The Little Proms is an initiative to bring classical music to a wider audience, and, like Classical Revolution and various projects by the ever-innovative Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Little Proms presents classical music outside the traditional setting of the concert hall to make it more accessible, and to dispel the myths about classical music being elitist and exclusive.
The venue for The Little Proms is the basement of The Spice of Life, a pub on the edge of London’s Soho. There is a downstairs bar, and the audience sit around tables, rather than in serried ranks as at Wigmore Hall. People can come and go as they please, though they are asked to respect the music while it is being performed. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
I performed at The Little Proms for the first time on Sunday evening with my duo partner Liliana Schlaen. Lily has performed there before, but this was our debut in duo repertoire. We arrived early, as instructed, for a sound check which wasn’t really necessary. After a short warm up, we were able to sit back and wait for the event to start, while enjoying listening to the other performers warm up some of their programmes. The evening officially started at 7.30pm, with Jiva Housden and Dan Bovey, two young classical guitarists who presented a very enjoyable programme, including sonatas by Tedesca, and a suite of pieces by Couperin, originally for harpsichord.
Our set went very well, beginning with Kreisler’s dramatic Praeludium & Allegro and closing with Piazzolla’s haunting Milonga en Re, and it was great to see friends and family amongst the audience to cheer us on. As is often the way during a live performance, new things were revealed about our pieces, including a sense that we have perhaps performed the Kreisler enough for the time being and that we should turn our attention to some new repertoire. (I draw a veil over my getting lost during the first of Bartok’s Romanian Dances – an indication that it is important to run new repertoire by an informal audience ahead of a proper concert.) Afterwards we socialised with friends and the other musicians before trooping upstairs to watch Usain Bolt win the Olympic 100 metres.
The concert series is an excellent opportunity to showcase new talent, and for music students and aspiring professional musicians to perform in a more relaxed environment, perhaps ahead of a more serious performance.
The Little Proms is held on the first Sunday of every month at The Spice of Life, 6 Moor Street, Cambridge Circus, London W1 (nearest tube Leicester Square).
Elizabeth Fraser, formerly of The Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Massive Attack, gave a concert to a packed Royal Festival Hall as part of the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival. Fraser, whose voice floats, shimmers and shifts with a haunting and ethereal translucence, is famously reclusive, and almost never performs live, so this concert was a rarity, and a long-awaited comeback for her fans.
In some ways, the chamber music of Debussy & Ravel, which I reviewed at lunchtime on the same day, bears some relation to Fraser and her oeuvre: strange harmonic shifts, musical flights of fancy and impressionistic sound washes. But while the classical musicians at Cadogan Hall played with ease, without fuss and preamble, Fraser’s concert seemed fraught with anxiety and delay.
I first encountered Elizabeth Fraser in the early 1980s, not in The Cocteau Twins, but in her later incarnation as vocalist in “dream pop” line up This Mortal Coil (which also featured Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins) on their debut album ‘It’ll End in Tears’. Later, I heard ‘Treasure’, the Cocteau’s third album: I was struck by the mystery and intensity of the music, the unusual melting of voice with instrumental, and the mesmeric layers of sound. On some tracks her voice soars, beguiling, sensuous and yearning; on others, it is hushed,”sotto voce”, as if heard through many veils.
The evening opened with a simple renaissance Kyrie sung by a quartet of a capella voices. It was simple and beautiful, a pleasing introduction to the transparency of Fraser’s voice. Unfortunately, at thirty minutes, it lasted far too long. If this was the warm up act, it had the reverse effect: growing restless and bored, a good number of people left the hall to replenish their drinks. Attempts to stall the singers by applauding between movements (unpardonable behaviour in a classical concert!) failed to budge them. I kept hoping Fraser would drift onto stage, her voice mingling with the quartet, but it never happened.
There was another hiatus while the stage crew made various adjustments to the equipment. Used to the unfussy presentation of live classical music, I felt these checks should have been done prior to the concert. Eventually, nearly an hour after the designated start time, Fraser and her band (two female singers, a drummer, a keyboardist, who was dressed just like Brian Eno in his Roxy Music days, and two guitars) entered the hall, to much rapturous applause, whoops and whistles. She began with a new song, Bushey, and it was evident from the opening measures that her extraordinary voice was obscured by too-loud drums and guitars. Shouts to “turn it down” and “can’t hear you” resulted in some adjustments, but throughout the entire performance, we never really enjoyed the full range or beauty of Fraser’s singing.
She is an awkward performer too: she seems ill at ease at the front of the stage, and when she sings, she hardly moves beyond some half-hearted wafting about of her arms. When not singing, she remained motionless or occasionally swivelled round to acknowledge the other musicians. Nor did the rest of the line up seem particularly comfortable as an ensemble: the keyboardist, who spent much of the concert with his back to the audience, appeared to be on an agenda of his own, and the backing singers would not have been out of place in an anodyne girl group. Above the stage, a strange light show/projection played out over an abstract tree form, and between numbers (which were very short), we were treated to bizarre rumblings and faux whale music.
There were some enjoyable moments – the second encore ‘Song To The Siren’ was very arresting – but the performance never really caught alight. We left concluding that we preferred Fraser on disc, where one can enjoy that particularly 80s “indie” wall of sound, with her strange lyrics floating atop it.
“Pristine tonal balance and pure tuning…intimate music-making…sensitively sung…vigorously projected”
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE, 2012
A chance to hear Platinum Concert in a promotional film for their debut CD ‘In the Dark (Resonus Classics). Platinum Consort was founded in 2005 by Claire Jaggers and Scott Inglis-Kidger, a recent Meet the Artist interviewee. Their debut recording (on the Resonus Classics label), which juxtaposes early and modern choral music, is available now, and has already received high praise in the music press.
Platinum Consort will be performing at King’s Place on Saturday 1st September. Further information on their website:
When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.
Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.
So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):
Bach – “counterpoint”
how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.
Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”
to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal
Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”
an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm
Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”
Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar
Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing
Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”
Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!
Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?
It was my first instrument, the trombone, that led me to composition. I was unhappy with the exercises I’d been set to practice after my first few lessons, so I decided to write some alternatives. I found this much more interesting than practicing, and so that’s how I started composing!
After that I couldn’t get enough of it. I would write alternative harmonisations of hymns while not singing in the choir at church, and I went through one phase of about a year of writing a new little piece every day (for the exercise rather than for performance).
Although things like this account for about my first 7 or 8 years of composing, I only became “seriously” interested when the composer Steve Martland visited my school for a BBC education project and decided to take me under his wing and encourage me. So I’d say he was one of my first inspirations to make a serious go of it.
Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?
The most direct influences are other composers, in particular the German late romantic / early modern tradition, from Wagner through Mahler to Schoenberg, and in particular Berg. Not a huge amount of newer music, but certainly that of Messiaen, Xenakis, Andriessen among relatively recent composers. But I am also influenced by music that I play (I do a lot of playing, at an amateur and occasionally professional level), which can be anything from wind/brass band music to jazz standards to a wide variety of orchestral and chamber music. Music that I play has a habit of finding its way, heavily filtered, into music that I write. At the moment for example Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” is spending a lot of time in my head as we’re learning it in the quartet in which I play viola!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I hesitate to describe my composing as “a career” as that implies there is a) some structure to it and b) some financial reward, whereas in reality there is neither. The greatest challenge is probably the same for any composer – to simply keep writing, and find a reason to keep writing, in the face of public indifference! And of course, to persuade people to perform your music.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
Without question, the first moment of hearing your piece come alive. While it’s the first time the players might have seen it, you the composer have come to know the piece intimately from its first sketches, so you have to be patient and wait for it to emerge. Sometimes the reality can turn out to be quite different to what you imagined, but over time you try to get better at accurately imagining during the composing process.
I really like the process of working with performers. It’s the unexpected touches they put in that really bring a piece to life – their “interpretation”, notes that are fractionally late, rhythms slightly slower than written, their frustrations with it, or whatever; it’s the unplanned bits that make music come to life and make it infinitely more exciting than hearing a computer play it!
Which recordings are you most proud of?
I haven’t got many recordings of my pieces, but I usually get at least one for each piece that’s performed. The one I’m most proud of would be the London Sinfonietta playing my piece Antagony, which won the 1993/94 BBC Young Musician of the Year award for composers – I was 17 at the time and writing a 20 minute piece for two wind bands, amplified strings, and 6 percussionists seemed quite practical. Fortunately, for the BBC and the Sinfonietta, and conductor Martyn Brabbins, this posed no problem! And today I have a great recording and a great memory of a special occasion.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
The Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre – I first played there in a brass ensemble at 15 and have played there (and heard my music played there) many times since. There’s something timeless about the backstage area and things like the odd signs for performers in Russian that they used to have that’s really special, and the staff are really friendly and professional. I also think that the leather seats in the auditorium are the most comfortable in any concert hall in the UK. I’d much rather my listeners were comfortable when being confronted with my music!
Who are your favourite musicians?
They are the ones I play with most regularly – my quartet, local brass band, etc. They are definitely not well-known international concert artists but some of them are really outstanding musicians and great fun to play with!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Hearing Louis Andriessen’s De Snelheid and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex played by (I think) the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall when I was a teenager. I was brought there by Steve Martland (see above) and it was the moment when I vividly remember thinking “THIS is what I want to do with my life”.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
To play – perhaps boringly, I really enjoy playing the music of the old masters: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, etc. There’s a reason why they are considered great composers and it’s so clear every time you play their music. There’s also so much that can be learnt by playing music like that!
To listen to – I have very broad tastes but I actually don’t listen to a huge amount of music. At the moment I enjoy listening to random avant-garde electronic music by people on Soundcloud or to odd online classical music radio stations and just seeing what’s on. I’m a great believer in serendipity!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
To follow what you want to do; don’t get put off by public indifference and by chasing easy fame by playing (or writing) crowd-pleasers. If you aren’t moved by what you do then no-one else will be.
What are you working on at the moment?
An opera about the Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, for premiere in July 2013, 100 years after her famous / notorious death under a racehorse while protesting at the Derby. Please have a look at: http://www.emilyopera.co.uk!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Taking a curtain call to a rapturous audience at Bayreuth after the successful premiere of my latest opera. Failing that I’ll settle for being happy, healthy and not too poor in some part of the world with nice landscape!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being outdoors somewhere spectacular without any worries about anything or anyone.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
Other than carefree time with my wife and daughter, I’d say playing great music with other people – music that everyone finds challenging but just within their technical ability…
Tim Benjamin is also the co-founder of Clements Theory, the leading e-learning resource for ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall Grade 5 Theory. Tim has written a comprehensive set of Grade 5 Theory study guides which are used on the website, and he also designed and edited many of the questions. Further information here
Early music and Baroque crossover ensemble l’Arpeggiata, under the direction of theorbo player Christina Pluhar, gave a five-star performance of toe-tapping Tarantellas, jazzy improvisations, and soulful songs in their Proms debut at Cadogan Hall. Read my full review here
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