big piece of music. It was incredible. The first movement loosened things up a lot and I was conscious I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was trying hard not to tap feet, shrug shoulders, head bang (oh yes!) but then the second movement – oh my goodness. I think I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this orchestra’s playing. I’ve seen them perform several times and have never been won over – this evening changed my mind. Tonight they were happy, engaged, and engaging. The bassoon solo was wonderful, as were all the solo contributions and it was great to hear three trombones ring out from the back of the stage. Paavo Järvi was in his element – a grin appearing now and again, a thumbs up for a perfect entry from percussion (perhaps there had been issues during rehearsal in the timing because of the distance?) – and overall a fantastic end to an evening.

The audience looked large – a normal one with few gaps (although there were more after the pianist had finished for the evening) – the choir seats were full to capacity, the arena Prommers looked transfixed throughout – and there was good humour throughout the auditorium.

The drive home took another four hours (I’ve previously done it in 3 – it is only 180 miles after all) and I was back in my bed almost exactly 12 hours from when I’d left home. A 12 hours that have changed my mind about a composer and an orchestra. Not a bad result really. There is not only light at the end of the tunnel right now, but that tunnel seems to be getting shorter as well.

On the road again…

My intention this summer was to write a blog each week reflecting on the Proms concerts I’d listened to on the radio along with any live events I’d managed to go to in person. My last 24 hours have blown that plan out of the water – last evening deserves its own blog.

I’d flown up to Edinburgh in a small plane (which was great fun – I love feeling all the bumps along the way) and after an early dinner (or late lunch) made my way, through the rain, to the Academy School for two performances of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Edinburgh Festival.

The venue was a magnificent open sided marquee, chairs well spaced out, marshalled by a well organised bunch of people in cheerful bright yellow waterproofs. The stage was set for the RSNO, 1 narrator (Dame Harriet Walter), 2 soloists (Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge), a hidden chorus (the Festival Chorus) and 1 conductor (Thomas Søndergård). The rain had stopped, the audience bigger than I’d expected (a couple of days earlier many of the seats near the back were still available), and the musicians tuned up – what a wonderful sound.

It was lovely to see familiar faces on the stage – I was right in front of the viola section for the first performance – and it gave me a fresh perspective. From the off, with a haunting woodwind introduction, I was captured. The overture was familiar – full of lovely music, and the acoustic was surprisingly good from my seat. I’d been a little apprehensive at this aspect of the concert, but my worries disappeared very quickly. Admittedly when Dame Harriet first spoke, there was a slight echo, but that improved throughout the first performance, and didn’t exist in the second, so no worries there.

However, the sound of increasingly heavy rain outside, provided a second soundtrack to much of the first performance. I’m one of those people who loves sitting in a tent when it’s raining outside but it was a relief when the heavier rain stopped so that we, as the audience, could enjoy the soft, delicate ending with a moment of silence before bursting into applause.

A huge effort had been made by all concerned – seeing the invisible chorus appear along one side of the open marquee holding large golfing umbrellas to be able to take their applause alongside the orchestra and soloists evidenced that – and I was reluctant to leave my seat. I wanted to hear it all over again.

And I did – because I had a ticket for the second performance and hour or so later – yay!

The sun came out briefly during the gap between the two performances, and I met up with an old friend, and a friend of his, so we caught up with news as we re-entered the venue and took our seats. This time I was nearer the first violins – and if anything, this second performance was better – there was more soul in it. There was no rain; there were gulls squawking overhead now and again, but, while they were noticeable, they didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the performance. I think Dame Harriet was superb in this latter performance, and the soloists’ voices were beautifully powerful, and they sang with superb diction. The ending was more moving, more heartfelt – outside was dark and the atmosphere was wonderful. The audience’s reaction was suitably enthusiastic once again.

It may not have been a perfect concert in terms of venue, and background sounds, but it was an occasion – one I wouldn’t have missed for the world. There was a sense of a shared experience, enjoyment, pleasure, delight – and that’s what live performance is all about isn’t it? Sharing, community, togetherness, being part of something, not just observing. The lively chatter as we all made our way out was a pleasure to hear.

