Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Michael Hubbard on the CBSO concert of Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series musicOMH editor Michael Hubbard gives his verdict on the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their Prom of French music.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Michael, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There was always a guitar hanging in the lounge, as my father learnt a bit in the 1960s. He used to play things like Islands In The Sun, and then my mother would say “That’s enough!” and hang it up again. When I was in infant school, like anybody else, recorders became a fixture in my life. I had a descant, a tenor and a treble at various points. I never got round to the bass, only one person had that, maybe because her parents were richer.

In terms of the music I used to listen to, that was something else entirely. My mother was deaf, but she could somehow pick out some music more than others. She passed some of that on to me, and some of that was the opera side – especially Puccini – but there was music from King Sunny Adé through to Tina Turner, too. My father’s music taste could be discerned a little from what he used to play on guitar. When I was a little older I was able to go through his music and play some of it, from Johnny Cash to Abba. I know my mother’s teenage fixation was Elvis Presley. So although I had no formal music knowledge before I started learning an instrument, there was I suppose a lot of music around – but I had to look for it.

When were you first aware of classical music?

I was doing things in school, music class – and starting to pick up names like Purcell. When I started flute lessons at the age of 11, more of those composers became names to me, but up until then it was essentially things I heard on the radio. I had very little knowledge at that time.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I could probably name about 300 and they’d change every time I tried to answer… so this will be the first three that come to mind.

Jean-Michel Jarre was a massive hero of my early teens. He is probably the main reason why the first musical instrument I was really interested in was the synth. I was self taught; when my grandmother died she said in her will, ‘he must have a keyboard’, and my mother stuck to that. She brought me the keyboard I wanted, a Yamaha PSS-680, with its mini keys. I went on to Korgs and Rolands after that, and eventually had a couple of years of piano lessons, which supplemented the flute tuition I’d been persevering with. Knowing my way round a synth – and covering Jarre tracks with it – opened the door to composition, and before long I’d written some rudimentary pieces. I could never have done that with just a flute, on my own – the synth allowed me to play everything. Like Jarre. His enormous Fairlights were of course a world away from my Yamaha, but here was a doorway through which I wished to step.

There was also a sense of drama in what Jarre was doing, it was like ‘I’m taking over Docklands for a concert’, or ‘I’m taking over a space shuttle launch site’. I loved that, that everything stopped because music was that important. The very idea he was putting out there was ‘I AM – LOOK’. The idea that drama could be a thing that is art – something you could express from yourself as opposed to someone scripting it for you, it could be you creating it, and you could take over the whole district of a city with your lights and your sound – was amazing to me. I had videos of the Docklands concert and Rendezvous Houston. I think they helped me become aware that hiding in the corner in the hope of never being seen was a life strategy that I’d already taken too far.

Another very big influence on my life was Erasure. Vince Clarke was composing on guitar but transferring his ideas across to synth. I think I’d pigeonholed synths and guitars in different worlds until I understood his process. You composed on one or the other, and that instrument of composition would then define your music and your artistic statement. Nonsense, of course. 1984 was for me a pivotal year as I discovered the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 and its visual highlights on Top Of The Pops. The charts were, it quickly became apparent, full of gays – as well as (half of) Erasure, there was Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, and especially Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the list went on.

Through them and their conduit, the BBC, I became aware of a larger world. Andy Bell could appear in gold lamé hotpants to sing Sometimes on prime-time BBC1 and millions of our countrymen – not least my parents – would watch. I began to realise that we probably reacted differently to this performance. With my age still in single figures, the lyrical meaning of Frankie‘s Relax, I confess, passed me by – but Erasure’s songs, beginning with the chorus of Sometimes, had me analysing and reanalysing all sorts of assumptions. It marked at least the beginning of an awakening.

I’d already bought my first album on cassette tape, but my first CD album was for someone of my age not an obvious choice – Delirium by Capercaillie. En route to America for the first time, I was in a duty free shop with my father. He’d been concerned I wouldn’t have enough to occupy me on the plane, and took me into a shop and get me an album to listen to. I could choose from whatever was there. I can’t think what caused me to choose Capercaillie – I didn’t then know the band was named after a bird, or anything about their music. I did know they were Scottish, having scanned the sleeve notes, and somehow I’d lasted this long on the planet without owning any music by Scots, despite most of my family hailing from north of the border. Maybe it was a curiosity to hear if we’d have a shared connection.

