Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Roisin Brophy on the BBC SO concert of Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Hugh Wood

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Roisin Brophy (above) gives her thoughts on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Prom of English music under Sir Andrew Davis.

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

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

I am from a very heavily Irish catholic family. I grew up on a lot of Irish folk music, and my mum is quite a hippy at heart. My god parents are also hippies at heart, and so I grew up with a lot of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. My mum’s got really good taste in music, so I grew up always loving Led Zeppelin and they continue to be my favourite band.

My dad is quite a musical person, he plays guitar and sings, and therefore I think I was very influenced into doing folk music as a child, and also being a catholic and going to catholic school, and going to church – where I heard choral music. I sang in a choir for our local church, and I stopped when I was about 15 or 16.

I got into drum and bass completely by accident. I don’t even listen to drum and bass! I know a lot of it but because I happen to work in it. I was just picked up by a dubstep producer years ago, and got into drum and bass from that. Folk is my most natural style of music, although I don’t write it professionally.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Joni Mitchell (above) – (a) because I grew up on her music, (b) because I think her vocal range and songwriting ability is unreachable by anybody else.

Led Zeppelin (above) Again the vocal range and the guitar and drum skills, for me, and their heavy influence from blues music, which you can really hear going into pop music.

My third would have to be Dolly Parton (above), because she’s a sassy lady, her songs are insanely catchy and again her voice is like no other.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’ve always studied music, and did GCSE and ‘A’ level before studying popular music at university. I’ve always been around people that have been involved in classical music but not been involved personally, as I have always been on the popular or folk side of things. Going to Goldsmiths, which is very renowned for being a classical music education system, I had a lot of friends that were classical musicians and opera singers.

I’ve always loved classical music, and studying it you learn what you like and what you don’t like. I still listen to it most days, it’s more of a morning thing for me. I like piano-based stuff. Vladimir’s Blues by Max Richter is a good example.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I absolutely loved it, and I’m actually a bit blown away by how much I did love it. The second half was definitely a lot more emotive than the first, but I think that was because of how the piece (Elgar’s The Music Makers) moved. The crescendos were incredibly moving and the sound in general was such a massive sound with the choir, females on one side and male on the other, a huge orchestra and the percussion in the second piece.

I think it made me appreciate that it was not a piece of classical music I would necessarily listen to on headphones, but now that I’ve seen it live and understand the musicianship behind it, I would very much want to listen to it again as a recording.

What did you think of the Vaughan Williams?

I have a feeling I recognised it. I felt it was light, soft, warming, and dreamy. It was nice to listen to live and I have never seen classical music to that standard live before, so when that piece first opened and the string players were playing it together, how crisp and clear and on point it was! It almost sounded like it was recorded, it was so perfect.

What did you think of the Hugh Wood?

It definitely told the story and was creepy at times. It felt like it was for that purpose, and the emotions that it conveyed was exactly what it was meant to do. It was eerie and scary, and seeing the singers battle against the orchestra with no microphones was pretty amazing. I loved it.

But the Elgar was the one you love the most?

Yes, for sure. It was just a lot more emotive and there was more behind it. The sheer size of it you could tell not only how much went into the writing of it, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to write for that many musicians and to think about that many parts working together, and for it to come out that perfect. Add to that the hard work and musicianship and understanding the commands of the music itself was amazing.

What did you like about the Proms?

The venue is amazing, a beautiful place to be, and it’s worth a visit on its own regardless of whether there is a concert or not. Going to see classical music you’ve never seen or heard before, for me it opened my ears to listening to classical music I would never necessarily listen to at the moment. Now I’ve seen these pieces live I could now appreciate listening to a recording.

What might you improve about the experience?

I don’t want to change it, because it was as it’s supposed to be. I think because I’m used to going to watch music that requires amplification, seeing music that doesn’t require amplification that is never going to be as loud so you have to wear earplugs as it’s so bloody loud, so maybe I would change the loudness of the sound. But it has a meaning, and that’s the whole point.

Would you go again?

Yes, definitely.

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can listen to the Elgar piece The Music Makers below in this recent release from Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 53: Sir Andrew Davis conducts Vaughan Williams, Hugh Wood and Elgar’s The Music Makers & Huw Watkins

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A knight of the realm and a dame performing Elgar. It doesn’t get much more English than that! Yet on this humid night in the Royal Albert Hall the continental aspects of the music chosen were just as evident, Sir Andrew Davis securing a trio of very fine performances from the assembled forces.

To begin, the solemn but radiant strains of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, written in the wake of his studies with Ravel in France. That opening chord never fails to transport the listener to another place, and Davis has more experience with it than most. The BBC Symphony Orchestra strings responded as one, their unity as evident in the swelling of the music as it was when the parts were divided. The four soloists at the front – violinists Igor Yuzefovich and Dawn Beazley, viola player Norbert Blume and cellist Susan Monks played beautifully, as did the group of nine instruments on a raised platform at the back of the stage. With these judicious placements Davis ensured the balance of the music – both audibly and emotionally – was firmly aligned.

Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus approach Englishness from a very different perspective – that of the Second Viennese School, headed by Schoenberg. Notorious for its rejection of tonality, the school was an incredibly innovative part of 20th century classical music, and Wood was one of several English composers to fall under its spell. Often the accusation is that music without tonality lacks emotion, but Wood refutes that emphatically.

Scenes from Comus may not have an obvious key centre but it treats its story in a powerfully expressive way. The orchestra told the story with strongly rendered colours, with particularly fine playing from principal horn Martin Owen with the opening theme. Soloists Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory (both above) found an ideal balance with the orchestra, and the story – where an Attendant Lady, lost in a ‘wilde wood’, is kidnapped by Comus – came to life. The 87 year-old Wood was present in the audience, waving cheerily at Sir Andrew Davis in acknowledgement of an excellent performance of his piece, performed for the first time at the Proms in 1965.

Elgar’s The Music Makers, a setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, has tended to fall short of critical acclaim, which is unfortunate as it contains some very fine music. In it the composer recycles some of his greatest melodies, quoting and redressing them in the manner of a greatest hits compilation. If anything that approach, when complemented by new musical ideas, makes the piece even more personal, speaking to us of his own favourite moments in music while wrought with worry about the onset of later life and the prospect of war.

The memorable opening line, ‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams’, was magical in the hands of the BBC Symphony Chorus, subdued but wonderfully clear as they are in a recent recording made with Sir Andrew Davis for Chandos.

Also on the recording is Dame Sarah Connolly, and her first notes in this particular concert (‘they had no vision amazing of the goodly house they are raising’) sent a shiver down the spine, sung with raw emotion and urgency. She was a dominant figure from her on, passionate yet fully in control of her phrasing, responding forcefully to O’Shaughnessy’s text.

Elgar’s liberal quotations enhanced the music, none of the melodies present for the sake of it, and each reimagined with O’Shaughnessy’s text. The melodies from the Enigma Variations, the Symphony no.1, the Violin Concerto and, most tellingly, The Dream of Gerontius, all contributed to a reading of really impressive gravity and poise. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with great unity of purpose, aided by sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra and their heartfelt account of the winsome melodies. Sir Andrew Davis is a master Elgarian, and here his credentials were handsomely reinforced.

You can listen to the new recording by these forces of The Music Makers on Spotify below:

Prom 1 – BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Karina Canellakis – Janáček Glagolitic Mass, Dvořák & Zosha Di Castri


Prom 1: Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Peter Holder (organ), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (above)

Di Castri Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (2019) (BBC commission: World premiere)
Dvořák The Golden Spinning Wheel Op.109 (1896)
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (Final version, 1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 19 July 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Sounds app here

In its including of a female conductor, a premiere alluding to the 50th anniversary of the first moon-landing and a Henry Wood ‘novelty’, the First Night of this year’s Proms encapsulated the season in almost all essentials while making for an engaging programme in its own right.

The premiere was that of Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory from Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri. Now in her early thirties, Di Castri has achieved recognition for the arresting timbres and textures of her music and there was no doubt as to the scintillating sonorities she drew from the orchestra in what, loosely defined, was a cantata where changing conceptions of the Moon were articulated through a text drawn centred on the musings of Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo alongside fragments by Sappho and Giacomo Leopardi. A pity, then, that the composer’s rather moribund word-setting and vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic meant the emotional affect of this text went for relatively little, for all the orchestral component was often spellbinding in its evoking the immensity yet also intimacy of space above and beyond.

Certainly the BBC Singers projected its contribution with audible assurance, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded ably to the astute direction of Karina Canellakis both here and in a rare revival of Dvořák‘s symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel. Third of his four late such pieces drawing on the folk-ballads of Jaromir Erben, this is usually heard in the abbreviated version prepared by Josef Suk but tonight brought the full-length original with Erben’s poem set line by line in an uncanny musical embodiment of the text. That said, its sheer repetition of motifs and themes can prove excessive and while Canellakis had the measure of the work’s evocative aspect, she was less successful when trying to infuse the sprawling structure with any cumulative impetus such that the rousing final peroration seemed all too long in arriving.

There could not be a piece less given to longeurs than Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass, first heard in the UK almost nine decades ago but not at these concerts until 1972. Recent hearings have opted for the conjectural urtext whose sometimes reckless audacity its composer toned down before the premiere, but this evening reinstated the final version that Canellakis directed with verve and sensitivity, if lacking a degree of fervency which turns a fine performance into an indelible embodiment of that pantheist spirituality central to the music of Janáček’s maturity.

Not that there was much to fault in the singing, with Asmik Grigorian more than equal to the demanding tessitura of the soprano part and Ladislav Elgr hardly less attuned to the stentorian tenor role. Jennifer Johnson was a mezzo of no mean eloquence, while bass Jan Martiník was only marginally too impassive. Peter Holder duly put the Albert Hall organ through its paces in an incisive and ultimately thunderous organ solo – after which, it was hardly the BBCSO’s fault if the final Intrada sounded a little underwhelming as its rhythmic elan was undoubted.

Throughout this account, the contributions of both orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus left little to be desired. Hard to believe the intricacies of Janacek’s writing were once put down to technical inadequacy. In that respect, as with space exploration, progress has been absolute.

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony no.1 in B flat minor) (1903-09)
Darest thou now, O soul (1925)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following his impressive take on A London Symphony (given in the 1918 version), Martyn Brabbins here continues his Vaughan Williams cycle with its predecessor A Sea Symphony, coupled with a choral setting which reinforces the composer’s adherence to Walt Whitman.

What’s the music like?

Now that most of the numerous orchestral pieces Vaughan Williams wrote at the turn of the 20th century have been recorded, the context for the present work is far clearer than hitherto. Yet it still took six years before A Sea Symphony was completed; during which time, both its actual concept and his musical aesthetic underwent radical change. The premiere in Leeds on 12th October 1910 may have overshadowed by that of the Tallis Fantasia just a month before, but the larger work likewise confirmed VW’s arrival as a leading composer of his generation.

While not an overly long work (lasting around 67 minutes), A Sea Symphony feels expansive as compared to Vaughan Williams’s later such works and benefits from a formally focussed approach. This it receives from Brabbins, who controls the first movement securely from its magisterial opening, through its eventful if prolix ‘development’ then on to a rapt conclusion. The ensuing nocturne is less problematic and Brabbins duly points up the contrast between its fervent climax and pensive introspection on either side. He secures a rousing response in the scherzo, with its unabashed echoes of Elgar and Parry, then steers a convincing course across the expansive finale – whether in its cumulative earlier stages, its eloquent central vocal duet or the closing stages with their stark juxtaposing of bracing peroration and ethereal postlude.

Throughout this recording, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is responsive and committed, while the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of tonal finesse and rhythmic articulation. The two soloists are less consistent. Marcus Farnsworth lacks presence during the combative baritone contribution to the first movement, though his stoic musing in its successor is far more persuasive. A soprano with the requisite mezzo range, Elisabeth Llewellyn yet evinces a vibrato in her higher register that can prove distracting, but this is less of a problem in the finale – she and Farnsworth exuding warmth and ardency in its lyrical central duet, while bringing poise without indulgence towards its close as vocal phrases stretch out in parallel to the expanse of that ‘journey’ being evoked.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding those reservations noted above. Brabbins adopts a firm though flexible approach which is demonstrably in the lineage of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley. Both orchestral playing and choral singing are first rate (in advance of that for Andrew Davis in the BBC’s first VW cycle a quarter-century ago), and there is once again an enterprising coupling. Darest though now, O soul finds Vaughan Williams briefly revisiting a Whitman text he set 18 years before in Toward the Unknown Region, reduced to a hymnal setting for unison chorus and strings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound finds an ideal balance between spaciousness and definition, with probing notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. If Brabbins’s Sea Symphony is slightly less fine than his London Symphony, it is a consistent follow-up in what looks set to be impressive VW cycle.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here

In concert – Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at the Barbican

ryan-wigglesworth

Picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Barnabás Kelemen (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 2 March

This typically well-planned BBC Symphony Orchestra concert had a surprise or two in store. Bookending the quartet of works on display were two pieces by Stravinsky – the Agon ballet from 1957 and the Symphony of Psalms.

They provided a good illustration of how Stravinsky changed styles as a composer, and how in spite of that he retained a fascination with older polyphonic styles. Some of the sound worlds in Agon, a set of twelve tableaux for twelve dancers, frequently alighted on melodic figures or chords that felt ‘old’, holding dissonances and deliberately leaving chords unresolved.

Agon is viewed as the work where Stravinsky starts to take his leave from a more obviously tonal approach to composition. In this performance it was lean yet colourful, with excellent solos from leader Stephanie Gonley, mandolin player Nigel Woodhouse, harpist Sioned Williams and Christian Geldsetzer and Richard Alsop, the two BBC SO lead double bass players, who nailed their otherworldly harmonics on each appearance.

The Symphony of Psalms was more obviously outgoing but saved its greatest emotional impact for the quieter music, the closing pages of ‘Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum’ (‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’) from the BBC Symphony Chorus given out with softly oscillating orchestral figures.

Stravinsky uses the lower end of the orchestra in this piece, with no violins or violas, adding extra percussive punch from two pianos – all aspects that Wigglesworth brought forward in a taut performance. Great credit should however go to chorus master Hilary Campbell, who was unfortunately not mentioned in the concert programme. She is clearly popular with the singers, and helped secure that extra degree of accuracy and emotional involvement. One of Stravinsky’s most cinematic scores, it was in this performance a powerful statement of affirmation.

Wigglesworth positioned his own Violin Concerto modestly after the interval – I say modestly as in its five years of existence the piece has already ramped up an impressive number of performances. On this evidence its status is well-deserved, for it is a tightly structured unit of no little tension, the soloist searching for his ultimate melody while the reduced, ‘classical’ orchestra try and find their ultimate tonality.

barnabas-kelemen

Soloist Barnabás Kelemen (above) was a macho presence, with a little too much testosterone at times when the violin was surging forward, but he balanced that with some incredibly sensitive playing at the quietest moments of the piece, where the audience strained on his every note. Both melody and tonality were resolved in moments that confirmed Wigglesworth as a composer of impressive style and instinct.

The one dud in the program was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes, seen through the visual projections of Tal Rosner. This was a commission from four American orchestras in Britten’s centenary year 2013, with each interlude was set to the images of the city from which the commission came. For its UK premiere Rosner added a portrait of London to go with the other orchestral excerpt from the opera, the Passacaglia. This was centrally placed, keeping the order in which the scenes appear in the opera.

Although well played by the orchestra, the idea sadly fell flat on several levels. Although Britten spent time in America – and indeed began Peter Grimes there – the work’s roots are so entrenched in Suffolk that to suggest anything other than the Aldeburgh coastline through the music feels completely wrong. Rosner’s constructions were skilled, and had a few fine moments where close-up images of the Golden Gate Bridge rotated in technicolour.

Sunday Morning, with its bright building blocks of orchestral colour, was revealed to be a minimalist precursor of the music of John Adams through the clever constructions of its visuals. However despite Britten’s more universal appeal as a composer these days, Peter Grimes surely belongs wholeheartedly in Suffolk – and any suggestion to the contrary, however well intended, feels wrong.