Normal disservice will be resumed: Programming the Proms for television.

I’m not going to complain about the Proms. It brings music to many, catering for a range of tastes from popular warhorses from the classical canon to contemporary music, jazz, gospel, chamber music, family concerts, film and television music. And Stockhausen. Amidst all the complaints of elitism, catering for bums on seats, unimaginative programming and more, the Proms quietly gets on with celebrating music both ancient and modern, and creating one of the best festivals anywhere in the world.

20130720-142200.jpgWhat I am going to complain about, however, is how it is programmed for televisual consumption, and specifically the evisceration of last Tuesday’s Prom as it was packaged for television. Tuning in to watch last night’s broadcast on BBC4, in delighted anticipation of hearing David Matthews’ A Vision of the Sea, which was receiving its world premiere, I found that the work had been brutally torn out of the televised version, going straight to the second item in the programme, Rachmaninov’s enduringly-popular Piano Concerto no.2.

I feel the BBC missed a real trick, here. Matthews’ piece, an evocative tone-poem exploring the coast of Deal in Kent, would have been a useful way of introducing audiences to contemporary music; it occupied fairly safe tonal territory, had plenty of drama and melodic lines, and is reminiscent of Debussy and Britten. As modern music goes, it’s not scary at all, and is in fact very accessible, and would have done much to dispel the myth that all modern music is complex, atonal, and Difficult To Listen To.

I fully appreciate that, of the two works, the Rachmaninov is the more likely to keep people watching rather than reaching for the remote to flip channels – a key factor in the elements at the beginning of any programme. But to have excised the Matthews completely does a disservice, both to the BBC itself, which does wonders to promote challenging and modern works and commission new music, as well as to Matthews himself. “Sorry, David, but we don’t think your piece will work as well on television as it did in the concert-hall.’ And in wanting to cater to Rach-lovers, the Beeb failed to cater to those of us who tuned in specifically for the new commission. Some of us love new music, too.


New sea pictures: David Matthews premiere at the Proms

Ravishing – that’s the only word that can describe David Matthew’s A Vision of the Sea, which was given its world première at the Proms on Tuesday night.

David-MatthewsInspired by the sound of the sea off the coast at Matthew’s home town of Deal (a series of watercolours made by the composer during the writing of the piece can be seen here) the piece has occasional nods to Debussy’s similarly south-coast-inspired La Mer in its skirling harps and strings beneath a trumpet melody, combined with aspects of Britten’s Sea Interludes. Matthews’ orchestral pallette ranges from the drama of battering timps and growling brass to the lone echoing clarinets, imitating the call of sea-birds. The piece is a tone-poem in the Sibelian tradition, relishing a range of cascading effects as it captures the changing hues of the sea. And whilst the piece occupies fairly safe tonal territory, it does display Matthews’ post-Romantic leanings to great effect.

Listen online until Tuesday on iPlayer here.

Not quite on fire,bird: almost listening to Stravinsky

Continuing the further, woe-begotten adventures of my almost-getting-to-concerts acquaintance…


We booked two Stravinsky Proms, one for a weekday evening – Le Sacre, which is my all-time favourite ballet score (slightly ahead of Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet) and the second – Firebird for a Saturday evening. The Rite of Spring went without a hitch, even though we had to rush there straight from work.

The morning of the Saturday of the Firebird arrived and I was feeling particularly pleased about being able to travel to the Albert Hall at a relatively leisurely pace. There is usually an ice-cream van parked close to the Albert memorial and I imagined that we would have time to get a Mr Whippy and then a coffee in one of the bar areas inside the Hall where we would also peruse the programme and spend some rare unrushed together time. I told C about the ice cream and coffee plan and he was very pleased. (He likes it when I come up with pleasant passtimes rather than lists of jobs for him to do like taking out the rubbish and painting the hall).

With both of us in a good mood, I decided to do some gardening (I really like gardening, but C regards it as his domain meaning that who does what, when and where in the garden has caused conflict on previous occasions. However, the afore mentioned plan had earnt me enough currency to be allowed to potter with favour). So, I went into the ivy and berberis and clematis tangle on the back fence armed with secateurs and gloves and the first incident occured – a small insect flew straight into my eye. This took 20 minutes back indoors to sort out. I didn’t notice the second insect or gang of insects that must have attached to my shin. I only noticed the red discomfort on my leg some time later at the same time as my eye started to itch and water again. I had to abandon the gardening and walk to the chemist to get advice for my eye. I didn’t think the shin was serious. The pharmacist gave me some cream for my eye.