Delirium merged synth sounds with their Gaelic folk music, and the latter was an otherworldly thing to my ears – I had no idea what those lyrics were about. I listened to the reels and jigs, and I wanted to listen to more of them. By extension from there started to listen more broadly to folk music. Capercaillie’s Delirium is not pure folk, but they are steeped in its traditions, and it opened that world up to me and gave me landmarks to mark the course of exploration.

The Proms does that too. You go along to see something that, as a piece of sheet music written hundreds of years ago, could be stultifying, but actually it’s alive because people are on stage and giving their own interpretations – like tonight’s Prom, with the trombonist in the orchestra in Boléro.

What did you think of the music in tonight’s Prom?

It was my first time ever hearing Boléro live, although like most people I expect I know it very well. It was my first time hearing anything by Debussy live, and had never heard anything by Lili Boulanger. I’ll work back, because I have Boléro in my mind at the moment.

I think it’s a pivotal piece of music. It’s not that exciting because once you’ve heard it you know where it goes, but that’s also true of most trance singles released on Positiva at the turn of the century. It’s a dance music track in embryonic minimalist form, building layers, reshaping loops, falling back. It’s also a pop music track because it’s instantly memorable. And it’s a classical music track because it uses an orchestra – it’s many different things. I want to know how it affects the broader world beyond classical, not if it was too fast or too slow, or which genre it neatly fits into. It’s probably not Ravel’s best in his own mind, but it’s certainly his big crossover hit from beyond the grave.

With Debussy I found myself not focusing on the musicians, but drifting. Not that it was bad, but I think that’s what it was about. I started thinking of other images the music was putting in my mind, in a way that Boléro didn’t. The first piece (the Prélude à L’apres-midi d’un faune) I thought was better at doing that than the Nocturnes. It was a nice warm-up, and I could see why it was first. Nobody stood out, it was a piece that brought everybody together. There was one thing happening organically. I couldn’t sing you a note of it now, but it engendered thoughts of other things.

With the Boulanger I found it very quiet, despite everything on stage – which felt like a choice that the performers had decided to restrain things. I thought that was odd.

What was your experience of the arena compared to elsewhere in the Royal Albert Hall?

For the Debussy I think I would rather have been sat down, but not for Boléro. It was odd to be standing up for classical, I would have expected to sit down and would rather do that I think.

Verdict: A qualified SUCCESS, even more so with seats!

Prom 44 – CBSO Choruses & Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot – Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

Prom 44 Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (above)

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo of CBSO (c) Upstream Photography

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

One of the BBC Proms’ most valuable undertakings this season is the music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Her biggest choral work, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) was the centrepiece of this enchanting concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot.

For once the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was ideally suited to the instrumentation of a piece, especially with the amount of detail lit up by this particular interpretation. Beginning with organ and lower strings that seemed to be positioned somewhere underground near the loading bay, the piece grew assuredly in stature and emotion, finding the nub of its text. The assembled throng of the CBSO Chorus sang as one, shaping Boulanger’s phrases beautifully while enjoying the harmonic twists and turns that give this piece – completed a year before its composer’s death – a distinctively modern turn.

Boulanger (above) was a friend of Debussy but had a tragically short-lived existence, dying from complications of illness at the age of 24. In that brief time she had already served notice as a composer of considerable invention, deep emotion and the ability to extend colour, harmony and melody in particular. All these things were on show in Psalm 130, the performance notable for its exquisite brush strokes.

The only problem was a difficulty in following the text itself from the arena. Although the right notes were undoubtedly there from the chorus, and mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė was full of tone in her solo passages, the words themselves were difficult to grasp above the texture. Some of the blame for this could go to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic itself – and it certainly wasn’t at the expense of a quite wonderful piece that should occupy a much firmer place in the repertoire.

For the rest of the programme Morlot and his charges gave us popular Debussy and Ravel, beginning in the heat haze of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and ending with the minimalist Boléro. These pieces were fascinating to contrast, from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s languorous flute solo that led off the Debussy – beautifully played – to the insistent, temple-knocking side drum of Adrian Spillett in the ubiquitous Boléro. Morlot paced both to perfection, giving us a chance in the Ravel to indulge in Matthew Knight’s trombone solo but also bringing out the Spanish rhythms and colour that make the piece a riot. He brought percussion section leader Spillett to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call at the end.

Before Boléro we were treated to the exquisite Nocturnes of Debussy – which would have been even more exquisite were it not for a barrage of coughing around the hall. Still, that did not completely harm a sensuously shaded account of Nuages (Clouds), the first Nocturne, whose softly oscillating chords left their understated mark, before the second and much quicker Fêtes (Festivals) ran lightly on its feet. The central procession episode of this pictorial movement was brilliantly paced by Morlot, with a hallucinogenic effect achieved through to muted trumpets, distant horns and wide open string textures.

