Tag Archives: BBC Proms

Darkness and Light: Prom 20

Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.

According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The concerto opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First Concerto is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.

Read the full review here

Reich on so many levels 

This weekend I headed off to “sarf-east” London for a rather unusual Prom featuring music by American minimalist composer Steve Reich who is 80 this year….

For those of us more used to the highly refined atmosphere of London’s finest chamber music venue, a brutalist concrete lump with low ceilings and unremittingly grey walls cannot possibly be a good place to hear music, whatever the genre. The acoustic should be appalling, a brisk wind slices through the performance space, riffling music, which is pegged to the music stands to stop it blowing away, and the music is regularly interrupted by rattling trains and the sounds of the street below….

Read my full review here

the venue
Multistory Orchestra conducted by Christopher Stark
part of the Derek Jarman garden at the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark
leaving the carpark after the concert

Don’t bash the Proms – because they’re great

The Proms – London’s annual eight week festival of (mostly) classical music – is over for another year, despatched with the traditional Last Night pomp and circumstance and noisy flag-waving enthusiasm.

This year I attended more Proms than at any other time during my adulthood, and out of the 10 I attended, I reviewed 6 concerts. I also deliberately chose Proms outside my usual “comfort zone” of piano music and this gave me the opportunity to experience some truly wondrous orchestral music including Messiaen’s joyful and ecstatic Turangalila Symphonie, two Sibelius symphonies, an all-Brahms Prom (with the splendid Marin Alsop) and a superb Schubert C major Symphony with Bernard Haitink. As a pianist who (mostly) plays music conceived with orchestral textures in mind (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert), to see and hear live orchestral music was extremely instructive. Aside from that, the infectious atmosphere and good-humour of the Proms, and going with a companion or companions to each concert, undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and this year was no different. In fact, if anything the anxious and dissenting voices were louder than usual because with the BBC Charter up for review, the BBC’s activities under extreme scrutiny by the Conservative government, and a general antipathy towards classical music, also on the part of this government, it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. As usual there were howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” (with concerts such as the Radio One Pete Tong “Ibiza” Prom or the Sherlock Prom), or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms, but each season the Proms has a pretty good go at doing this – and usually gets it just about right, in my opinion. The Proms enjoy a pre-eminent position as a national treasure, and for every detractor there are hundreds of others vociferously standing up for them (myself included). That the Proms attract such noisy debate every year is surely a good thing, and a sign of their enduring importance in our national cultural landscape.

When the Proms were originally conceived, by Robert Newman (not Henry Wood as many people assume), the intention was to bring classical music to a wider audience by presenting “easy” pieces and gradually introducing more challenging repertoire. They were called “Promenade” concerts because a large part of the seating area at Queens Hall, their first home, had no seats and so patrons had to stand during performances. Patrons were also allowed to eat, drink and smoke in the auditorium, though were requested not to strike matches during the quiet passages. The first Promenade concert programmes were lengthy affairs, often lasting three hours and certainly challenged the audience with Beethoven and Wagner nights, and new works which were called “novelties”.

The spirit of the original Proms continues today, with modern and contemporary music and new commissions being presented alongside more familiar repertoire, and “themed” concerts: this year, for example, solo Bach in separate concerts featuring works for violin, cello and keyboard (Andras Schiff’s magical performance of the ‘Goldberg Variations’). There were “novelties” too, such as all five Prokofiev piano concertos in a single concert: for some this was too much Prokofiev in one night, or nothing more than an “ego trip” for conductor Valery Gergiev; but for others (myself included) it was an extraordinarily immersive experience, with fine pianism on display from Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergey Babayan, and Arcadi Volodos. As for the “gimmicks”, these were largely successful and very popular (and let’s just pause here to recall the fuss and eye-pulling that erupted the first year the John Wilson Orchestra performed at the Proms – and how they are now an integral part of the festival, ever popular and always attracting a full house).

Nowhere else can one enjoy such an international range of artists: leading orchestras, and celebrated conductors and artists from all around the world converge on the Proms between July and September, and this year there have been fine performances by established artists such as YoYo Ma, Andras Schiff, Bryn Terfel, Mitsuko Uchida and Daniel Barenboim, as well as the younger generation of performers, including Martin James Bartlett, Nicola Benedetti and Benjamin Grosvenor. In addition, in recent years there have been spin offs such as the excellent Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall, and Proms in the Park, as well as pre-concert talks and lectures, and Proms Extra programmes on television.

The Proms also remain affordable – you can Promenade for a fiver – and the more relaxed atmosphere means that classical music “newbies” are more likely to sample the Proms rather than a concert in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall. When I attended the all-Brahms Proms with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Marin Alsop, I shared a box with a family who had never been to the Proms before – and they loved it: the special Proms atmosphere, the music, the whole experience.