By the time I got home my shin area was looking red and angry. I put the cream in my eye, dabbed some witch hazel on my leg and took a good dose of Piriton. Then I went to bed for a bit of a snooze. When I woke up, I felt a bit strange but I had been asleep for quite a while and C said it was time to get ready to go out. I glugged some more Piriton from the bottle and we went to get the train. When we changed onto the tube, I decided to close my eyes, but the constant anouncements of the next stations kept me awake – I became tetchy. We had the ice cream and coffee in silence as I was feeling too odd for small talk and C was now cross that I had messed up the evening by gardening. I apologised and said how much I was loking forward to the concert and how much I appreciated him buying the tickets. This did the trick and we took our seats in the auditorium as friends.

There were some other works on first, which I have blotted from my memory as sadly I just sat there in a stupor. In the interval C went for a drink and I took a small glug of Piriton, thinking it would help with the itchy eye and shin, which had started up again. Then once more the usual announcements, the conductor, the applause, the lights dim. I am vaguely aware of some brass sounds coming from different places around the auditorium and then no more – until C nudges me awake because I have started snoring. I shift in the seat and close my eyes again to be woken at the end by the applause. C said it was a good concert and I was a very poor concert companion.

The journey home was undertaken in reproachful silence.

On Sunday night when I was feeling much better we listened to the Firebird on CD.

Far cough: almost enjoying Elgar

My friend wrote recently to relay yet another comedy-riddled concert-going experience at this year’s Proms. Enjoy…


Successfully got to the Albert Hall to see/hear the Elgar with Julian Lloyd Webber as soloist. We had the cheapest seats right up inthe gods, but as it wasn’t sold out we got upgraded to seats in the stalls. Lucky us, we thought.


Under the Circumstances...

As we were about to take our new seats we heard two ushers discussing where to seat a patron who had a cough and wanted to be moved to an end seat in case he had to make a quick exit. We didn’t hear the conclusion, but I said to C ‘they’d better not put him near us, or we’ll have to ask to be downgraded back to where we were in the first place.’ We had plenty of time to get settled and read the programme as there was no celebrations of nationality going on in any parks. We had two end seats next to a central aisle. There was a couple sitting directly in front of us and the male was particularly jovial and friendly – making conversation and banter with everyone squeezing past his end seat to get to their seats and asking those in the vicinity where they had traveled from. He seemed in the best of health.

The orchestra came on, then the first violinist, the lights were dimmed, the conductor took his place and the applause, the opening bars of the the Cockaigne Overture filled the hall and then he started, the man in front of us , coughing and sniffing throughout the whole beautiful work. In the brief interlude between the end of the ruined overture and the start of the Cello Concerto, C complained to an usher and we got moved to a loggia box, all to ourself. Fantastic!

Just before the Enigma Variations, the splendid privacy of own box was cut short as 4 other people seated in vicinity of the cougher were ushered in. But it was alright – we felt comradeship through our escape from the man who was afflicted by a cough brought on only by having to listen to music. By the time Pomp and Circumstance had started, we saw him being led away by his wife and an usher.

We have a Sibelius concert booked in December. I’ll let you know how that one goes…

Even the professionals have to practise…

I was reassured last week when listening to the broadcast of Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto, premiered at this year’s Proms, at the words of the radio presenter, Martin Handley. In the hushed moments between the audience applause which greeted the arrival of the orchestra’s leader and the eventual arrival onto the stage of the soloist, Yo-Yo Ma, Handley mentioned that there would be a slight delay as Ma’s music had only just been brought out on to the stage for him to play from in the performance – apparently, Ma had been practicing ”right up until the last minute.”

Yo-Yo Ma

Image: Royal Albert Hall website

There’s often a misconception that musicians, especially internationally-renowned soloists, simply pitch up to the gig on the day, have a quick run-through with their accompanist (or with the orchestra), and then rattle the piece off before collecting their fee and going away again. There’s a lovely and funny moment in one of Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings’ novels where Jennings goes for a piano lesson, and enthuses about playing a new piece: ” I’ll soon be able to rattle it off, shan’t I, sir ?” says the exuberant pupil, blissfully unaware of the hours of practice that lie ahead if he wants to do just that – ‘rattle it off.’

Handley’s words reminded me that even top-flight players put in the hours of dedicated practice, particularly with the challenge of contemporary music. The thought that even someone of Ma’s colossal abilities and experience needs to work on a piece of music right up until the very moments before the concert reassures me, both that musicians do earn their keep (however lavishly or poorly they might be paid, often the latter), and also that listeners are occasionally reminded of this fact. In the white-heat of giving the world premiere of a brand new piece of music, even the pros are working fiercely to give of their very best. Bravo.

Fervent Fitkin London Prom premiere

Yesterday saw the London premiere of Graham Fitkin’s L, a fiftieth-birthday present for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, originally written in 2005.

Yo-Yo Ma / Kathryn Stott: image, BBC Proms

The ten-minute piece opens with an harmonically ambiguous cluster chord that hangs in the air, before breaking into a typically Fitkin-esque, rumbustious, rhythmically dynamic texture, in which agile cello lines are supported by a piano accompaniment of stabbed chords. There’s great rhythmic bounce to it, bounding along in a style redolent of Antheil’s Ballet mecanique meeting John Adams’ Road Movies, before the pace lessens as the cello introduces a lyrical melodic line, answered by some chuntering in both the cello and the piano in unison octaves.

A contrastingly still section follows, with the same bubbling piano texture now supporting a more contemplative cello melody; respite comes, too, in the texture, as both instruments move into a higher register. The piece becomes progressively more still, until a single, sustained note in the cello floats above slowly changing piano chords, before the unison chuntering begins again in the piano, forcing the cello off its perch and into movement. The piece races off in the movement perpetual style once more, becoming increasingly frantic until it gradually susides, fading out on a repeated pizzicato cello gesture and a hushed piano chord.

The nature of the ending escapes me, I have to confess;  I will have to return to it, to see if I’ve missed the logic of the final moments; it seems as though the piece has had a slow ending imposed upon it, rather than such an ending occurring as an organic growth from out of the preceding material, on this first hearing. (Listen for yourself and see what you think: it’s on Radio 3 iPlayer until Monday.) And certainly, at the age of fifty, Yo-Yo Ma shows, in this performance, absolutely no signs of fading away, such is the dynamic flair with which he and pianist Kathryn Stott perform the work.

Image: Universal Music Publishing

A new Fitkin piece, like a new piece of Steve Reich, is always a cause for much ‘fervent’ excitement – for me, anyway – and there’s more in store later this week, with the Prom premiere of Fitkin’s Cello Concerto, again with Yo-Yo Ma. Make sure you’re tuned in.

And here’s a taste of Fitkin at his elastic, rhythmic best:

Almost seeing Nigel Kennedy

A friend of mine wrote to me recently about her comedy-riddled efforts to see Nigel Kennedy at a late-night Prom this year; her heroically doom-destined story was so good, I had to reproduce it here (with her permission, of course). Honestly – you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried…

Thought you’d like to hear my tale of going to see Nigel Kennedy at the Proms ( before the riots.)


Nigel Kennedy: image BBC Proms

Concert started at 10pm on a Saturday. No Picadilly Line between Cockfosters and Kings Cross (our nearest tube line) due to planned engineering works. No overground from Enfield into Liverpool Street – same excuse. So decide to drive to High Barnet tube, park and travel to Kings Cross on Northern Line and get onto Picadilly Line from there. Do recce run in the morning to check parking in nearby streets. Locate various suitable roads close to the tube out of restrictions at the time we will be parking.

Leave home at 8pm. Drive to High Barnet takes 20 minutes. Can’t park anywhere when we get there due to an afternoon/early evening event in a nearby park called ‘Ghana in the Park’. The whole Ghanaian population of London was in High Barnet. Forced into the station car park. Pay £1.50, display ticket in windscreen which is valid for the Saturday up to 23.59. Notice CCTV and dire warning notices about parking without a valid ticket.

Go to tube station and see 1,000 people queuing at the machine for a ticket. The ticket office is closed, there are no underground staff in attendance, only police guarding the barriers. I have an Oyster card so don’t need to queue for a ticket, but C needs a travel card. He tailgates through with me as buying a ticket means we’ll definitely miss the concert. We get away with it.

Journey underway, and I remember the expiry time of the parking ticket and realise that the likely time of return to High Barnet will be after midnight. Ask C if he has a credit card with a spare £250 or so worth of credit on it to pay the clamping release fee when we get back to the staion after midnight. He doesn’t and we argue about how much seeing Nigel Kennedy is actually worth.

We decide that I will leave the concert at the interval to ensure a timely return to the car park and C will stay for the whole thing, which is scheduled for an hour excluding encores.

Get off at South Ken, C is allowed to buy a travel card after a lengthy discussion with an official about why he hasn’t got one. Walk fast like maniacs through the underpass as we’re pushing it to make it for 10pm now. Get to the Albert Hall in time, but out of breath.

Need not have rushed.

Queues going round the Hall twice – the earlier concert still coming out, the Nigel audience trying to push through. 10.20 and we’re still caught in a crush in one of the corridors trying to get into the auditorium. Officials can’t say when it will start now.

C getting worried that it may not end in time for the last tube back to High Barnet. We discuss the possibility of night buses, decide instead to concede defeat and head straight back to High Barnet.

Thankfully got to the two Stravinsky concerts – the Rite of Spring and the Firebird without a hitch.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Eat your heart out, Alan Bennett…).

%d bloggers like this: