BBC Proms 2017 – Malcolm Sargent tribute: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Beatrice Rana, BBC Symphony OrchestraSir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem

Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844)

Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845)

Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01)

Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28)

Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22)

Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 24 July 2017

Sir Malcolm Sargent holds a prominent place in Proms history, especially so for those Prom goers of an older vintage. It was therefore only right that in the 50th year since his passing there was a concert commemorating one of English classical music’s favourite sons. Sargent lived in a flat opposite the Royal Albert Hall, a blue plaque marking this clearly visible from Door 4 of the auditorium.

Calling Sargent a ‘favourite son’ is a statement that needs to be qualified, for not everybody held him in such high esteem. For orchestral players he could be anything but, being a hard taskmaster, but he was hugely popular with Proms audiences, boosting the profile of the festival and the Last Night in particular, to an art form fit for television. As tonight’s conductor Sir Andrew Davis recounted in a glowing tribute, he also knew how to get the best out of large choral and orchestral forces. Davis was a prommer in the 1960s, and held fond memories of Elgar, Shostakovich and Britten under the Sargent baton.

Davis himself is now 73, but still a sprightly figure who lovingly led his BBC Symphony Orchestra charges in a wide variety of English music, recreating the program given for Sargent’s 500th Prom in 1966. We ducked and dived through Berlioz, and his Le carnaval romain overture, before a glittering account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto from Beatrice Rana, herself in glittering green (above). Her quiet moments were especially profound, and she took charge of the more tempestuous passages of the outer movements with impressive control and expression. Balance is often a problem between piano and orchestra in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic, but here it was nicely achieved, and with phrases that were fleet of foot (and hand!) Rana showed why she is a highly coveted soloist.

Davis (below) came into his own for the second half. An English music expert whose interpretations are now virtually unrivalled, he brought forward the bustling streets of London for Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, balancing the organ with the orchestra impeccably as he did so. The big tunes were affectionately wrought and great fun, as they were in Walton’s mischievous music for Façade, an entertaining suite where the percussion section, led by the ever masterful David Hockings, came out on top form.

Holst’s ballet music for The Perfect Fool was treated to a delicately shaded performance, sonorous trombones underpinning a rewarding orchestral sound, with dances of great character. Meanwhile Delius gave us a sunkissed reverie, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, temporarily overriding the clouds outside.

Finally we moved to Britten, and a performance of the Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra that was as much fun to watch as it was to listen to. The composer’s clever navigation of each orchestral section is a great introduction for new listeners but also reminds the older ones of the colours and expressive techniques each instrument can produce. Davis handled the twists and turns to great effect, and this hugely entertaining evening reached its peak with all sections combined, Purcell’s original theme now refracted through Britten’s technicolour lens.

It was a great way to finish and a fitting tribute to Sargent, who conducted the work’s world premiere back in 1946. He would surely have been proud of Davis and his charges, who sent the crowd away smiling – something Sargent himself achieved on countless occasions.

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Ben Hogwood (plaque) and Chris Christodoulou (performances)

Stay tuned for the first in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where drum ‘n’ bass DJ Rob Chung will give his verdict on the Malcolm Sargent Prom. Coming shortly!

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams and Beethoven begin the festivities

The first night of the BBC Proms is a watershed moment in the summer of a classical music lover. Yet increasingly the festival is working on being more inclusive, and some of this year’s BBC Proms Youth Choir (seen above the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner) had not even sung in public before, let alone attended the festival.

Such is the uniting power of one of Britain’s favourite summer institutions, and once again it was off to a flyer with the customary big choral work (John AdamsHarmonium) a world premiere (Tom Coult‘s St John’s Dance) and a high profile solo contribution from Igor Levit, whose account of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 met and surpassed its heady expectations.

Both Levit and Coult had political undertones to their work. Coult’s new composition depicted the madness of the Middle Ages, people possessed by an all-encompassing dance of death that drove them into dangerous physical and mental situations. A parallel, you might think, for today’s superpowers and the shocking news they bring on a daily basis. Whether these references were intentional or not, it was good to have a new piece that started quietly, with a deliberately fragile violin solo, and built to its bigger moments.

Levit (above, at the piano) also had quiet asides, but his were absolutely spellbinding – the first movement cadenza and slow movement introduction in Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 both cases in point. Here we could easily have been back at the Wigmore Hall, witnessing a solo sonata performed to a select few, such was the intensity of his communication at a quiet dynamic. When he was with the orchestra the intensity subsided a little, not least because the balance favoured a coarse timpani sound. That said, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra woodwind was particularly beautiful under Edward Gardner’s watchful eye.

Levit had great things to say, his mind clearly at one with Beethoven’s moods and melodic invention. His use of silence was keenly sensitive, the tension evident in a brooding opening movement and deeply thoughtful Largo. The Rondo finale freed itself from the confines, skipping to a more obvious beat – but then Levit delivered a deeply felt encore, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (from the Choral Symphony finale) reduced to first principles and played to emphasise its role as an anthem of European unity. It was a provocative statement of which Leonard Bernstein – who conducted the Choral symphony in the unification concert when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 – would have been proud.

Finally we went for broke, with the 400-strong throng of the BBC Proms Youth Choir, brilliantly drilled and tirelessly rehearsed to deliver a moving and colourful performance of John AdamsHarmonium. Here too there were powerful statements in settings of the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Edward Gardner ensured they were delivered with great clarity and breadth. The thrill of Adams’ colourful music as it generated momentum was as strong as ever, and the percussionists of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in particular deserve great credit for their dexterity, rhythmic power and definition.

As a side note, what a shame to lose the ‘Further Listening and Reading’ section from the Proms programme this time around. It has been my ‘go to’ page ever since I started going to the Proms, and to not have it there feels like an unnecessary omission, even with the introduction of a new Listening Service – Tom, that is. Books are important in classical music, and so are recorded statements. To lose them from the programme is disappointing.

That said – how great  it is to have the festival back, confirming the ascent of summer in thrilling style. Eight weeks of great music lie ahead!

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou)

This year Arcana will once again have two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before.

To that end our reviews will come from first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts – many of whom will see things that us regulars do not! Most reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best part of the Royal Albert Hall for sound quality and atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. We will look to bring classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!

Mercury KX – a new classical label

omeara Mercury KX launch night, Omeara, 20 February 2017. Featuring Lambert, Solomon Grey and Sebastian Plano

Written by Ben Hogwood

The launch of a new record label is a rare thing indeed, especially when powered, as Mercury KX is, by a major company such as Universal.

So it was that the planets aligned with Mercury on a Monday night in South London. The Omeara club was the setting for the launch of a label which is set to become home for artists where classical and electronic music can meet and do business without any constraints. A bit like this website, we hope!

Inevitably people want to put a name on this form of music, and ‘post-classical’ was the term chosen during a spirited discussion between journalist Sean Adams and the label’s new acts Solomon Grey and Ólafur Arnalds. Yet the conclusion of the artists was that they wanted to avoid genre labels, enjoying the music for what it is.

lambert

Given the new signings for Mercury KX, that was easy. Firstly we enjoyed Lambert, a German duo adorned in tall and rather imposing Sardinian masks. Their stage dress heightened the dramatic impact already created by the rumbling of piano and percussion. The piano was opened up so we could see the workings and appreciate the mottled effect of the hammers, dampened in the quieter music and perfectly twinned with the blue light. When the music got faster, though, the percussive drive was irresistible.

Arnalds, whose distinctive music underpins each of the three series of Broadchurch, then gave interesting insights into his studio and methods of composition, ahead of the return of the drama on ITV next week. The confines of TV work can be stimulating for a composer, he said, a theme endorsed by label mates Solomon Grey. The duo have recently completed a score for the BBC drama The Last Post, due in the autumn. Their music uses field recordings and, in the brief episode we heard, has an appealing and almost psychedelic brightness in keeping with the video below.

Finally Sebastian Plano teamed up with the 12 Ensemble for a string-drenched meditation lasting around 20 minutes, led alternately by his soaring, song like cello playing and graceful piano. Plano had an appealing manner onstage, letting his music do the talking but allowing his cello to sing right at the top of its range, enjoying the beautiful harmonic progressions he had formed.

sebastian-plano-12-ensemble

There was a real buzz around the club, and Mercury KX will no doubt be pleased at the reaction to their new artists and music. They are definitely on to something, for classical and electronic music are enjoying their collision course at the moment. Certainly the likes of Max Richter, Arnalds and Nils Frahm, to give just a few obvious examples, are writing emotive music of lasting beauty. The only potential downside is that a reliance on slow harmonies and the use of strings and piano will be brought forward at the expense of more distinctive melodies and rhythms.

It will be interesting to see if Mercury KX allow for these possibilities. They have banked some fine music already, and the label looks set to touch hearts and minds with its musical explorations in the coming years.

John Adams Earbox – A 70th Birthday Tribute

john-adams

John Adams (photo (c) Margaretta Mitchell)

by Ben Hogwood

Those minimalists – they certainly have some staying power! The holy trinity of this much-loved form of music – Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams – have notched up 230 years on the planet between them. Reich and Glass, both 80, have had their moment in the spotlight, so it’s now the turn of youngster Adams – a mere 70 years old today – to shine.

Like Steve Reich, he works in a style where the musical ideas get progressively developed, whereas Glass – in his later years at least – is much more repetitive. Like Glass, however, Adams has written more for the stage, completing several large-scale operas. He is also capable of scaling down, with string quartets and piano pieces also part of his output.

Here, then, are ten pieces of Adams, selected from personal experience in order of discovery, with the aim of getting the feet tapping and the mind racing!

Short Ride In A Fast Machine (1986)

Probably the best known of Adams’ pieces, this is a tour de force for orchestra – and apparently a nightmare to conduct in terms of getting the rhythms clear! Thrills and spills await…

El Dorado (1991)

This is the piece where the influence of Sibelius in John Adams’ music really shines through. El Dorado is one of his very best ‘through composed’ pieces – that is it relies much more on development than repetition. Both movements start mysteriously, with murmurings throughout the orchestra, but gradually generate an impressive power when moving towards their closing section, especially in the case of the second, Soledades.

To appreciate the full impact you definitely need to hear the whole piece.

Shaker Loops (1978)

Shaker Loops appeared in a definitive Philips recording from the San Francisco Symphony and Edo de Waart in 1986. It works equally well in its original scoring for seven string players, one per part. Once the shimmers – aka ‘Shakers’, start the mind is instantly transported.

John’s Book Of Alleged Dances (1994)

An attractive, slightly bluesy set of dances where it feels like Adams is having fun, together with the Kronos Quartet, who commissioned it.

Harmonium (1980)

Make sure the room is quiet and the neighbours have gone out. Turn the stereo right up, and lose yourself to the opening moments of Harmonium, where voices and instruments blend in to one.

This is a truly magical piece that demonstrates Adams’ ability to write for large vocal and orchestral forces:

Slonimsky’s Earbox (1996)

A terrific concert opener this, punchy and upbeat from the off – with plenty of percussive intent, not to mention the swirling harps and busy woodwind and string lines. One of Adam’s most energetic works, it is written in tribute to Nicolas Slonimsky, a composer and critic who had ‘wit and hyper-energetic activity’ – hence the mood of the piece!

Lollapalooza (1995)

Jazz plays an intriguing if sometimes understated part in Adams’ music, but in Lollapalooza braying brass and woodwind instruments and syncopations are much in evidence. The piece is actually based on the rhythm made by the word, ‘loll-a-pal-ooz-a’, and develops with rolling timpani:

Doctor Atomic (2005)

Never one to shy away from controversial topics, Adams wrote an opera based on the creation of the atomic bomb, and more specifically on its creator, J.Robert Oppenheimer. He also documented the effect on the workers and the region where the bomb was tested, Los Alamos.

The end of the first act includes an aria, Batter my heart, sung by Oppenheimer and setting the words of John Donne. It arrives on the eve of the text explosion. Adams said to New Yorker critic Alex Ross, “That music just sort of fluttered down and landed on my desk one day. Part of me said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and the other half said, ‘That’s it, go ahead and do it.’ Afterward, I realized the reason it was right. Naming the site after a John Donne sonnet was itself an archaic gesture. Oppenheimer was always referring back to ancient things, summing up his state through very dignified forms.”

It is worth reading this when you listen to the powerful music! Adams made a Symphony of the opera, attached to the Spotify playlist.

City Noir (2009)

City Noir is a symphony inspired by the peculiar ambience and mood of Los Angeles ‘noir’ films, especially those produced in the late forties and early fifties”, writes Adams. “My music is an homage not necessarily to the film music of that period but rather to the overall aesthetic of the era. This symphony becomes the third in a triptych of orchestral works that have as their theme the California experience, its landscape and its culture.

The two previous are The Dharma at Big Sur (also commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and El Dorado (commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony).”

Below is the third of its three movements, Boulevard Night powerful and surging:

El Nino (2001)

One of Adams’ most successful stage productions, El Nino is classed as an ‘opera-oratorio’ that tells the Christmas story. Once again Peter Sellers was the stage collaborator, including film and dance in the production. Here is an excerpt with the stellar cast, including Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White:

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

As part of Arcana’s celebration of the cello this year, here is BBC Young Musician 2016 Sheku Kanneh-Mason, playing Tom Hodge‘s new arrangement of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah:

Sheku played the arrangement at last night’s BAFTA ceremony, marking the passing of so many from the film industry in 2016.

Decca have just released a new EP by their new cellist that contains two more reflective song arrangements, Fauré’s Après un rêve and Bloch’s Abodah