We’re very lucky to have the Proms and we should celebrate rather than criticise them. Of course not every concert is going to appeal to everyone, but for every person who enjoyed the Sherlock Prom or the Ibiza Prom, I can guarantee that there are countless others who have enjoyed total immersion in Sibelius or Bach, Brahms or Bruckner. And if the more “populist” Proms encourage people to explore classical music, then the Proms are definitely doing it right. Of course there’s more the Proms could do – more coverage of women composers, for example – but one hopes that the organisers and concert planners learn from past seasons, while looking at what other artists and orchestras are doing in order to move the great behemoth of the Proms forward each year. And as of this year, the Proms has a new director, David Pickard (formerly of Glyndebourne). Described as down-to-earth, enthusiastic and deeply musical, it will be interesting to see what developments and innovations he brings to the concerts.

I for one am already looking forward to next year’s season with interest and excitement

Proms Chamber Music 6: Jeremy Denk brings darkness and light to Cadogan Hall

Concert planners, performers and even audiences often like to find a common thread which runs through a programme, and so Jeremy Denk’s Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall could be said to have darkness and light as its main focus, opening with Scriabin’s demonic “Black Mass” piano sonata and closing with Beethoven’s otherworldly Op.111. The middle section of this philosophical musical sandwich was Bartók’s Piano Sonata which offered a contrasting respite with its wit and humour.

This was Jeremy Denk’s debut recital at the BBC Proms (he performs with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall on Sunday 30th August), and he is a pianist I have been curious to hear live for some time. A musical thinker, I have enjoyed his articles on music and his blog on the life of the performing pianist.

Read my full review here
(Picture credit: Michael Wilson)

Prom 52: A thrilling journey of improvisation

Prom 52 offered a fascinating musical journey with French organist Thierry Escaich, who juxtaposed the organ music of J.S. Bach with responses to it by Mendelssohn and Brahms, as well his own improvisations on themes by Bach.

Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien

(Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien)

Escaich is part of the grand French tradition of organ improvisation which dates back to the 19th century, and he succeeded another great French composer and organist at St Etienne du Mont, Maurice Duruflé. Escaich calls the art of improvisation “composition in real time” and in an interview for BBC Radio 3 explained that he can often improvise for 20 minutes during a Catholic mass “in Bach style, in Romantic style”. In discussing Mendelssohn, whose Organ Sonata in A major featured in this programme, Escaich described this music as Bach “with a little more romanticism”, and explained that in his own improvisations he adds his own personality to the music of Bach, while honouring Bach’s themes, textures and idioms. The end result is music which shines a new light on Bach’s original, while demonstrating the exciting range of possibilities offered by this genre.

Read my full review here

Prom 29: Rollicking Ravel and Squawking Messiaen

(photo credit: Paul Mitchell)

Prom 29 had a distinctly French flavour, featuring music by Ravel and Messiaen, two composers who idolized Mozart, whose music opened the evening. The concert was bookended by two works in which dance featured strongly, from Mozart’s elegant post-Baroque ballet sequence for Idomeneo to Ravel’s swirling, breathless portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ravel also looked to Mozart’s piano concertos as a model for his own, and the vibrant, jazzy G major concerto formed the second part of the first half of the programme, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist…….Martin James Bartlett

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

At a very young age I was drawn to the music room where my mother would be teaching the piano some evenings. When I was six she started teaching me and a few years later took me to audition at the Royal College of Music. During my ten years at the Junior Department I studied with Emily Jeffrey, who cultivated my love of music and inspired me to pursue the career of a concert pianist.

Who or what are the most important influences on your musical life and career?

The most influential years of my musical and personal development were when I studied with Emily Jeffrey. Over the many years she always challenged me to be more disciplined and strive for greater heights. Apart from the wealth of knowledge she imparted upon me I can remember the many laughs and fun we had together. Her unerring passion and all-consuming dedication to music were a constant source of inspiration for me.

I am also immensely grateful for the constant support and guidance that my parents have given me, and their unequivocal belief in me.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

At a young age I was always a little agitated and anxious before a performance. I disliked the tense moments before walking onto the platform, however once I started to play those feelings dissipated and the enjoyment took over.

After a few successful concerts my confidence began to grow and it gradually became less challenging

Which performance are you most proud of? 

I am proud of my performances throughout BBC Young Musician, at the ‘BBC Proms in the Park’ in Belfast and also my recent debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I greatly enjoy performing and listening to so many works from totally different periods. Personally I feel a natural affinity to the works of Bach, Mozart and Rachmaninoff, however I also love the works of Schumann and Prokofiev.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I hope to offer fresh interpretation and convey the emotions from the repertoire that I perform, so I keep this in mind when I select certain pieces.