While these two movements were special the concluding Sirènes (Sirens) was bewitching, fusing women’s voices and orchestra in an innovative combination that predates Holst’s The Planets by some 20 years. The CBSO Youth Choir were superb here, singing as one and hitting the high notes without fear – and without compromising the colour Debussy so clearly strives for. Morlot portrayed the vast, wide open scope of the sea – but also seemed to be looking beyond, casting his gaze far into space. This worked extremely well in the Royal Albert Hall, though perhaps quelling the coughers at the end was an even greater achievement!

This was an inspirational Prom, giving us familiar classics and the relatively unknown, boosting the profile of Lili Boulanger while reasserting the claims of Debussy and Ravel to be masters of their field. French classical music at its finest.

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Jak Hussain on the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert of American music

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Jak Hussain gives his verdict on the Minnesota Orchestra and their Prom in tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Bernstein Candide Overture (1989)
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F major (1925)
Ives Symphony no.2 (1897-1902, 1950)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Jak, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

My musical upbringing is Top of the Pops and The Chart Show, on a Thursday and Saturday. When we were all growing up we didn’t have much money to buy albums, and one of my earliest memories is my elder brother borrowing a tape recorder. We had two and he used them to record the Top 40 from one radio to another. Music was something that was in our house but it wasn’t a necessity to buy an album…but I remember my older sister used to listen to George Michael and Wham!, and everyone would gather round the television to watch Top Of The Pops in the early 1980s. We would sit there and watch when they came on, and that’s where I remember music the earliest.

Then The Chart Show on a Saturday morning – those were my outlet for music. It was an actual event to watch on Thursdays who would be the number one!
After that my sister got married, and her husband brought in the rest of it – easy listening, classic rock, and that’s what made me start listening to other genres – classical Indian music too. It all grew from there. My mum listens to traditional classical pieces from Bangladesh and India, and I think she is a lover of classical music, though she decided not to come to the Proms with me – she said no, take your wife!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

One is Jeff Buckley, one of my favourite artists of all time – and I love him because of the sweet and sour of his music. He made one album in his lifetime which is an absolutely sublime masterpiece, and then he passed away tragically. That masterpiece has left a legacy though. I reluctantly listen to the other pieces that have come out, because it’s his unfinished work, so it pains me to listen to it. It’s not how he would have liked it. That one album is sublime though, and fuses Western and Eastern music. One of his heaviest influences on that album is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – his Elvis Presley. You’ll notice that his vocal range is based on the Indian Raga scales.

The second one would be the band Queens Of The Stone Age. I think it’s Josh Homme’s voice more than anything, and the productions of his work.

The third would be film scores – they are my thing. I annoy my wife by telling her about composers and what music they’ve done, how they sound. John Williams uses a lot of horns, Thomas Newman a lot of piano, that sort of thing. I love film scores for what they evoke in the actual film they are trying to evoke. For me, film scores are the new classical music – they incorporate absolutely everything.

Where I grew up you were only supposed to like a certain genre of music, like hip hop or street culture. That wasn’t me – I like what I like! It doesn’t matter if it’s classical, pop music – something that evokes an emotion in you. This is what music is for me. You go through phases, and in my twenties I was very heavily into guitar band music, while my friends were listening to hip hop and drum and bass. I’d put a CD on in the car, of people like Jim Croce, Crosby Stills & Nash, stuff like that, and they would be “what are you listening to? This isn’t cool!” I think what’s better is that in my circle of friends their tastes actually grew, and rather than sticking to one genre they are receptive to different types, they’re appreciative of all genres, which I think is great.

Was this your first experience of the Proms in the Arena?

Yes. I had this misconception that it would be high brow, suited and booted – but it is very different to what I thought it would be. It’s absolutely brilliant, and shows you not to be judgemental about how things might me. It’s reverse snobbery! I had this idea of suits and ties, but it’s just people who love music. It sounds better in the arena than the seats, and you’re actually closer to the orchestra. You are a bit more detached in the circle and the boxes, it’s more regulated – but down here you can see what is going on.

What did you think of the Bernstein?

I’m familiar with West Side Story, but to answer that question I would put the first and second pieces as very similar. It reminds me of old Hollywood – and again movies from that era. One of them (the Gershwin Piano Concerto) reminded me of Cleopatra, when the drums were playing it made me think of the beginning credits. I remember watching these old movies with my dad and thinking they were brilliant, and that’s the whole thing with me liking movies, the scores make you remember the actual film. It stays with you, and so this music reminded me of a bygone era.

What did you think of the Ives?

The first couple of movements started off light and got heavier, but the last movement was the one I enjoyed the most. It had elements of Yankee Doodle, an American army tune that starts getting you going, and it ended absolutely brilliantly with the conductor jumping up and down to get the orchestra to make all the emotion he wanted. I loved the crescendo of sound, the military music – and then classical music all coming into it with a huge sound. I love the way they know how to lessen a tone in one part of the orchestra and bring it out elsewhere. I can’t read music so I don’t know how they do it, but it’s just amazing to see it come to life in front of you.

The thing that comes into my head with Ives is an image of a horse cantering. That’s the best way I can describe it! He goes from a minor key to a major key, and you think am I feeling sad or happy? I didn’t understand how some of it would go into a sombre mood and then it would go funny. In my head I have a structure of a piece of music – melancholy, happy or something – but here everything is in together. It works. With Gershwin I could understand the elements of jazz, but I didn’t understand if he was classical too. The music was great – it’s just the understanding of where it was going at the time. That was the first piece of Ives that I have heard though, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the end as well, it was one of those things where you think – should that be there?! I love delving into that sort of thing. Music is great, isn’t it?!

Verdict: SUCCESS

Prom 31 – Inon Barnatan, Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä – Homage to Leonard Bernstein


Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Bernstein Candide Overture (1989)
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F major (1925)
Ives Symphony no.2 (1897-1902, 1950)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

One of music’s greatest properties is making its listeners happy – and judging by the audience for the Minnesota Orchestra prom, wreathed in smiles as they left the Royal Albert Hall, this was an objective handsomely achieved by the orchestra and its music director Osmo Vänskä.

Making their first BBC Proms appearance since 2010, they had programmed a concert in honour of Leonard Bernstein the conductor, rather than the composer – but that still meant we got a chance to hear one of his most popular concert showstoppers, the Candide Overture. As a collection of catchy tunes and toe-tapping dance rhythms it is difficult to beat, and Vänskä conducted a performance light on its feet, affectionate and warm – if lacking a little of its composer’s highest spirits.

The performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto set that to rights. Taking the solo part was Inon Barnatan (above), whose command of the composer’s bluesy melodic style was well-nigh perfect. Gershwin is not thought of as key Vänskä repertoire but he brought to the orchestral passages a level of clarity that brought the streets of 1925 Manhattan into sharp, nocturnal focus. The string sound was exquisite, while the trumpet solo of Manny Laureano in the slow movement was brilliantly affected and played, fully deserving of its cheer at the end.

Barnatan was a box of tricks, at one moment thundering octaves down from on high, while in the other hanging onto the slow notes with great affection, as though unwilling to let them leave. The transparency of Vänskä’s conducting told of the influence Ravel has on some of Gershwin’s writing, but the swagger of the orchestra, leader Erin Keefe practically sitting next to Barnatan in a visual show of unity, was irrepressible. Barnatan gave us a perfectly positioned encore too, Earl Wild’s virtuoso study on I Got Rhythm.

The music of Charles Ives has barely popped its head above the parapet at the Proms, but here was a chance to enjoy a work premiered by Bernstein himself, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1951. It’s fair to say that Vänskä (above) secured a reading with a good deal more sobriety and control than the master might have done, but that’s not to say it was without flair and pure enjoyment.

The Minnesota Orchestra, once again playing with a smile, enjoyed the dense packing together of tunes in the symphony, while the strings dug into the serious first movement, setting out the case of a symphonic argument with impressive gravity. Once again Vänskä ensured they made a beautiful sound, the brass chorales ringing out with great surety, but as the symphony progressed so did the sense of convention edging nearer to the window.

This reaches its height at the climax of the fifth and final movement of course, and like the fast second this was taken at quite a lick, the music careering along as though about to lose its footing. And so it did, the last chord sounding its sharp clashes and some in the audience taken aback by Ives’ unexpected but wholly typical daring. Was it a mistake? Were we heading there all along? Yes and yes – and in that second, as booklet writer Paul Griffiths so aptly put it, ‘’Reveille’ was sounded’.

Yet there was one more surprise. As I write this the Minnesota Orchestra are on their way to South Africa to mark Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday in a series of high profile concerts. They gave a wonderful send-off, an arrangement of the traditional South Africa song Shosholoza, with the players joined in song as well as with their instruments. It was a joyful revelation, upping the spirits still further – and ensuring we will track their movements in South Africa with great interest.

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below: