Get behind the Classic BRITs

On Wednesday night the Classic BRITs returned for the first time in five years, back in the Royal Albert Hall.

While they have been away, several things have changed in classical music – and the most striking of those, on this evidence, is an increased diversity. The award winners were led by cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a remarkable talent – and also a remarkable young man. His debut album Inspiration meets the expectations of a major label without compromising his own ideas, such as arranging Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry for solo cello. It works much better than you’d expect!

The inclusion of Marley, just a couple of tracks after Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no.1, shows the influence playlists on streaming services have had on album planning, but also demonstrates a refreshing approach to bringing music of all forms together.

Tokio Myers also blends different styles, giving an intense live performance at the ceremony that included a barrage of drums, a soft Debussy reverie and some powerful electronically based music with its roots towards grime. Myers used to play in Mr Hudson & The Library among other groups, and he uses his experiences to bring a really satisfying urban grit to go with the purity of the piano.

Elsewhere it was gratifying to see winners young and old credit their teachers and musical education, and stress the importance of music in schools. Jess Gillam, deserved recipient of the Sound Of Classical award, did this – and so did Nile Rodgers. The guest presenter who was originally a classical guitarist playing the works of Fernando Sor – but who felt out of place in that sphere and went on to be a great guitarist elsewhere.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber went further, taking the government to task, but both Sheku and Myers were more subtle, thanking their teachers by name. Amanda Holden, who presented Myers with his award, recounted a visit he made to her daughter’s school, which has doubtless stayed with them.

Musical education is so important. I would not have been able to afford cello lessons at the age of eleven if the school hadn’t paid for them, and even towards the end of my grades my funding was dwindling and my parents were really having to dig deep to support me. I will be forever grateful for that, as I would not have been put on a musical path without it! It goes to show how it is not just the frontline performers who benefit from a musical education, but those much further down behind the scenes too.

Back to the BRITs, which also featured a wonderful performance of the theme and first of Bach‘s Goldberg Variations from Beatrice Rana – a shame we couldn’t hear more than we did! My only big criticism would be directed at the album of the year shortlist. While it is fine to include musicals, shows, film and middle of the road albums none of the shortlist had an obvious classical music connection. It is a thought for the future, where it might also work to have a ‘Best electronic’ category, recognising the likes of Nils Frahm, Bonobo and other classically influenced music that 6Music serve so well.

These are minor gripes though. We should get behind the Classic BRITs and support it, because it gives people a way in to classical music, pointing them forward towards the joys of the genre should they wish to look around further. There really should be room for everyone, and at the very least when I watch on Sunday night I shall be grateful for my musical education!

City AM: Music While You Work

If you live in London, hopefully you have picked up a copy of City AM this morning. If you have, and read the Office Politics section, you’ll have seen my piece about the benefits of listening to classical music while you work.

I really wanted to share those with you here, so please find below links to a playlist on Spotify that will hopefully float your boat!

If you want some specific advice on music to listen to, or want to share an opinion, please get in touch! Send me an e-mail or get in touch over Twitter

ECM – A Stream of Consciousness

The news that ECM have returned their catalogue to streaming services is a cause for celebration…especially if you like the sort of music we at Arcana enjoy talking about.

So good is the news in fact that we’ve decided to celebrate with an ECM Spotify playlist. The only trouble with doing this is deciding what to leave out, while accepting there are corners of the label’s output that we have not yet explored.

Yet there is some amazing music in these two hours, with artists of the quality of the Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek, the cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic and Pat Metheny ready to bring it to you. Yet if there is just one musical item to take from this playlist, it’s the last one – Christopher Bowers-Broadbent raising Philip Glass‘s Dance IV to the heights. Enjoy – and tell us what you think!

BBC Proms 2017 – Renée Fleming sings Strauss & Barber – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Prom 61 – Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria (2012) (UK premiere)

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op 24 (194)

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’ (1937)

Nielsen Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’ (1901-2)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

In her previous visits to the Proms Renée Fleming has proved a big draw, and although the arena may not have been full for her latest visit, with regular collaborators Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, it comprised a satisfying and ideally executed program.

Fleming’s contributions grouped into a loose theme of distant light and transformation. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a love letter to the American home, and its dappled evening sunlight flickered beautifully under the hands of Oramo, the composer’s warm harmonies setting the scene for Fleming’s characteristically full bodied interpretation. She inhabited the storyteller’s guise with effortless and instinctive calm, though the animated middle section was also very well judged. With just the right amount of sentimentality, this was an ideal performance, and an aptly chosen encore of the song Sure on this shining night blazed a similar trail.

Fleming’s projection was ideal, particularly in the Transformation Scene from Richard Strauss’s second opera Daphne, where she moved from the front to a well-chosen offstage position for the culmination of the transformation itself, which sees Daphne take on the form of a laurel tree. The extended postlude from the orchestra reached upwards to a serene level of euphoria, and Fleming’s wordless vocalise at the end put the seal on a beautifully judged performance. Again we had an encore, and this was a special account of Strauss’s own orchestration of his best-loved song Morgen, with rapt solo from orchestra leader Andrej Power.

If anything the other two pieces were even more successful. The music of Andrea Tarrodi was new to the Proms, but on the basis of the orchestral piece Liguria this was extremely unlikely to be her only appearance. A colourful account of a visit to the Italian coast, Liguria is a kind of symphonic lettercard, its six scenes recounted in brightly lit orchestrations. The recurring, creeping brass harmonies from the first scene stood out, and reappeared towards the end, but also notable was the assurance with which the Swedish composer works with the orchestra, making original sounds and not resorting to contemporary music clichés. A composer whose acquaintance you are strongly advised to make.

Finally we heard Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’, receiving its second Proms performance in three years after the festival’s complete neglect of it in the 20th century. It is a powerful piece, and this account made a strong impression. Although the feverish first movement (Choleric) was convincing and brilliantly played the emotional centre lay in the Melancholic third movement, where Oramo wrought music of impressive angst and depth. Nielsen’s struggles were resolved by the Sanguine finale, where the composer lets rip perhaps a little too easily, but again the structure and the melodic groups made perfect sense. Oramo has built a strong affinity with the Danish composer’s music over the years, and there was something very satisfying in these days of disunity at seeing a Finn conduct a Swedish orchestra in Danish music.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Leanne Mison will give her verdict on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Prom. Coming shortly!

BBC Proms 2017 – Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony; Joshua Bell plays Lalo

Prom 40: Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Bell (violin), Cameron Carpenter (organ), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit

Falla El amor brujo (1914-5)

Lalo Symphonie Espagnole (1874)

Saint-Saëns Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 (1886)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 17 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

On paper, a sultry Prom for the middle of summer, capped by a colourful French symphony. In reality, even more substantial – a concert whose tuneful demeanour and performance panache really lifted the spirits, bringing new perspectives to works we might have erroneously pigeon holed as over familiar or under performed.

Into the latter category falls most of the music of Édouard Lalo, whose Symphonie espagnole, a passionate five movement work for orchestra with violin soloist, is the one work to really gain a foothold in the Proms. Lately however it has fallen out of favour, and Joshua Bell was bringing it back for the first time in 15 years. His evidence was persuasive, a performance full of character, wit and commitment that showed the French composer’s Spanish persuasions in a very positive light. The first two movements were a little on the chaste side, but that only heightened the bravura of the Intermezzo, where Bell was really able to let his hair down.

The finale was also a winner, its tune (memorably upgraded by Keith Emerson and The Nice) leaving an impression long after it had departed, and completing a convincing performance of a substantial work. It would be good to see more Lalo revived to the repertoire, for he is a composer of tuneful appeal with colourful orchestration. Bell (above) gave us a substantial bonus in a gorgeously floated encore of Massenet’s Méditation from his opera Thaïs.

Manuel de Falla also fulfils those two qualities, though his way with a melody is if anything even more exotic. El Amor Brujo (Love, The Magician) is packed full of memorably scored dance music that played right into the hands of a skilled interpreter such as Charles Dutoit. Under his baton the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra swooned and sighed, though unfortunately the contributions from mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac (above) were not ideally balanced from our vantage point in the Albert Hall, her notes falling short of the back of the Arena. Because of that the dances were easily the high point of what was otherwise a high quality performance.

And so to Saint-Saëns, and his Symphony no.3 – the Organ symphony, billed on account of the instrument’s role in the final movement. It was surely the last ten minutes of this work – elevated by pigs in the film Babe – that caused such queues for the arena and gallery, but it was particularly satisfying to be reminded of the work as a whole and its inventiveness.

This was surely the first occasion an organ had been used in this way before, and not just that – a piano too, the four handed part beautifully incorporated by Dutoit into the whole. Dutoit ensured the rhythmic invention of Saint-Saëns was to the fore in the first movement, the strings’ lines shimmering in the half light, while the second movement bloomed in a wondrous shade thanks to well-chosen settings by organist Cameron Carpenter (below) for his accompaniment of the strings plaintive but increasingly powerful theme.

A quickfire third movement brought rhythmic impetus again, the motto theme drumming its way firmly into the consciousness, and then it was the finale, where the balance between organ and orchestra was ideal. Dutoit, who has conducted this work for well over 30 years, relished the drama of the chorale theme and the orchestra’s rapturous response, but also brought forward the inner workings that Saint-Saëns uses to drive it forwards.

A final, personal note on Charles Dutoit, receiving his Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society before we heard the Saint-Saens – which incidentally was commissioned by the same body in 1886. In his recordings with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Dutoit has made some very special insights into French music that are I’m sure on the shelves of many a classical collector today. Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc and Ibert are just five of the composers to benefit from his special relationship with the orchestra – and provide just some of the reasons behind the ever-adventurous conductor’s modest receipt of the medal. He may be 81 but the creative fires still burn very keenly!

Ben Hogwood, with pictures (c) Chris Christodoulou

Stay tuned for another in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Jamie Sellers will give his verdict on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Prom. Coming shortly! Meanwhile a Spotify playlist celebrating Charles Dutoit is below, containing some of the music from this concert.