Tag Archives: Wigmore Hall

My concert year

A brief review of the great, the good and the fair-to-middling concerts I have attended this year. As regular readers of this blog will know, since April of this year, I have been reviewing for online listings site Bachtrack. This has given me the opportunity to enjoy even more live music, and combines two of my great passions: music and writing. I have included links to my reviews, where appropriate, in this post.

Outstanding

Ian Bostridge at Wigmore Hall. I have been a fan of tenor Ian Bostridge for some years now, after hearing him as the Evangelist in Bach’s St John Passion. A striking concert of songs of love, loss and longing by Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Britten and Weill.

Maurizio Pollini at the Royal Festival Hall. Grand elder statesman of the piano, Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini demonstrated his great range in an extraordinary concert of music by Chopin, Debussy and Boulez.

Prom 54: Marc-André Hamelin. My first ever late-night Prom, and a superb recital of music by Franz Liszt in this his bicentenary year.

Watch this space

Two young performers greatly impressed me this season: the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (who I discovered via Norman Lebrecht’s blog), and cellist Joy Lisney. Esfahani, a fiercely intellectual musician, brought the Goldberg Variations to life in new and wonderful ways in his Prom at Cadogan Hall, while Joy, in her London debut at St John’s Smith Square, demonstrated a musical maturity far beyond her years, as well as a commanding yet modest stage presence, and beautiful playing.

Other highlights

Leon McCawley at King’s Place. The final concert in McCawley’s four-recital survey of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, my first review for Bachtrack, and my first visit to King’s Place.

Charles Rosen all-Chopin concert. How wonderful to see the 85 year old Rosen still performing, touring and enjoying it. A concert which divided critics – there was some uneven playing and several scary memory lapses – I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Prom 68: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Hélène Grimaud. A concert which definitely falls into the category of “a great night out”. The Pittsburgh SO impressed me with their fine brass and woodwind, and convinced me that I should start going to orchestral concerts again.

Penelope Roskell at Sutton House. Despite a 2-hour trek across London to get to Hackney, it was a pleasure to hear my piano teacher in a concert juxtaposing Bach with Schumann. And Sutton House is a charming venue which deserves our support. (Sutton House Music Society)

Disappointing

Di Xiao at Wigmore Hall. Despite her glamorous photographs, Miss Xiao failed to impress me in her debut at the Wigmore Hall. I think part of the problem for me was the appallingly badly written programme notes and the rather saccharine title of the concert ‘Moonlight Reflections’. However, she gave convincing performances of Ravel and Messiaen, and I would hear her again when she has matured a little.

No review of my concert year would be complete without a mention of my students’ summer concert, a very enjoyable occasion featuring a wide range of repertoire, selected by the children.

Looking ahead to 2012, I have tickets for Peter Donohoe and Mitsuko Uchida (in Schubert’s last three sonatas) at the Southbank, and hope to review Jonathan Biss and Peter Jablonski in January. I am also embarking on a new ‘career’ as an arts reviewer for Bachtrack’s new sister site, OneStopArts, thus adding yet another string to my already rather busy bow!

On audiences: a view from the stalls

My reviewing job for Bachtrack.com has enabled me to attend many more concerts than I used to, and I am at the Southbank at least as frequently as I am at the Wigmore Hall these days.