I also spend many hours deciding on programme length, balancing the stylistic aspects and contrasts.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I wouldn’t say I have a favourite hall, because there are many different aspects from every hall that I enjoy. I love the intimate atmosphere and acoustic of halls such as Cadogan Hall and Wigmore, however I also appreciate the immense space and grandeur of halls such as Usher Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I greatly enjoy listening to operas such as ‘Tosca’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and all the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. My current favourite pieces to perform are Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Prokofiev Sonata no. 7 and Mozart Concerto in D minor K466.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I hugely admire Leonard Bernstein, for his immense talent as a musician but also his dedication to musical education and inspiring younger generations. Maria Callas is another idol of mine, due to her unwavering, serious dedication to Opera.

Pianistically I am inspired by so many different artists, but Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich are amongst my favourites.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The final of BBC Young Musician is a performance I will never forget. The BBC team were so supportive and encouraging and on stage I was totally immersed in the atmosphere and the music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Firstly, to embark on a musical career, one must absolutely love and enjoy music. Of course there is a huge amount of dedication and work to be done to succeed, but the most important aspect is to passionately devote yourself to it. Stay true to yourself, the composer and the music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Watching the sunset with a glass of red wine, an excellent book and a recording of Dinu Lipatti performing ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’

What is your most treasured possession?

I have a collection of complete recordings from Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas and Shura Cherkassky that I could not live without!

What is your present state of mind?

Introspective, a little anxious and excited for the future.

Martin James Bartlett performs Gerhswin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in Prom 32 with Eric Whitacre and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Further details and tickets here

In May  2014, at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett was awarded the title of BBC Young Musician. His winning performance of Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’, with conductor Kirill Karabits and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, received overwhelming acclaim from Edinburgh’s Usher Hall audience and from those tuning into the live recording broadcast on BBC4 and BBC Radio 3.

Martin began his piano studies with Emily Jeffrey at the Royal College of Music Junior Department when he was 8 years of age, and then at the Purcell School also some 5 years later. Last autumn, he commenced his undergraduate studies with Vanessa Latarche at the Royal College of Music, notably as a coveted Foundation Scholar. Martin also previously studied the bassoon and the recorder, achieving Grade 8 Distinction on all three instruments by the age of 12.

Throughout these formative years, Martin enjoyed considerable success in numerous competitions and festivals. During his time at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, Martin won the Gordon Turner Competition, the Teresa Carreño Competition, the Angela Bull Competition and the Peter Morrison Concerto Prize. He was several years running a top prize winner also in the Jaques Samuel Junior Department Piano Festival. In 2012, Martin was granted a Tsukanov Scholarship, which generously supported his final years of study at the RCMJD. During his time at the Purcell School, Martin won the Middle School Concerto Competition, the Freddy Morgan Competition, the Wigmore Competition (both solo and chamber) and the Senior School Concerto Competition. At the end of his studies at both RCMJD and Purcell, Martin was honoured to be awarded the prestigious Leaver’s Prize for Outstanding Musical Contribution, the Esther Coleman Prize and the Rosemary Rapaport Prize.

Following his success in such competitions, Martin has given solo recital performances in the Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, St. John’s Smith Square, Bolivar Hall and Novi Sad Town Hall, as well as the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, Steinway Hall and Moscow’s Multi-Media Arts Hall. He has also participated in masterclasses with Lang Lang, Stephen Kovacevich, Mikhail Petukhov, Kathryn Stott, Aaron Shorr and Alberto Portugheis. In addition, Martin has organised and performed in numerous charity concerts too, to date raising over thirty thousand pounds for a wide range of deserving causes.

In September 2014, Martin made his debut at the BBC Proms, performing Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Ulster Orchestra at the “Last Night” celebrations, which were broadcast live from Belfast on the internet as well as BBC Radio Ulster. Martin has also performed with the BSO in Bournemouth Pavilion as soloist in the opening concert of their 2014/15 Season.

Martin was one of 27 international artists, including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Nicola Benedetti and Alison Balsom, to be chosen by the BBC to record a cover of the Beach Boys classic ‘God only Knows‘. The song was first aired on the 8th October 2014 on all BBC TV and Radio channels and later was released as the BBC Children in Need single with the first ever collaboration between Warner, Sony and Universal music.

www.martinjamesbartlett.com

Benjamin Grosvenor at Proms Chamber Music, Cadogan Hall

(picture credit – operaomnia.co.uk)

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is no stranger to the Proms: in fact, since he made his Proms debut, performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night in 2011, he has become something of a Proms veteran. However, this concert marked his debut in the Chamber Proms, held at Cadogan Hall.

The popular and precocious pianist presented a programme of music by Chopin, Mompou, Ravel and Gounod/Liszt, together with the world premiere of a new commission by Judith Weir, the newly-appointed master of the Queen’s music. A dance theme pulsated through this interesting and varied programme as Grosvenor explored the waltz from the contrasting perspectives of Ravel and Liszt, with interjections from Mompou, and opening with Chopin.

Read my full review here:

http://bachtrack.com/review-benjamin-grosvenor-chamber-prom-september-2014

Date reviewed: 1st September 2014

Dowland’s seductive melancholy: Proms Chamber Music 8

Tenor Ian Bostridge (image credit: David Thompson)

The final Chamber Prom of this season offered a pause to savour the music of the great English Renaissance lutenist, singer and composer John Dowland, whose 450th birthday falls this year.

Dowland’s music epitomizes the spirit of melancholy, fashionable in the Elizabethan period, and his most famous work is the Lacrimae, a set of seven pavanes for viols and lute, each drawn from the song Flow, My Tears.

For this concert, acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge was joined by accomplished lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the renowned viol consort Fretwork. Cadogan Hall is perhaps not the best venue to enjoy the intimate simplicity of Dowland’s music, but, seated in a semicircle, the musicians created an atmosphere of concentrated closeness, which held the audience’s attention for an hour and more, and allowed the seductive melancholy of Dowland’s music to shine through.

Read my full review

Meet the Artist……Ruby Hughes, soprano

Ruby Hughes (photographer Barry Hale)

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and make it your career?

Philip Evry, my mother. Iain Burnside and Graham Johnson Robin Bowman inspired me to pursue singing professionally.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My mentor Lillian Watson, David Sirus, Dinah Harris, Laurence Cummings, Julius Drake, my best friend and compatriot Olivia Chaney, Adam Gatehouse.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Singing what I love singing. Jumping in for a concert, learning Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos and Barber Knoxville in 36 hours for live radio broadcast.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Mahler Ruckert Lieder with the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgards, Phaedra with Thomas Sondergard and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, recordings with the wonderful Julius Drake, Berg and Chausson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. These have been hugely special experiences as New Generation Artist at the BBC.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Lucerne Concert Hall was the most perfect acoustic I have ever experienced. I adore church acoustics so St Georges Hanover Square is very special, and LSO St Lukes. I also enjoy QEH, Ulster Hall, and  Glasgow Concert Hall – to name a few.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love listening to Brahms chamber music, music for solo piano by Chopin and Schubert, Schubert and Schumann song, Mahler symphonies, Shostakovich and Prokofiev symphonies  and ballets. Berg’s ‘Wozzek’, Strauss’s ‘Alpine’ symphony at full blast!!, Monteverdi ‘Vespers’, Tallis, Byrd.

To perform, I adore Schubert, Schumann, Bach, Handel, Berg, Britten, Mahler, Monteverdi, Purcell, and I love discovering new gems too!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Richter, Kleiber, Oistrakh, Callas, Margaret Price, Jessie Norman, Rostrapovitch, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong. From today’s generation Truls Mork, Laurence Cummings, Cristian Curnyn, Kozena, Sondergaard, Storgards, Paul Lewis, Imogen Cooper, Artemis quartet, Nico Altstadt, AKAMUS, OAE………the list goes on and on.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Probably the most recent: jumping in for BBC Proms with Imogen Cooper and James Gilchrist in Britten’s Abraham and Isaac.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Go to art galleries, look at paintings, sculpture, ceramics – this is the life blood for inspiration and imagination. I have learnt a great deal from instrumental recitals regarding sound as well as from singers, and seeing how performers, actors, and musicians communicate is really important in finding one’s own way of performing. Also, never forget the joy of music making. With the rough and tumble of this industry, my manager never ceases to remind me of this

What are you working on at the moment?

Gorecki ‘Symphony of Sorrows’ for the BBC Proms on September the 4th and a recording of Venetian Christmas Music for BIS.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Eating ice-cream with my nieces or being neighbours with my favourite people, maybe bringing up a couple of little ones of my own, who knows.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Discovering new places, meeting new and interesting people, dancing with good friends, cooking good food, Thai massage, being spontaneous, and living each day to the full!

What is your most treasured possession?

My mother’s Jazz Piano ceramics, which she made just before I was born. The other is my cello which I would love to start playing properly again at some point.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Too many things to mention!

What is your present state of mind?

Breezy, summery, and with a coffee

A BBC New Generation Artist and winner of both First Prize and the Audience Prize at the 2009 London Handel Singing Competition, Ruby Hughes is the daughter of the celebrated Welsh ceramicist Elizabeth Fritsch. She gained a First Class Distinction Concert Diploma in Concert and Song at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Munich, and was awarded a Royal Philharmonic Society Susan Chilcott Award. A former Samling Scholar, she gained a full scholarship to study with Lillian Watson at the Royal College of Music, London, graduating in July 2009.

Read Ruby’s full biography here

My review of Ruby Hughes, with James Gilchrist and Imogen Cooper, in ‘Britten Up Close’ at the 2013 BBC Proms