Arcana at the Proms – Prom 28: Tadaaki Otaka conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Rachmaninov & Huw Watkins

Prom 28: Iurii Samoilov (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, below), Oleg Dolgov (tenor), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Philharmonia Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (above)

Takemitsu Twill by Twilight (1988)
Huw Watkins The Moon (2018-19) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninov The Bells (1912-13)
Borodin Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances (1869-87)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 8 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Tadaaki Otaka) Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Given his commission brief, to write a choral piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, Huw Watkins must have been tempted to set Neil Armstrong’s immortal ‘one giant leap’ quote to music. Instead however he opted to ‘capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth’. In doing so he set four intriguing texts pre-dating the first manned visit to our original satellite – two from Percy Bysshe Shelley, and one each from Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.

The four were stitched together like phases of the moon in a continuously running 20 minutes, with plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to have their say in between. Watkins has an interesting musical language, always rooted in tonality but using evocative colours and harmonies hinted at in works for chorus and orchestra by Holst, Vaughan Williams or even Hugh Wood.

The Moon had a very satisfactory flow to it, and was passionately delivered by the 130-strong BBC National Chorus of Wales, who clearly enjoyed the experience. Given its length it makes a tricky piece to programme or to appraise on one listen, but it is to be hoped in this anniversary year we get more chances to acquaint ourselves with a composer who writes in a very human voice, and found the ‘definite and bright’ description of Larkin’s verse. That may sound like an obvious statement to make, but surprisingly few composers form a connection with their audience as pronounced as Watkins did here, and even less make the words as clear as he did.

He was of course helped by his ‘home’ orchestra, conducted by a returning prodigal in Conductor Laureate Tadaaki Otaka. Making his first visit to the Proms since 2015. Otaka opened with a piece by his dear friend Toru Takemitsu. Twill By Twilight, in memory of Morton Feldman, was in clear thrall to the Debussy of Nocturnes, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The piece is typical of Takemitsu’s compositions in its dealing with orchestral colour, melody and harmony on equal standing, and it runs slowly if inevitably. In this performance it panned out beautifully, the expansive orchestral sound guided by Otaka’s steady yet relaxed direction.

Otaka has a special place for the works of Rachmaninov, having recorded the symphonies and piano concertos for Nimbus back in the early 1990s. Yet the Russian composer’s choral symphony The Bells was absent from this project, and it was great to hear it in such full-bodied form here. The BBC National Chorus of Wales were boosted still further by the 100-strong Philharmonia Chorus, making a terrific bank of sound that carried all before it – and yet which, thanks to Otaka’s careful balancing, was complemented by the orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud Alarm Bells, the third movement, was suitably terrifying especially at the end, Otaka driving at a quick tempo, and this balanced out the relative joy felt in the first movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, where tenor Oleg Dolgov was a fulsome presence. Soprano Natalya Romaniw sang beautifully in Mellow Wedding Bells, the second movement, her voice effortlessly soaring up to a top B flat without a hint of effort, while baritone Iurii Samoilov offered a darker hue for the depths of Mournful Iron Bells, whose late shift from darkness to light was beautifully done. Rachmaninov’s choral epic has been well served by the Proms in recent years – I remember a terrific outing directed by Vladimir Jurowski – and this was another fine advocacy.

Finishing with Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances was a masterstroke, sending the audience home with several tunes in the locker that simply refused to leave for the rest of the evening! What a gifted melodist Borodin was, and how frustrating that because of his day job – a chemist – he did not leave more for us to enjoy. What he did leave still gives much pleasure, however, and the Polovtsian Dances benefited from such a big choir at their disposal.

The women floated the tune of the Young Girls’ Dance beautifully, while the men – while not quite hitting the passion of Russian voices in this music – were still fulsome and bold. Several orchestral solos stood out, not least from clarinetist Robert Plane, while Otaka’s pacing and linking of the sections was ideal. At 71 the conductor still looks in fine fettle, and his ‘sleep’ gesture at the end was borne more of mischief than genuine fatigue. It seems he, like the rest of us, was fired anew by the passionate Russian music of the concert’s second half.

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tony Winter on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales playing Vaughan Williams, Parry & Holst

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tony Winter gives his verdict on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their Prom of English music.