Each venue has its own audience, with its own quirks and foibles. The Wigmore audience is famously high-brow – or at least would like to be regarded as high-brow – elderly and “north London” (the hall is often nicknamed ‘The North London Concert Hall’). Members of the audience are expected to sit in reverential silence, to know when to clap, and to generally behave impeccably. I have twice been asked to remove my watch at the Wigmore because “the tick is too loud”. Sometimes, if a member of the audience coughs too much, or fidgets, or – Heaven forfend! – rustles a programme, they will be met with fierce looks and angry, hissed “shusshings”. It is therefore always interesting to see who has turned out for a more unusual or adventurous concert programme, or a young performer debuting at the Wigmore (“doing a Wigmore” as it is known in the trade). At Di Xiao’s recent debut, the audience were younger, many were fellow Chinese, and my friend and I also spotted quite a few musical “slebs” including cellist Julian Lloyd-Weber. The presence of such “slebs” may suggest that these people know something we don’t, or that the soloist is “one to watch”. Last summer, at a charming and touching Chopin concert with readings, organised by pianist Lucy Parham, one couldn’t move for theatrical lovies: both the Fox’s, Martin Jarvis, Timothy West and Prunella Scales, to drop but a few names. Stephen Hough tends to attract young, mostly gay, acolytes, and if Till Fellner is performing, you can almost guarantee to see his teacher, Alfred Brendel in the front bar. As a member of the ‘press pack’ now, I often arrive at a concert to find the venue has put all the journos together (excellent seats at RFH and QEH, right at the back at the Wigmore), and we all scribble away trying not to read what our neighbour has written, just like being back at school!

The audience at Cadogan Hall is different. Stepping into the champagne bar there’s always a great buzz of chat and shouts of laughter, enough to suggest that this audience is likely to be younger, more awake and maybe more receptive to what they are about to hear. Audiences on the Southbank are generally younger, more trendy, more relaxed, while the Proms audience is different again – a real mixture of music afficionados, groupies, students, curious tourists, old timers who go year after year and people who are just beginning to explore the great annual music festival. The enthusiasm of the Proms audience is really infectious and undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of the Proms this summer.

Sometimes the soloist or musicians themselves can affect the way the audience responds and behaves during a concert. At Maria Joao Pires’s wonderful Schubert series at the Wigmore a few years ago, the musicians (the Brodsky Quartet and singer Rufus Muller) remained on the stage while Pires played her solo pieces (a selection of Schubert’s Impromptus) and the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half. This created a wonderful sense of an intimate, shared event, and we might have been in Schubert’s salon, enjoying an evening of music making amongst friends, for friends.

But if we, the audience, are too much in awe of the soloist, we can put up invisible barriers which can affect the atmosphere in the concert hall. This was very apparent when I heard Daniel Barenboim perform as part of his Beethoven Piano Sonatas series some years ago.

Recently, I’ve attended and performed in informal concerts in other people’s homes. My husband likes these kinds of concerts, with wine and friends and chat between pieces. As he rightly points out, this is a much more natural way of enjoying music that was written before c1850 (when Liszt, almost single-handedly, made the concert into the event as we know it today), and reminds us that music is, above all, for sharing. With the increasing popularity of presenting music in more unusual and intimate venues like The Red Hedgehog or Sutton House (London), or in the beautiful library of the cloisters in Wittem (Belgium), musicians are able to bring music much closer to the audience, literally and metaphorically, while events such as Speed Dating with the OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) offer audiences the chance to meet the musicians after the performance.

Audiences Behaving Badly

Some other small venues:

Woodhouse Copse, near Dorking, Surrey

Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton, Surrey

Guildford Guildhall, Surrey

The Forge, Camden, London

Rook Lane Arts Centre, Frome, Somerset

Review: Lise de la Salle at Wigmore Hall

Image credit: Lise de la Salle © Stephane Gallois for Vanity Fair

The first lunchtime concert of the Wigmore Hall’s autumn season featured young French pianist Lise de la Salle, who brought passion, poetry and panache to a neatly contrived programme focussing on “narratives” within music, with works composed by musical friends, Chopin and Liszt. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

Instant Encore

In my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, several things have occurred to me recently:

  1. I have turned into a frightful self-publicist, sharing my reviews with anyone and everyone, and gaining an absurd, childish rush of delight from every retweet or recommendation I receive
  2. I’ve become geekily obsessed with stats and hit rates, scanning my blog each day to see how much traffic it has received, and regularly checking Google to see where I am in the search order (some smug satisfaction was gained earlier today when I saw that my latest review had achieved the giddy heights of top spot)
  3. I’ve discovered a whole other world of music bloggers in the blogosphere, who review concerts and who offer speedy and insightful reactions to what they’ve just heard.

I have blogged before about the ‘joy of blogging’: it’s free to set up and you don’t need to be a techie to organise your own blog. For me, the most important aspect of blogging is being able to express myself freely, hit the “publish” button, and wait for people to stumble across my blog, or even subscribe to it. I have always written, from short stories and poetry at school, to a full-scale novel, tentatively entitled ‘Facing the Music’, and incorporating two of my pet subjects: music and the First War (the premise of the book is whether music has value in the lives of people during extremely straitened circumstances; I argue, via my protagonist, that it does…..very much so).

Like playing the piano to any degree of seriousness, writing is hard work, and can be all-consuming. When it is going well, one can lose oneself in it, for hours on end. When I was deeply immersed in my novel, I often forgot to eat, and would stay up late, or get up in the middle of the night, just to write. And just like playing the piano, one needs to practice one’s writing.

This is why blogging is such a good discipline; it forces one to be concise, to avoid unnecessary woffle, while allowing one to hone one’s writerly craft on a regular basis. And for me, there’s absolutely no point in having a blog if one does not regularly update it with new and (I hope) interesting material. It has also opened doors to other writing-related activities: the job at Bachtrack came about directly as the result of someone reading my blog.

Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve connected with many other piano and music bloggers around the world – and a couple of whom I’ve actually met (at Maurizio Pollini’s final concert at the Festival Hall last month). Some are specialists, but many of these bloggers are not professional music journalists (i.e. writing is not their primary job/source of income), yet they take their writing very seriously, and are read by many like-minded people who feel these writers have something interesting, important or insightful to say.

And why does one need to be an “expert” to write intelligently about music? I doubt the vast majority of people who read reviews want to know that the piece opened in A minor but resolved itself in C. They don’t want to be confused by esoteric music-speak or complicated analysis, which can often appear unnecessarily dry and academic; they want to know what the concert was about, what it felt like to hear that piece, see that performer, experience the atmosphere in the concert hall that night…..

Bachtrack’s USP is to encourage people who would not normally go to classical music, opera or ballet to book tickets for such events; thus, reviewers are encouraged to write imaginatively and in an accessible way.  Many of Bachtrack’s reviewers are not professional journalists. Most of us are keen ‘amateurs’, people who love going to concerts, the opera and the ballet, who are open-minded and receptive to what we are hearing/seeing, and who are able to convey our enthusiasm in a snappy 500-word review. Bachtrack insists that reviews are submitted within 48 hours of the event: this means we’re usually ahead of other reviewers (though not necessarily other bloggers/Twitterers), and newly-published reviews are tweeted and shared across the internet very quickly.

These days, people even tweet an instant response during the interval: I’ve done it myself, and I love the idea of people tweeting from the Bechstein Room at the Wigmore (actually impossible in reality as there is no signal down there, but you get the picture!) or from the Level 4 bar at the Festival Hall. In effect, surely it’s the same as leaning across to your companion at half time and asking “So, what did you think?”

Some music blogs I follow regularly:

Boulezian –  intelligent and detailed concert and opera reviews written by academic Mark Berry. I first discovered this blog last March, after Mark wrote about the Jerusalem Quartet recital at the Wigmore which was interrupted by protesters. He, like me, was in the audience that day.

Orpheus Complex – concert and opera reviews, and general music-related articles, written by Gavin Dixon, who has a special interest in 20th century music.

Jessica Duchen’s Classical Music Blog – concert and book reviews, music-related articles and musings written by journalist and author Jessica Duchen.

I’ll Think of Something Later – articles and musings on music, including reviews, by broadcaster David Nice

Entartete Music – articles on music and culture by Gavin Plumley.

Slipped Disc – Norman Lebrecht’s blog, featuring all manner of music-related articles, from reviews to breaking news.

PS for those who are interested in such things, I make notes in an old-fashioned reporter’s notebook when I’m reviewing, but tend to compose on my laptop. I use classic black Moleskine notebooks for notes about playing the piano, my practising diary, and for other writerly notes (I have 6 full of notes for my novel). And I always use a 2B propelling pencil….