This time last year I wrote a piece for this blog arguing for a change of venue for the Proms, London’s two-month summer classical music festival. We’re a fortnight into the current season, and I have already attended two Prom concerts, courtesy of Bachtrack. One was at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue just off Sloane Square, with comfy seats, a great view of the stage wherever you sit, a fine acoustic (it’s a converted church), and a champagne bar. Here I heard the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani give an exquisite and at times idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations (read my review for Bachtrack here). And then, last Friday, I attended the Proms ‘proper’, if you will, for a lively evening of Franco-Hispanic music by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla: from Bach’s Baroque world in microcosm to a sweeping panorama of Spain evoked in lively and atmospheric orchestral music.

As a child and teenager, I used to go to the Proms every year with my parents, who would pour over the programme as soon as it was published (this, of course, many years pre-internet, and the Proms booklet would be for sale in WH Smith). There wasn’t such competition for tickets then, although tickets for the First and Last nights were allocated by ballot. I heard a wide variety of music, and sometimes we would sit in the choir stalls behind the stage, affording one a wonderful view of the orchestra at work. About 10 years ago, I heard Lang Lang, playing Tchaikovsky, before he shot to superstar status, and before that Evgeny Kissin. The last time I was at the Proms, before last Friday, we sat high up in the vertiginous upper circle, where we sweltered, and from where Stephen Hough, the soloist, was but a speck on the stage, and Rach Three was rather lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. In the interval we drank warm white wine out of plastic glasses and had to sit on the stairs near the ladies’ loo. Not especially enjoyable. The whole experience was rather tiring, fraught and effortful. After that, I decided I would avoid the Proms.

The Proms have not always been resident at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert series was pioneered by a Mr Robert Newman, and its first home was the Queen’s Hall. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”. After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.

What is so wonderful about the Proms is that the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today. Even as we approached the hall last Friday (I went with a friend who had never been to a Prom before), there was a buzz of excited expectancy amongst the people milling around the hall, queuing to “promenade” (pay a fiver and stand in the arena, or up in the gods), or for returns at the box office. It was a fine summer evening, the Albert Memorial gleamed in the setting sun, the park was still full of people enjoying the last warmth of the day, lovers strolling hand in hand, children running across the grass, a patient queue at the bus stop.

After picking up the tickets at the Press Office, we had a drink in the bar near door 9 and at the appointed hour drifted into the hall where we had excellent seats in the circle. Inside, the hall vibrated with the hum of 5000 people in that special state of eager expectation a few minutes ahead of the start of a concert. The orchestra were taking their places, the ‘prommers’ claiming their ‘pitch’ in the arena. Above the stage, a plush red and gold velvet swag proclaimed that these were the ‘BBC Proms’. Then the formalities began, first with the arrival of the assistant leader of the orchestra, then the leader, and finally the ‘master of ceremonies’, conductor Juanjo Mena (who takes over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in September). With the raise of his baton, the evening’s entertainment was underway.

I am well aware of the limitations of the Albert Hall as a music venue: small scale, chamber and solo recitals are often lost in its vast space, and its dodgy acoustic can give the sense that the music is being heard from a next door room. Even the full-size orchestra last Friday struggled at times to be heard, especially in the quieter passages of the opening piece (Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ from his Images for orchestra), but at other times, the woodwind and brass sections (who were particularly fine throughout the concert) sang through perfectly, clear, bright, melodious and mellow, while the strings were silky and translucent.

(c) BBC Proms

“Where are they off to?” my friend asked after the applause for Ravel’s wonderful Rhapsodie Espagnole and the orchestra started to drift off the stage. I pointed out it was the interval and therefore time for another glass of perfectly chilled rosé in the bar. Nick expressed his delight at being there, spoke intelligently about what he had heard and what we would hear in the second half. He seemed intrigued by the idea that I could have come to any Prom I care to, courtesy of Bachtrack. Around us people chatted and laughed; the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Afterwards, walking back to the tube station along the tunnel at South Ken, we overhead other people’s responses to what they had heard (always useful grist to the reviewer’s mill!). We talked all the way home on the train and agreed that we’d had a great night out.

And this, to me, is what the Proms is all about. Too often people are put off attending classical music because they perceive it as stuffy, elitist and populated by (largely) snooty octogenarians who demand hushed reverence. The Wigmore audience is perhaps the very worst example of this, although it doesn’t bother me any more, and without those people the Wigmore probably wouldn’t exist. But at the Proms, everyone is welcome. In recent years, the programmes have definitely become more “populist”, with themed concerts such as a Dr Who Prom, and, this year, a Human Planet prom and forthcoming Horrible Histories and Spaghetti Western proms. Music snobs and critics may throw their hands up at this, but I think these concerts are a great way of introducing classical music to people who may have no previous knowledge or experience of it. The atmosphere inside the Albert Hall is very friendly and good-natured, with its special Prom traditions: the Prommers always yell “heave-ho!” as the piano lid is raised, for example. And if people applaud during movements, so what? To me, it’s a spontaneous, instant response to something they have enjoyed, and should not be sneered at as ignorance of “concert etiquette”. (The habit of not applauding between movements had not existed before the twentieth century.) So, hip hip hooray for the Proms and all they stand for, and long may they continue. You can be guaranteed a huge variety of music, from new commissions to old favourites, works on a vast scale (Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic Symphony), to intimate chamber music and solo miniatures.

I am back at the Proms towards the end of August for a late-night recital of Liszt, including the beautiful Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I am not sure how Liszt’s solo piano works will fare in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, but I have little doubt that this is the kind of venue, and concert experience, of which Liszt himself would have thoroughly approved.

For more information about the Proms click here

Bachtrack.com – international concert listings site

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….

 

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Mahan Esfahani captivated with a magical performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Cadogan Hall today, in the first Chamber Prom of the season, and the first ever solo harpsichord recital in the history of the Proms. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here

 

Never underestimate the value of performing for others. The ability to get up and do it represents an important life skill, something from which my students will benefit when they enter adulthood (even if they are no longer playing the piano). It breeds confidence and self-reliance.

As pianists, we spend an inordinate, almost unhealthy amount of time alone with our instrument, with only dead composers for companions, while other musicians belong to ensembles and orchestras, and have the opportunity to strike ideas off one another and have a laugh together. The life of the pianist has always been rather rarefied: even the way we perform is different. While other instrumentalists face the audience, the pianist does not, thus adding to the mystique. Pianists are also the only ones who are expected to memorise the music, and the amount of notes one is required to process is far, far greater than, say, a ‘cellist, or a clarinet player. The pressure is on, before we have even  sat down and played a single note!

We should never forget that music is for sharing, and between audience and performer and composer a wonderful continuous circle exists. Performing endorses what we do alone, the hours and hours, and days and days of solitary practise. It puts the music “out there”, validates it and singles it out for scrutiny, and as a performer, one has a sense of  the awesome responsibility of the occasion, and the knowledge that, once begun, a performance cannot be withdrawn. Unexpected things can happen during a performance – and this is one of the aspects of live music that make it exciting. The most wonderful frisson can occur when one feels one’s performance has actually melded with the composer’s original idea, and that the audience have sensed this too. Performing is also a “cultural gift”, to oneself, and to those who love to listen to the piano.

Performing is an adventure, and a heroic act, not least because of the amount of preparation that is required. It is the natural extension of our love of the instrument and its literature, and it is a huge privilege to share this with others. Nervousness is the price one pays for this privilege, and enduring it and turning it around into a positive experience, is an act of self-mastery, another fundamental life skill, which encourages self-dependence, and a total reliance on our inner resources.

Performing also adds to one’s credibility. Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and, for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practised correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. The benefits for younger students are even greater: preparing music for performance teaches them to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages students to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being bothered by them, instead of stop-start playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches students to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

In the hours after a performance, a special kind of depression can set in, compounded by a profound tiredness. A vast amount of energy has been expended in the experience of the performance, and the exhilaration of the concert floods every moment in the hours leading up to it. Suddenly, it is all over. It is at this low point that we must let the music take charge: the inexhaustible repertoire can only revive the spirit. As Seymour Bernstein says, in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “for true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent”. The only cure is to keep working, and to look forward to the next performance.