Prom 17: Tai Murray  (violin), Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone),  BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

Parry Symphony no.5 in B minor (Symphonic Fantasia ‘1912’) (1912)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914, rev 1920)
Parry Hear my words, ye people (1895)
Holst Ode to Death, Op.38 (1919)
Vaughan Williams A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no.3) (1921)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 27 July 2017

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

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

I had a brief encounter with the violin which I never really got on with – I didn’t get on with the teacher – and then when I was about 13 the guitar, but that was rock music. I played the guitar for years. When I retire it’s going to come out again! I played in a band called The Committee, but to be fair by the time they’d risen to fame they’d chucked me out!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I love Bach, just because of the melodies. I think you can look at other people and say the orchestration is great but for me the genius is the melody. James Rhodes says ‘the immortal Bach’, which sums it up.

I’ve been playing a lot of David Bowie recently with his demise, I was a big fan of Bowie up to about the Let’s Dance era, and now suddenly I’ve been playing some of the later albums as I’ve been guilty of overlooking some of them. I don’t like it when it gets too commercial! But I think later on he was saying that he didn’t give a shit, which is an approach I’ve always liked. The Outside album was described as ‘difficult and industrial’ but I think it’s great. I wonder in 200 years if people will be playing Bowie? He died at the same age as Shostakovich but who knows? Only time will tell. How many people were on stage tonight, over 100? I’m sure everyone would be using that if there weren’t cost implications to it!

I don’t know whether to say the Rolling Stones or Mozart for the third!

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’ve been to a few over the years – I’ve even started going to a few operas! Living close to the Watford Coliseum I’ve been going to concerts there as I’m a bit of a lazy bugger. I tend to go to any classical concerts they put on there. I’ve seen Beethoven’s 9th, that was a bit echoey. James Rhodes sticks in the mind for his more modern presentation which particularly appealed to my kids. They’re learning the piano so that helped but it helped that he stood up and made a few jokes. I’m not saying everyone has to turn into a variety act but he judged it right. I like sitting at the front in an intimate gig, but coming here tonight though I think I should drag my sorry arse into London more as I don’t think you could fit that orchestra on the stage in Watford!

Can you give a snapshot of the music you’ve been listening to in the past week?

Yesterday I was going through making a playlist for stuff we’re going to play on holiday when we’re driving in the car. I found something on Tidal called ‘Music Your Kids Like That Won’t Drive You Crazy’ but we were doing one of our own. We had a couple of Michael Jackson tracks – Thriller, Pretty Young Thing (there’s some good grunting on that!) My daughter jumps up and down on the sofa to it.

I stuck on some David Bowie because my wife wanted Adam Ant – Stand And Deliver – and the video put me in mind of Ashes To Ashes – which then made me think of Life Is Lost, which refers back to that song. Bowie was brilliant at referring back to things from years before. We had A-ha, Earth, Wind and Fire – an ever-growing playlist!

Apart from that I’ve been playing Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier at work. It’s my fallback and I put it on when it all gets a bit too much for me!

What did you think of tonight’s Prom?

I thought it was excellent! Parry I know absolutely nothing about. With Holst I know the proverbial Planets but nothing at all about the piece we heard tonight, and Vaughan Williams I’m very familiar with. I’m a huge fan anyway, and think his music is absolutely sublime, but it also comes from being a massive fan of The Fast Show – with Ralph and Ted! A friend of mine used to say ‘rural cowpat music’, which is not my take on it but there you go. I do think it is reminiscent of a lost England – not even John Major’s Middle England, an England before that – and certainly not Theresa May’s Brexit idiot England that we have now. We’re getting a bit political here!

What did you think of the Parry’s Fifth Symphony?

I thought it was a bit short – that’s not a symphony! I was quite impressed with it, and some of it was reminiscent of Carnival of the Animals for me, some of the slow bits in the score. I’m not at all familiar with it but I did enjoy it.

Which of the pieces left the most impression tonight?

It’s the one I am most familiar with – which is The Lark Ascending. The soloist (Tai Murray) was fabulous and it is one of my favourite pieces anyway, I just love it. It’s like the pop concert where the Rolling Stones do Satisfaction I think!

How would you describe your experience in the Arena tonight?

It was great. I love standing up in there, I think it’s more rock ‘n’ roll, you can move to the front. Someone came and stood in front of us in the first half but there you are! I really enjoyed it.

Verdict: SUCCESS

Prom 17 – BBC NoW & Martyn Brabbins: Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Parry Symphony no.5 & Holst

Prom 17: Tai Murray  (violin), Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone),  BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

Parry Symphony no.5 in B minor (Symphonic Fantasia ‘1912’) (1912)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914, rev 1920)
Parry Hear my words, ye people (1895)
Holst Ode to Death, Op.38 (1919)
Vaughan Williams A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no.3) (1921)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 27 July 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos of Martyn Brabbins and Tai Murray (c) BBC/Mark Allan

You can watch this Prom on BBC4 on Sunday 22 July here

This was a fascinating concert, a celebration of Sir Hubert Parry both in his music and the work of his pupils.

Parry – composer of the music to Jerusalem and royal anthem I Was Glad for many of us – wrote five symphonies, and it is bordering on ridiculous that only one of them, the Symphony no.5 in B minor, has been heard at the Proms before. Hopefully this excellent performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Martyn Brabbins will open the door to further hearings, for it presented the piece as an extremely coherent stream of consciousness.

With its Schumann-like dimensions, the Fifth flows for 27 minutes unabated, and is almost constantly melodic, its themes and motives passed through the instruments. There were some lovely moments of clarity in the first movement where a certain English splendour came through, whereas elsewhere Parry was in thrall to Richard Strauss and his hero Brahms without ever slipping into parody.

The programmatic nature of the piece is revealed in the titles of its movements (Stress, Love, Play and Now) and Brabbins shaped his response accordingly, lovingly tendering the phrases but enjoying the more adventurous and colourful aspects of the score.

The rapt stillness of Vaughan WilliamsA Lark Ascending followed, in which the audience were immediately relocated to the stillness of an English field to witness the freedom of the lark as its song spiralled upwards. Tai Murray (above) was the violinist inhabiting its character, and she allowed the music all the room it needed. Brabbins enjoying the softly burnished strings – some beautiful shading from the BBC Welsh – before the slightly more playful and folksy central section took hold. Her encore, a gravity defying account of Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, felt a little misplaced but was played with exceptional athleticism and virtuosity.

There was more music from Vaughan Williams’ teacher Parry after the interval, in celebratory festival mood for Hear my words, ye people. This presented a couple of tricky performance issues, with the soloists Francesca Chiejina (below) and Ashley Riches just in front of Sir Henry Wood’s bust at the back of the stage, with a 120-strong choir behind them. To the side were the brass of the BBC Welsh – but all gelled together in classic Anglican exultation, nicely held together by organist Adrian Partington, who delivered sensitive registrations on the Royal Albert Hall organ.

Parry’s celebrations were checked by a polar opposite in a work from another of his pupils, Holst’s Ode to Death – a choral setting of Walt Whitman. This left an incredibly powerful impact in an understated way, leaving us mindful of the First World War – to which the piece responds. The best Holst music takes its listener to the brink of another world and this was another such occasion, Brabbins overseeing a performance of subtlety and beauty but uncertainty too, especially when the composer’s oblique harmonies and silvery orchestration were at work. As in the Parry, the BBC National Chorus of Wales were superb.

Vaughan Williams invested heavily in the First World War, not from a position of overwrought patriotism but from a sense of duty to his country. What he saw as an ambulance driver in France in 1916 is not fully documented, but it left a lasting impression fully realised in A Pastoral Symphony, his third – following musical depictions of the Sea (no.1) and London (no.2).

While ostensibly a peaceful work, there are hints around the edges that its composer is struggling to come to terms with peace in the wake of such a terrible conflict. Martyn Brabbins felt this too, and brought from the orchestra some beautifully judged phrasing, colourful textures and eloquent playing, none more so than Neil Brough‘s exquisite off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement.

Everything was headed for the appearance of soprano Chiejina at the height of the fourth movement, and the balance was ideal as her wordless vocalise sounded from on high – a touch too much vibrato for my taste, but leaving a strong impact nonetheless. In our uncertain times now, we would do well to heed Vaughan Williams’ subtle but incredibly powerful warning of the consequences of war.

Prom 8 – BBC NoW & Thomas Søndergård: The Music of Lili Boulanger & Morfydd Owen

Prom 8: Bertrand Chamayou  (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård

Lili Boulanger D’un matin de printemps; D’un soir triste (1917-8)

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor Op.25 (1831)

Morfydd Owen Nocturne (1913)

Schumann Symphony no.4 in D minor Op.120 (original 1841 version)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 20 July 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can watch this Prom on BBC4 on Sunday 22 July here

Debussy and Bernstein may be the blockbuster anniversary composers this Proms year, but there are several composers whose cause is arguably more important. We heard two of them in this intriguing Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their outgoing chief conductor, Thomas Søndergård.

Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen died far too early, in their twenties, but both left works telling of an original style that should have been heard far more often than they have – which sadly is the case for all female composers. Happily the BBC has made a commitment to start putting that right, and this Prom went back to the second decade of the 20th century with two short pieces from Boulanger (below).

D’un matin de printemps (Of A Spring Morning) caught the ear immediately. Completed in 1918, it was slightly furtive at times, as though describing flowers shyly poking their heads into the fresh morning air. The transparent orchestration drew parallels with Debussy, and the colourful textures and positive harmonies made for an ideal, descriptive curtain raiser.

By contrast D’un soir triste (Of A Sad Evening) wore a troubled frown. Here the music was more ominous but also more exotic, its use of modal melodies extending its reach towards the East. Again Boulanger’s orchestration was exquisite, with a lovely rasp to the bass clarinet in the texture, and some powerfully wrought climaxes strengthened the intensity of feeling but failed to shake off the preoccupied state of mind. Both pieces made a lasting impact.

Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne began the second half. Written just before the First World War, this was an intriguing piece that was livelier than you might expect from a piece bearing that name. Initially the shady textures found the orchestra depicting the half light of the evening, but as well as atmospheric pictures there were attractive dance episodes, Owen breaking towards lighter music with a twinkle in her eye. She returned to this music on several occasions, each time casting the tune in a slightly different setting, before the piece finished with a silvery harp, sweeping us away into the night.

Complementing the anniversary composers was music from Mendelssohn and Schumann. The former’s Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor was brilliantly dispatched by Bertrand Chamayou, whose stylish playing emphasised Mendelssohn’s precocious writing for the instrument at the age of 22. Initially the speed of the music was a bit too fast, and the Royal Albert Hall acoustic didn’t help here, but soon pianist and orchestra were aligned in a performance light on its feet and, in the Andante slow movement, tender at its heart. As a well chosen encore Chamayou, popular with the Prommers, gave Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song.

Finally Schumann, and the original 1841 version of his Symphony no.4. Søndergård connected the four movements into a satisfying whole, bursting with melody, but here again made sure the slow movement had plenty of air. There can be a foreboding atmosphere to this symphony, mindful of the mental struggles that dogged the composer throughout his life, but here the BBC NoW, energetically led by Lesley Hatfield, found the positive mood running through its core. The most dramatic music of the night came in the transition between the obdurate scherzo and the triumphant finale, Sondergard stripping back the textures to a cold, hollow sound before surging forward to the rousing finish.

Talking Heads: Emily Howard

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Meet Emily Howard, the featured composer at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. We will hear four works from her impressive canon – a new orchestral piece, sphere, receiving its UK premiere together with Magnetite in a program from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Mark Wigglesworth. This concert comes a day after Afference, her string quartet, which will be played by the Piatti Quartet.

Her biggest work to date, however, is a new opera, To See The Invisible. Developed with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and director Dan Ayling, it will receive three performances at the head of the festival. Arcana was able to chat with Emily to get her thoughts on the new pieces. As is traditional, however, I began by asking for her earliest recollections of classical music.

“I was lucky that it was always around me since I was young,” she recalls. “My dad, a medic, also played the cello. I was brought up in the Wirral, near Liverpool, and I remember going to see the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, and really loving it. I was taken to operas as well, and because my mum is a pianist too, I was around music all the time.”

Howard began learning her music in a traditional route, but soon realised composition was the discipline for her. “When I was really young I started learning the cello. I was never so good at very regular and disciplined practice – even then I was always more interested in exploring new sounds and tones. Composing came naturally in that way, at the age of eight or nine years old, and what I really wanted to do was write a piece for orchestra. I made a piece for the cello, and transcribed for orchestra. I wrote it all out and the composer/conductor Guy Woolfenden, who was a great influence, was really kind and got the orchestra to play it through!

Fast forward to 2016, when Emily’s Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) enjoyed its world premiere at the BBC Proms in 2016, her ‘home’ orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. It made a strong impression on those present (including yours truly). She declares herself “really pleased, overwhelmed” with the reaction. “The piece has won a British Composer Award since then, too. You can’t tell necessarily how these things are going to go but I was absolutely delighted!”

To See The Invisible is her biggest work to date, and she considers the challenges in writing such a substantial piece for the stage. “It lasts about eighty minutes in total. To be honest I have no idea how I managed to write something that long, but I suppose you’ve got the narrative and texts, which have helped to extend it to a length similar to that of Mahler’s Third Symphony. I had worked with Selma before on Zátopek!, a mini-opera I completed several years ago. We have been talking ever since, and with our director Dan Ayling, the approach has been truly collaborative, making it a very exciting and enjoyable experience. Composing abstract music is not a sociable activity necessarily, and I have found that throughout the opera process, it really helps when you share ideas with your creative partners, and take on board their viewpoints, often very different. Collaboration is a wonderful thing, and it does change you.”

The opera takes its inspiration from a short science fiction story by Robert Silverberg. “For ages Selma and I had been talking about writing an opera based on the experience of a person who is shunned by a society. The central character would be ignored, rather like being sent to Coventry. While Selma was writing the libretto, her brother said about the Silverberg story in which a character is sentenced to a ‘Year of Invisibility’ for ‘a crime of coldness’. It turned out that Selma had been partially remembering the story and we read it and the opera became an adaption. We were really knocked out by the Silverberg.”

She describes the setting in more detail. “It is a sort of musical deuce, where this person is somehow different, and the story plays on the isolation of people who do not fit the system and are excluded from society. Therefore I wanted The Invisible, the opera’s protagonist, to be vocally distinct from the other characters and I chose for them to be represented by baritone and soprano voice simultaneously, particularly in the character’s private moments.” The singers are required to have great flexibility and dexterity here. “The soprano and baritone have really wide ranges, together they are a meta-voice portraying an emotional journey, with the baritone often a lot higher than the soprano.”

Musically, the opera is about collisions between The Invisible’s world and the World of Warmth. “I have intentionally set up contrasting sound worlds with The Invisible’s language consisting of musical extremes, ranging from ethereal to anguished. The World of Warmth is much more traditional and tempered in feel.” The opera looks beneath the surface of these different worlds. “With the World of Warmth, we are all asking is this really the world of warmth?”

One of the many intriguing elements of Howard’s work is its fascination with the relationship between music and mathematics. This is perhaps best captured in a recent work, The Music of Proof.

A collaboration with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, it began while Howard was writing another – Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) – itself a musical work influenced by mathematics. “I met Marcus through a friend when I was writing Torus, and we had a coffee at the Royal Albert Hall. We really connected about the piece, and about the doughnut shape of the hall’s construction. He immediately said the Royal Albert Hall is torus-shaped (shaped like a doughnut), and since then we have been meeting and working together on various projects.”

“We presented The Music of Proof at New Scientist Live in 2017, featuring a newly composed work entitled Four Musical Proofs and a Conjecture premiered by the Piatti Quartet, five miniatures for string quartet. Each miniature is related to a different style of mathematical proof and in order to compose them, I had asked myself the question “What if I approach writing music as though I am proceeding with the construction of a mathematical proof?” This was a completely different way of working for me and certainly helped me to brush up on some mathematical proofs I had all but forgotten! In the show, Marcus explains the proof, and I explain what I did in response – I have found very different ways to translate aspects of these proofs into music, and then you get to hear the music. We’ve recently repeated the show in Sheffield at Music in the Round.”

The success of the collaboration has filtered through to Howard’s tuition work at the Royal Northern College of Music. “At the RNCM, we have started PRiSM (which stands for Centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music), and we are encouraging collaborations between music students, scientists and mathematicians. I feel that there are real links to be explored: for me both music and maths are about pattern-making.”

“As a composition student, I had wanted to take ideas from mathematics and science and create musical shapes with them, and to begin with I found this difficult. As my musical craft has grown, I feel as though I’ve become more successful at translating ideas from mathematics into musical ideas on which to base my work. For instance, when I created Torus, I imagined I was on the surface of the shape, travelling around and around in one direction, and encountering different landscapes as I went. Around 14 minutes into the work, there is a significant shift and a complete change of musical soundworld, and this is where I had instead imagined a rotation in the other direction. So considering mathematical shapes in this way does help me to define musical shapes and structure in my compositions.”

Returning to the Aldeburgh Festival, Afference – completed in 2014 – represents a significant foray into chamber music. “That was a very difficult piece to write”, she admits. “I had written several orchestral pieces and I really wanted to write some chamber music. I spent ages on it and it’s helped me a lot to write that piece. Perhaps with chamber music in general and certainly with this work, everything feels much sparser and I find that every note, every gesture has a poignant significance. The Piatti Quartet are playing it at the festival, and it will be very interesting to hear them perform another of my works – they’re such fantastic players. They’ve put in an incredible amount of work on the piece.”

Howard is naturally delighted to be given such a prominent role in this year’s festival. “It’s an honour, I’m really proud of being Composer In Residence, alongside esteemed colleagues such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt, and of course it’s Benjamin Britten’s festival. It’s a wonderful festival and a magical place – especially for opera. In fact we developed To See The Invisible in Aldeburgh, so the piece has grown up there!”

For more information on Emily Howard, visit the composer’s website