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:

Full of Prom-ise: BBC Proms 2011 season

The day that the full guide to the BBC Proms season is announced has me in two minds each year: excitement at the prospect of so much music being performed and broadcast, with the attraction of a wealth of new music and contemporary pieces being played or premiered – tempered with the usual dismay that there’s so much run-of-the-mill mainstream classical fodder and not enough modern music.

I’m aware of the need for balance in music festivals: the need to please a wide range of audiences, to cater for the tastes of the mainstream-loving masses as well as the rampant modernists, the ecomonic imperative of maximising ticket-sales and making sure there are sufficiently-sized audiences to receive the performers when they walk onto the stage, combined with the need to cash in on the pulling-power of big-name performers as well as to be able to afford their fees. There are those concert-goers who love their classical canon, the Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, those who adore their Wagner, and those who relish the cutting-edge contemporary works of living composers; most festivals like to broaden their appeal, to attract as many punters as they can. This is no place to launch into my usual bit-champing furore about crusading for the new in music, its importance in addressing vibrant issues of contemporary culture and forging new ways of engaging with ideas and values of our time and…well, more on this later.

So it was with a mixture of excitement and resignation that I clicked onto the BBC Proms website to view the complete run-down of this year’s concerts. This season, however, I found a way to stave off my disappointment: there’s a handy tab for ‘Living Composers‘ which lists all the Prom concerts featuring contemporary works, which means I don’t have to wade through the usual depressing dross of this-Beethoven-symphony or that-Brahms-piece in order to see, at a glance, what’s new. I don’t know whether this has skewed my usual view of the Proms season as too pandering-to-the-masses and not enough people-need-to-engage-with-contemporary-music. but this season seems pretty good from a modern music point of view. There’s Birtwistle, Volans, Gubaidulina, Reich, Dutilleux, Beamish, Holloway, Fitkin and others. I expect there’s plenty of the usual canon of pieces on the Popular Classics Carousel, but I’ve not had to trawl through them and depress myself, so that seems fine. Pascal Dusapin is a name new to me, and so the Proms offers the chance for this music-lover to widen their listening and find music that they’ve not experienced before, the chance to become enchanted or turned off by something new, and, assuming I listen to it on the radio, the chance to hear a live performance and discover it all for free (overlooking the cost of the licence fee, that is); what could be a more exciting function of a music festival than all that ?

This ‘Living Composers’ tab allows me to bypass the customary sinking feeling that accompanies trawling through lists of concerts featuring the same old same-old, and get straight to the heart of what music festivals can do if they try: help audiences access music of their time, widen their listening experience and engage with composers who are telling them things about their own century.

I might have liked to have seen works by other composers: Nico Mulhy, John Luther Adams, David Lang, Tarik O’Regan (although he had a Proms commission last year, so may be being rested), and others; but one can’t be too choosy.

It looks promising…

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