The music was joyful, delightful, I think many of us perked up in our seats for the wedding march – which was stunning to hear played by a full orchestra rather than by a church organ at one of the countless weddings I attended as a child chorister in my local church on a Saturday. It was great to be so close to the stage in the first performance so that I could hear individual instruments being played, although how the players managed as the evening grew chillier, I’m not sure. It was great to hear the lower brass, and bassoons resonate, and to see the smiles on the players’ faces at the end. There seemed to be a sense of camaraderie on the stage as well.

I gather this piece in its entirety is not performed very often, perhaps it should be that way and therefore remain special for its rarity. It was a very special evening, and well worth the trip northwards. It was a late night (thanks to the hospitality of the friend of my friend!) and an early morning to get my return flight but today I’ve been feeling normal, hopeful, and (despite sleep deprivation) raring to go to my next live performance.

Normal..?

Thursday 29th July – St David’s Hall in Cardiff and I was at a concert – BBC NOW, Douglas Boyd on the podium with Chloe Hanslip as soloist performing a lovely programme of music.

It was a test event so was only open to friends, family and subscribers of the orchestra; there were just over 200 of us in the 1600 seater auditorium, so we were well spaced out. However, I met up with friends I hadn’t seen in well over a year, and caught up on news and gossip – it almost felt like the first night of a normal season when you catch up with those you haven’t seen since the close of the last season. Normal.

The programme looked like a normal programme – an overture, a concerto and a symphony. It was well balanced between the familiar and the not-too-overplayed, and showed the orchestra off to a tee. Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture opened, followed by Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, and we were treated to Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony in the second half. It was lovely to see familiar faces on the stage, as well as to hear new players make their mark – I particularly loved the woodwind section – I only recognised one player (Lenny Sayers) – and their sound, as a unit, was crystal clear.

It was lovely to be back in the Hall, one of my ‘locals’ and to take the familiar journey from home and back again (battling with driving rain on the return journey, something I had not missed). the orchestra are in fine form and the evening put me in the right frame of mind for the Proms season which started the following evening.

The Proms started the following night, and I’d decided to listen to most of them on the radio rather than wait for the delayed TV broadcasts – those I can save up for later on. The radio allows the sound of the auditorium to filter through over the voice of the presenter and that’s what I miss. The sound of the musicians tootling through a difficult passage, warming up their instruments, audience members chatting to each other, and the (very) occasional cough.

I loved the First Night’s programme – great collection of music from Vaughan Williams to Sibelius, the soloists were superb (particularly good diction from Allan Clayton) and a lovely premiere of a piece by James Macmillan. Dalia Statevska was a delight to watch (I turned the TV broadcast on for the last 20 minutes after the radio version had ended) and she was so committed to transmitting her feelings for the music to the players.

Broadway music on the second evening could wait and I settled down late afternoon to watch a live stream of Tristan und Isolde from Munich. I gave up after the first interval (although I was fascinated by the Barry Manilow look-alike presenter amongst the audience in the square outside the opera house watching on the big screen). I think my powers of concentration have waned a little over the months and I’ll have to build back up to long Wagnerian operas in one sitting. I didn’t mind the production, although if a Director has to explain his concept, I’m not sure it’s a successful interpretation – shouldn’t it be more obvious than that, and the two principal singers – Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros sang and performed well in that first act. Watching Kirill Petrenko was an education – shame we didn’t see more of him from the pit.

Sunday saw a programme of 3 Mozart symphonies with Maxim Emelyanychev on the podium – or not as it turns out because there was no podium, he stood on the stage itself, and moved around quite a bit. This one I watched on TV – I’ve heard good things about this conductor and I’m in Scotland often enough to wonder if it’s worth going up a day early and catching a concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He reminded me of an eager little puppy and his enthusiasm and joy in the music was obvious – but I’m not sure I am cut out for an all Mozart programme. I love the Jupiter – the utterly relentless energy of it – but he seemed to smooth out some of the edges in it that make it, for me, so exciting.

Monday was one concert I’d been hoping to get to in person, but after an unsuccessful bid for tickets in the initial stages of purchasing, I’d resigned myself to the fact I wouldn’t be there. BBC NOW were playing again, led by their new Principal Conductor, Ryan Bancroft (standing in for Elim Chan). It was a lovely programme again (not sure when they had time to rehearse given that they were playing on Thursday evening but that is just par for the course for many orchestras in the UK I understand). I enjoyed the Brahms 4th, and while the new piece – Cloudline by Elizabeth Ogonek – didn’t grab me at the start, it grew on me. I’ll watch the TV broadcast later this week prepared to give it a second go.

Tuesday was an odd one – Beethoven’s 4th performed by the BBC Philharmonic with Ben Gernon (another replacement) on the podium. I understand it’s the least performed of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies, but last night I heard it almost twice as large chunks were played during the interval interview. I suppose it’s the one I know least, and even now I can’t remember much of it – maybe it’ll always be one of those pieces that goes in, is enjoyed, then falls out of my memory on a short cycle.

Wednesday – another I’d been hoping to go to in person – Vasily Petrenko’s first outing with his new orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic. I enjoy watching this conductor in motion – his left hand is fascinating – and I’d even looked for Promming tickets this morning but there seemed to be none for sale, even as early as 5 past 9 – obviously they sold out quickly! However, listening to the Thomas Tallis through headphones I knew Petrenko was working his magic. Respighi’s Concerto Gregoriano was sublime, beautifully played by Sayaka Shoji on violin and it was wonderful to hear Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony for the second time in less than a week.

I’m finding the Proms difficult to engage with this year – perhaps I really need to be in the Hall just once to get the atmosphere back in my memory bank to take forward for other concerts. There are still a few I’d hoped to go to in person, and I’ll try to get Promming tickets in the choir seats and then jump in the car to drive the 180 miles to London and back afterwards.

No FOMO…

It’s been a strange morning so far. The Proms went on sale today, and I didn’t get any of my choices for the first part of the season – well, not at a price I wanted to pay at least.

Recently I’ve managed to buy tickets for live performances, and had really forgotten the sensation of logging on, waiting with sweaty palms until I reach the front of the queue and secure a seat. I quite enjoy it if truth be told. A sense of achievement, high fiving thin air once the tickets come through, the joy of then being able to look forward to the event itself. So I thought I’d be gutted when I had no tickets available for any of the four concerts I had on my Proms Planner this morning. But I am surprisingly calm about it.

The season hadn’t got me over excited – but I had been very pleased knowing that it was going ahead, albeit under very strange circumstances. And perhaps age and experience tells me that I might get a return, or decide closer to the time that it’s worth paying a little bit more for a ticket to be able to go to a performance after all.

My experience of booking tickets for the Proms is a relatively new one, and has usually clashed with me being away for the weekend, so I’ve had to rely on hotel wifi, or on the first occasion, a PC in the lobby of a hotel where my browsing time was limited to one hour – the days before smartphones! I was in Vienna, having travelled to hear Jonas Kaufmann perform to promote his CD of early 20th century songs by the likes of Lehar. It hadn’t been the best concert I’d been to – too many of his fans lusting after him in the front couple of rows of the stalls for my liking, and on reflection, it was then I made the choice only to see him perform opera or lied in the future.

But my trip hadn’t been wasted. I met up with an former travel companion who lived in the city – Astrid; we’d shared a small plane adventure over a glacier in Alaska as part of a camping trip there one summer earlier in the century. The wonders of Facebook had helped us reconnect, and we’d spent a lovely morning in a Viennese coffee shop off the beaten track, eating strudel and drinking excellent coffee. I’d wondered over the Mescherschmidt heads in the Belvedere (as well as admiring The Kiss over the heads of the hordes of tourists) and thoroughly enjoyed see some Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald works in the MAK. But when I came to log on to the Royal Albert Hall website, I was astonished to find more than 13000 people ahead of me in the queue to just get onto the site. How naive I was back then. Luckily, I checked for returns closer to the time, and managed to get tickets to all performances I’d really wanted to go to, placed perfectly in the hall. My first Proms season – 9 performances attended.

The following year I was cannier, loaded my Proms Planner up with carefully chosen seats for each performance, now knowing how much I liked to be up close and personal with the orchestra so chose side stalls and choir seats where possible. I was up in Scotland, so newly acquired smartphone at the ready, fully charged, I sat on my hotel bed, crossed my fingers that the wifi didn’t just ‘disappear’ and logged on. Within 1 hour and 20 minutes I’d secured all but 2 of the 22 tickets I’d wanted. Success.

The next two years followed similar patterns – working hard to keep my mobile device from falling asleep to avoid losing my place in the queue – I was in at position 1300 one year – and again got all but one or two tickets (and I got these through returns). In 2019 I only wanted to go to 3 performances. Unfortunately illness prevented me getting to the one I really wanted to see, but I did hear it on the radio and could imagine myself sitting in my seat in the side stalls being mesmerised by the performance. The other two performances were brilliant and went to plan.

Then of course came last year. I enjoyed what was presented, and it was my favourite ‘Last Night…’ because the music came front and centre without the usual pomp and circumstance, so this year I was looking forward to seeing what was on offer. I don’t think I’m the only one of my friends who commented that if this had been a normal year the season wouldn’t have excited me. But this isn’t a normal year, and what digital offerings have shown me is that there is a wealth of music out there that has been forgotten, waylaid, or only just written and I’ve had fun discovering much of it. This season doesn’t have as many ‘blockbuster’ concerts that yell from the page “get a ticket at any cost” so I made the decision to get tickets as cheaply as possible, and if they weren’t available, not to go for a higher priced option – not yet. This might account for my lack of sorrow when all four came back this morning as ‘sold out’ in my price range. Ironically, this year I’ve been given a voucher for the Royal Albert Hall, so I could have paid more without denting my ticket budget, but I’m holding that back for the second half of the Proms season, knowing that one of the Mystery Proms might just be that one concert that I really have to go to, no matter what the ticket price is.

I know I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for getting to a live performance; I know I still long to be part of that community that comes together for just a couple of hours in a slightly darkened hall. I’ve paid over the odds to attend a live event already, and have two more lined up for mid-August. But perhaps my enforced time away from the concert hall has given me perspective, and a more focused approach to what I spend my money on. My budget is now just that – a budget that I must stick to, so if I pay to attend one performance, that might be at the cost of not being able to attend another. That necessarily makes me choosier and I have to be ruled by my head rather than my heart at times like this morning. And I’m okay with that.

However, I may not feel the same way in July if all my first choices in the second half of the season are sold out – maybe then my heart will takeover and I click on that button that says ‘choose another (more expensive) seat” for me. For now, however, I remain philosophical and will be patient. Good things come to those who wait (or so I’ve been told). Patience, patience….

A normal weekend..?

IBERT Divertissement [15’]  

FRANÇAIX L’horloge de flore [16’]  

POULENC Sinfonietta [27’]  

Thomas Søndergård Conductor  

Adrian Wilson Oboe  

Royal Scottish National Orchestra 

Music and musicians – the important bit 

I am grateful from the bottom of my heart that this performance was arranged and performed. It was perfect. The music programmed summed up a summer’s evening with friends, larking around, mulling over romances, reflecting on more sombre issues, having a celebration. The guest list was near-perfect – Thomas Søndergård wielding his baton on the podium, the orchestra full of familiar faces recognised from their wonderful engagement with the audience during the digital seasons and associated output, and knowing there were ‘twitter buddies’ in the audience, all as eager to be there as I was.  

The Ibert was madcap and was played with a joyful exuberance and I loved it. The three brass players – Chris Gough, Chris Hart and Dávur Juul Magnussen reminded me of three naughty schoolboys waiting outside the headmaster’s office as they were lined up centre stage behind the woodwinds. They played perfectly of course – the trombone and trumpet at the end sounding particularly good – drunk or vulgar – both I think – and there was so much humour in the piece. It showcased all players on stage, and set us up for the rest of the lovely music ahead.  

Francaix’s L’horloge de flore saw Adrian Wilson in the spotlight. Throughout the last 15 months I’ve become familiar with many more of the orchestra’s personalities, and Adrian has been no exception. His playing is joyful and although this evening I couldn’t see his face from my seat, there was movement in his shoulders that suggested he was enjoying himself very much. It was a lovely, light, bouncy piece of music, working always with the full orchestra, supported by his colleagues and I know my head was bobbing along unafraid that I was disturbing a seat neighbour (after all, I had none!) 

Poulenc, the only composer whose work I am slightly familiar with, and his Sinfonietta was a fitting end to the evening. It was a little more substantial with all the players on stage at the same time, so the sound was fuller, and again, each of the sections had their moments in the spotlight.  

Over the months I’ve become used to the socially distanced orchestra and that no longer felt strange. But now that these players faces are much more familiar to me as they are no longer lost in the crowd of a larger orchestra, I was able to flick my gaze from one to the other, as directed to do so by Thomas Søndergård’s baton and left hand, and enjoy their individual playing. This sparse sound gives me, the listener, the opportunity to hear individuals as well as the whole – and that’s been a revelation to a non-musician who loves huge, dense, orchestral pieces.  

Thomas Søndergård positively danced his way through all three pieces on the podium. At times he seemed to be all elbows and knees, other times a romantic hero leading the dance in a grand ballroom. But always in command of the music and the orchestra, working with the players, grinning at the joy of being there, and grateful to the audience for coming along to share the experience. His words at the start of the concert were reinforced at the end by his impromptu return to the extended stage to remind us, the audience, that we are appreciated by the orchestra. I don’t doubt that – there is a symbiotic relationship between performers and audience – we both need each other.  

My thoughts 

This, and all other orchestras and choirs, professional or amateur, large or small, deserve an audience to appreciate them. That communion is essential to the human experience. I do not begrudge sports fans their ability to watch live matches; I just want to be able to do likewise in the sport of my choice – music making, which is every bit at physical, takes as much skill and dedication as any sporting event – I deserve it, the performers deserve it.  

Saturday’s experience shows it can be done, and there could have been a lot more people in that auditorium than were allowed. It was well managed, we behaved responsibly, and I felt safe. I know that here I am preaching to the choir.

My reflections on the experience 

So much could have gone wrong and I could have become rather anxious about it all. But it all felt perfectly normal in the end. My old car started and I made the 80 mile journey to the airport without a hitch. The airport and plane experiences were just fine and I received a warm welcome at the hotel and both restaurants I patronised.  

The welcome at the concert hall was warm and enthusiastic – the staff were as happy to have us back as we were to be back there – smiles beneath their masks reached their eyes. I saw frequent cleaning of handrails so I felt safe, and I had plenty of room to relax in my seat. Once the lights dimmed the empty seats were less visible, but the applause, while enthusiastic, did not adequately reflect what I hope we were all feeling – pure joy to be back.  

The return journey was smooth as well and I was soon turning off the M4 to drive the mile or so to home. What puzzled me on that homeward journey was how un-emotional my whole experience had been. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy throughout the weekend, delighted to be back ‘home’ in Glasgow (I do feel at home there), but there wasn’t the spark of excitement I had been expecting. As I took the exit road from the M4 the tears started. An outpouring of emotion whose timing took me totally by surprise.  

I’d done it – I’d been to my first live performance by my favourite combination of orchestra and conductor. I’d been away from home, slept in a bed I didn’t have to make the next morning, eaten food I hadn’t had to cook, nor do the washing up afterwards, had the goosebumps as we waited for the conductor to appear on the podium, experienced that awkwardness when everything falls silent before the leader rises to her feet to tune, heard the swish of a page of music being turned, and heard wonderful, joyful music played by human beings not just for my enjoyment, but also for their own. I had shared an experience with others and had that collective outpouring of happiness at the end of a piece of music. The anticipation of heading to Glasgow had overshadowed any anxiety I may have had about leaving home properly for the first time in 15 months – the music gave me the courage to do it. Now I have more confidence to get out there and start living life again, and live with the restrictions imposed upon me.

I think I’d been keeping my true feelings in check, just in case it was too good to be true, and it was only when it came to an end I realised just how special it had been and how lucky I’d been to experience it. Now, it’s back to work, back to planning the next event, enjoying the anticipation, hoping that it will once again become my normal routine. This Saturday’s event was special – special people were involved – and special music was created. And that, for me, is a normal weekend.

Close to the end of the journey..?

Traditional arr. Christopher Duncan Stac Dona from The Lost Songs of St Kilda
Szymanowski Violin Concerto No2
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Elim Chan Conductor
Nicola Benedetti Violin

Another momentous week in my life ends with a wonderful concert, and real hope for a semi-normal summer ahead. I even ate lunch in a restaurant with proper cutlery and china, and had to remember how to tip our server today. Another milestone on the way back to a good life. To be able to sit down and watch/listen to yet another excellent offering from the RSNO topped things off nicely (the chocolate ice-cream afterwards will be the cherry on the icing on the cake!)

I really enjoyed the arrangement of Stac Dona by Christopher Duncan – and lovely to hear the story behind it. It was at once mysterious, and familiar – a lovely, luscious sound from the strings – something you could really sink your teeth into, or lay back and indulge in its sumptuousness!

The Szymanowski – quite a marvellous piece – and it did feel that every player was letting go and enjoying it. It was terrific and the smiles on faces at the end said it all. It was interesting that both conductor and soloist agree that Nicola Benedetti is very much part of the orchestra rather than an outsider – and this partnership or collaboration really comes over. It felt like they were all having a good time performing it. And it’s such an earthy piece; so complex, so difficult, yet played with gusto like it was in this broadcast, it was a joy to hear.

The Bartok – okay, rewind to last week and I take it all back. This piece is not ‘just pleasant’ to listen to – the open menacing moments had me hooked and I was totally engaged from there and as that theme opened up subsequent movements I was brought back to the original idea. The build up to the finale was wonderful, and it did feel very much like a celebration of the great music we’ve heard in this unusual season.

It’s impossible to pick anyone out for any particular attention because each player and section was brilliant in their own right – but I particularly enjoyed the rather rude trombones and the fun element of the fourth movement. It made me giggle like a school child (and I haven’t been one of them for quite some time!)

I believe it’s quite fitting that this digital season ends with a concerto for orchestra as throughout it individuals have come to the fore – either to play solo or to introduce a session – and here they come together to play as one, but also as soloists for tiny moments. Each of them deserves their moment in the spotlight and the Bartok was the perfect piece to do this.

I have plans to be there in person next weekend – and if I am lucky enough to get a ticket, arrange the flights and so on, then I will be cheering as loudly as possible, in person. Orchestra – you have been warned!

Emotional…

Kilar Orawa
Chopin Piano Concerto No1
Lutosławski Concerto for Orchestra

Elim Chan Conductor
Benjamin Grosvenor Piano

I was transfixed from the very first moment of this performance… it was everything I needed it to be. Rollicking music to wake me up, a beautiful emotional performance by Benjamin Grosvenor and a brilliant tour around this wonderful orchestra to close. Close to perfection? Yes.

The Kilar was hypnotic in so many ways – I have no idea how the players kept going, the finger work we could see from the violins in particular was incredible. It built slowly, monotonously (in the best possible way – I mean it as a complement), incessantly, but at the same time always changing. It was likened in the introduction to a river, always moving, but changing. I heard a waterfall – the overall roar is the same, but now and again as the breeze hits the water, there’s a change. And the yelp at the end was just as I felt – with headphones on, I still applauded loudly and cheered (I think I surprised the neighbour’s children playing outside!) Elim Chan is always so full of energy, and she conducted with precision throughout the concert – but in this piece that was vital as she kept the rhythms on track.

I always enjoy seeing Benjamin Grosvenor play and I was looking forward to this performance. My dad loved Chopin, but it never really stuck with me. Until this evening. It was big, gorgeous, luscious music, with depth and heft. Watching his hands on the keys was magical as was seeing his face change as he seemed to consume the music as he played. I’d love to know what was going on in his mind at those moments when he appeared to be talking to himself. At the same time there was a calmness and a passion – I became emotional at one point and I had a huge lump in my throat.

This Polish series has introduced me to a lot of new music and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra was another in this list. I enjoy Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, but it leaves me thinking, ‘ooh that was nice’ but not getting the ‘concerto’ aspect of it. In this respect the Lutosławski wins hands down. Each section of the orchestra had their moment in the sun – including the violas (hooray) – and the big beefy brass up in the choir were quite menacing. The timpani were played wonderfully by Paul Philbert (thank you for the use of your photo as well Paul), and proved a great introduction to the piece. The camerawork throughout the digital season has been lovely as we see players who might normally be ‘hidden’ on the concert stage – and this piece gave the opportunity to hear them more clearly as well as they took their ‘solo’ passages.

I applauded and cheered at the end of this concert – it felt like a proper concert (whatever those might look and sound like in the future) – there was a beginning, a middle and an end. All emotional bases were covered, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout the final piece. Just brilliant.

My own week has been pretty good, it started with a lovely Bank Holiday Monday picnic, worked through relatively quiet days in the office, and ended on a high as I secured a ticket to a real concert in Edinburgh in August; this performance was the icing on the cake for me. Next week is the final concert in this season – which means I’ll have just enough time to watch them all again before the ‘in person’ concerts start in August. Yay!

A chink of light…

Britten Phantasy Quartet for Oboe & String Trio
Szymanowski Violin Sonata in D Minor
Lutosławski Epitaph for Oboe and Piano
Bacewicz String Quartet No4

Adrian Wilson Oboe
Lena Zeliszewska Violin
RSNO Chamber Ensemble

I do enjoy it when a piece of music is introduced by the musician, or musicians, that are about to perform. That’s why I like pre-concert chats, online introductions and so on – they put the music into some sort of context either for the musician, or in the life of the composer.

All of these pieces felt much more dense, musically, than the number of musicians performing would indicate. There was a mysterious air to the Britten – it felt like a calm day by the seaside with a low fog or mist descending to me. The musicians worked brilliantly together, always watching each other, exchanging glances, and keeping a check on each other – it was a lovely piece.

The Szymanowski was incredibly emotional – and it was here I noticed the complexity of the piano part – I kept having to remind myself that there was only a piano, and not a full orchestra accompanying the violin part. It was gorgeous, and yes, I listened twice. I suspect, I’ll be listening again.

Lutosławski’s Epitaph for Oboe and Piano was tiny in comparison – almost brittle in nature – but precisely and beautifully performed.

I really enjoyed the last piece – Bacewicz String Quartet No4 – it was beautiful, slightly dark, but then danced around at the end.

Once again, I was surprised by this chamber music – much more interesting, lively, emotional and multi-layered than I ever thought it could be. Maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong chamber music. But performances like this bring out the collaborative nature of music making, listening the musicians tell their story in relation to the music, and then hearing it, and watching it, being performed is what I needed this evening.

I finally have concert dates in my diary, some tickets, hotels, and flights have been booked, fingers firmly crossed, and with the Proms announced, and Edinburgh Festival about to be announced, I have my fingers itching to click the button that says ‘book’ on it. These recent chamber concerts mean I’m likely to be booking live performances very much like them. Kudos to RSNO!

A little more settled…

Mahler Blumine
Schubert (arr Brahms) Six Songs for Voice and Orchestra
Schumann Symphony No2

Kevin John Edusei Conductor
Susanna Hurrell Soprano
Felix Kemp Baritone

I had an odd, unsettling week. On paper it should have been perfect – a week off work, indoor dining opening up, get-togethers with friends dotted throughout the week, and I even booked two trips for 2022 – so at last I have something in my diary. But without routine, I felt a little adrift so I looked forward to my weekly shot of RSNO loveliness although I had no idea what to expect.

Both soloists and conductor were new to me and while I have heard lots of Mahler, and some Schubert and Schumann, I’m not overly familiar with any of the works in this evening’s concert – so once again, I listened twice.

What struck me instantly was how much I miss hearing an orchestra tune at the start of a concert, and that applause as the conductor takes to the podium. Such a simple thing, but it indicates another step along that long journey towards live performances and me being in the audience.

The Mahler was divine. It was light, airy, soft, and helped to settle me down for the rest of the evening. Kevin John Edusei struck a cool air, composed, in control, in a very gentle way. If he was a doctor, I bet he’d have a wonderful bedside manner. I was cajoled into the piece and there was an easiness about the orchestra’s performance throughout this concert.

Both soloists were excellent – lovely tone, great diction, and an enjoyable set of songs. I’m never sure about songs with full orchestra as the voices can sometimes be overshadowed – but this was not the case these evening. I liked the fact that the singers were standing at the back of the orchestra so that they could see the conductor easily, and they watched him throughout and perhaps it was this arrangement that helped with the sound balance.

The Schumann was a surprise – there was more heft to it than I thought there would be – my ignorance of the composer’s work I suspect. Here the conductor’s style was precise and led the players through the piece clearly, with the odd smile to them; they in turn paid him rapt attention. At times the music was light and bright, perfect for an early summer’s evening, but there were moments of sumptuousness in the Adagio and joy throughout. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.

So, the week ended on a more settled note than it began, thanks again to the RSNO for bringing together a collection of soloists, conductor, players and music. As things are starting to open up, I just have to deal with the fear of missing out for a little while longer until I find something to get to in person, locally, along the M4 or a little further afield. I sense long car journeys in my future!

RSNO provides a bright end to the week…

Lutosławski Mała suita
Dvořák Symphony No7

Marta Gardolińska Conductor

The Lutosławski Mała suita was a jolly delight. I don’t think I know any of this composer’s other works, or certainly not well enough to have stuck in the memory, but I’ll listen again (as I frequently do with this digital season) and it might just stick this time – I particularly liked the polka movement – although it was played so swiftly, I couldn’t quite get my feet to keep up with it..!

The Dvořák – as Tamas Fejes pointed out in his introduction – there aren’t the hummable tunes in this symphony – it’s a bit more difficult to get hold of – and that’s what I like about it. My problem with the 8th and 9th is that I’m always waiting for “the tune” and miss all the other stuff. In the 7th, I pay attention to what’s being played at the time.

Some great, ferocious timp playing, a lovely piccolo introduction as well as well as a lovely luscious sound when the whole orchestra played. During my second listen it reminded me, in parts, of Sibelius – in the sense that it’s difficult to get hold of – and for me, that’s why I really enjoyed it. It was much more about mood, creating pictures and episodes.

The Scherzo had a lovely lilt to it, and I was taken at this point with the conductor – Marta Gardolińska – she was delightful to watch and the interaction with the players here was particularly good. I hope she makes a return journey to this orchestra – it would be worth seeing/hearing.

What I noticed in this broadcast was that I was seeing players I don’t normally see clearly either in the concert hall or in previous digital offerings. It might be down to the placement of musicians in the large space they now occupy making it easier to get a decent camera angle of them, or something completely different – however, it’s lovely to see half-new faces and as hoped for, listening to chamber music has helped me pick out different instruments even in a symphony as ‘large’ as this. My listening habits have been suitably refreshed.

This concert left me feeling light and bright – that might be down to me being on holiday this week, so no work to look forward to at 8am Monday morning, or that finally I can eat off a china plate indoors without having to wash it up (cafes and restaurants will be doing well out me next week!) – but I suspect it was that once again, music had grabbed me, caught my attention, and lifted my spirits.