Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Jamie Sellers on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony, Lalo & Falla

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Jamie Sellers gives his verdict on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Prom of French and Spanish music.

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 on the BBC iPlayer here

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

Lots of early exposure to my elder sibling’s 1960s pop records, which they kindly left behind minus covers when they left home. At the age of seven I started to buy vinyl singles, and that was around 1972, the glam rock era. For two or three years I was listening to exclusively white rock and pop records, and it was only sometime later that I started to listen to any other music.

Did you have any exposure to classical music early on?

None whatsoever! I’m not sure what my first exposure to classical music would have been, knowingly – probably the popular classics that I would hear on TV ads, such as Carl Orff selling Brut 33 or cheap wine! For a long time – and I suspect this is true for a lot of people – you would hear only a minute or two of a much longer piece that had become famous, and those pieces would be marketed as such. You would be able to go to a petrol station and buy a ‘best of classical’ or something like that.

With your love of film, did you almost come into a lot of music that could be described as classical through soundtracks?

Yeah, definitely. Before I was even teenager I would be listening to the John Barry James Bond soundtracks, and the Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtracks. I would think what amazing music it was, but it wasn’t pop music of that era, it was obviously informed by something else. It was only much later when I started to buy soundtracks, and listened to 40 minutes of music that was just a series of cues for a film, some of which were quite ambient and instrumental and others which were hooky, almost pop-classical, that I started to listen to music in that way. I started to listen to Bernard Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin, and similar people. I got the impression that most of them were frustrated classical composers who got sidelined into making film music!

Could you name three musical acts you admire, and say why you admire them?

Off the top of my head, I would say The Beatles, Bobby Bland and Hank Williams, because they all came from different aspects of popular music and were very ground breaking in their own way, whether it be in pop music – The Beatles – or country music – Hank Williams – or blues in Bobby Bland. They all made music that has been hugely influential to subsequent generations.

Turning to the Proms, how would you describe your experience tonight?

It wasn’t totally alien to me, because I have been to a number of orchestral events, usually with the soundtrack composers involved and occasionally pop performers with orchestra. To listen to a piece for half an hour or 45 minutes that is a considerably classical piece is quite different I suppose, and when you don’t know that work as well. It was mixed overall, but I really enjoyed the first piece, with what little I knew about it! I knew Manuel de Falla the name, and knew that he had something to do with flamenco. I love a lot of Spanish music and knew that he was one of the forefathers of Spanish music. Listening to it I couldn’t hear much of that, but if I was looking for references I would …I could hear a few undercurrents of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, which is probably a very broad brush to paint it with (ed – Jamie has identified the use of Will o’ the Wisp, one of the movements in the ballet, on the album).

The second piece with the violin lead I struggled with. Obviously Joshua Bell was brilliant, and everyone was brilliant, but it didn’t do a lot for me. It struck me that at the end of each movement the music petered out in an almost accidental fashion. It wasn’t until the end of the third part that it had a very definite ending, which incidentally was my favourite part of the piece. The first two parts just seemed to end in a very sudden fashion which I found a bit strange. I didn’t get on with that too well.

I wondered what the etiquette was, whether we were supposed to stay quiet for the whole performance or whether we could clap at the end of each movement, because it happened after the third movement of this piece. It’s a bit like going to a play for the first time and clapping at the end of each act, or do you wait until the end of the play?

What did you think of the Saint-Saëns?

It wasn’t quite what I expected! It’s funny, the name and the most famous theme or melody from that piece that appears in the Babe film, sung by some mice, I knew it was a pop record before that as well, a really sentimental song that was a strong ballad (If I Had You). I really enjoyed most of it, it was melodically very accessible I thought, as was the Falla. I think if I was going along to hear some classical music for the first time I might try this because most of it was very accessible, and at one point when the music really picked up it really soared a few minutes in. I was watching two banks of strings either side of the conductor, and they looked like rowers on a slave ship or something. It was visually impressive. I thought the organ would be all-encompassing but it didn’t dominate the piece as much as I expected it to.

Thinking of your experience of the Proms, what appealed to you about the visit?

The fact that we were in the stalls area and people were standing, and it was a very mixed audience, it felt much more accessible than I was expecting – I thought it would be more elitist than that. That was good.

Would you change anything about the experience?

Apart from the bar prices?! I don’t think I would change anything particularly – maybe something in the way of an introduction, but then everything was covered in the brochure we had anyway.

Would you consider going again?

Definitely, yes.

Verdict: SUCCESS

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.

BBC Proms 2016 – Bluebeard’s Castle & Dvořák Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt

gerhardt

Alban Gerhardt pictured during his performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 25; Royal Albert Hall, 3 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The course of this Prom ran true to the plot of the psychological drama that unfolded in the second half. Bluebeard’s Castle was a darkly lit tour de force, but before that we had the small matter of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto to attend to.

The best-loved of all cello concertos, this is a piece where the cello really sings, but has to come from within the orchestral sound to do so. Alban Gerhardt was the ideal vehicle, with probing insights and a wonderful, song-like delivery that brought out the best of Dvořák’s bittersweet lyricism. His duet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra woodwind and brass, subtly but expertly managed by the seemingly ageless Charles Dutoit (now 80!) was sublime.

bluebeardThings took a much darker tone after the interval as Bartók’s first stage work exerted a chilling grip on the Royal Albert Hall. There was little to no coughing here, all eyes focused on the sonorous John Ralyea (Duke Bluebeard) and his latest ill-fated lover Judit (Ildikó Komlósi). Their exploration of the seven doors of Bluebeard’s Castle were vividly brought to life by Dutoit, using all his expertise with French orchestral music to bring out the parallels in the Hungarian Bartók’s own writing, but also finding the darkness beneath that really drives the work.

Komlósi was superb, every sleight of her eyes telling a thousand words, while harps, strings, horns, woodwind and brass all told the silvery tale in turn. Ralyea, meanwhile, brought his incredibly sonorous tones to the spoken introduction, setting the scene perfectly. Unsettling through the drama was – perhaps unwittingly anticipating The Shining, and the use of Bartók’s music in one of its crucial scenes – this was a performance holding the audience captive from the first dark note to the last.

Ben Hogwood

Alban Gerhardt – a Proms interview with the cellist who sings

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Alban Gerhardt has not played his cello for 12 days…but on the evening Arcana calls for a chat he is about to pick it up, finally.

“It’s fantastic not having played for that length of time!” he enthuses. How will he get back into the saddle? “I start off with very basic exercise, just playing open strings and long notes – nothing else really. It’s all about getting to know it again, and I play so slow that I won’t get any notes wrong or play anything false. Then tomorrow I will restart the Dvořák, which I haven’t played in a long time!”

He is referring to the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which he will perform at the Proms this year – Prom 25, to be precise, on Wednesday 3rd August at the Royal Albert Hall, where his accomplices will be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Charles Dutoit. “I definitely haven’t played the piece this year”, he confirms, “but I think I am starting next year with it a couple of times. I’m very glad to have been playing other things, otherwise you start doing crazy stuff with a piece. If you do perform something more than 50 times without a proper break the danger is you start doing those things to entertain yourself.”

As is customary with all Arcana interviews, I move on to ask the cellist if he can recall his first encounters with classical music. “Mine were pre-natal! My mother was a singer, so I heard her singing and practising, and when I was born I was crawling between the music stands. I don’t actually have any memory without music, it has been the all-dominating thing for me. My mother would sing a lot, and then the cello was the next choice, as I found I could sing with that.”

His love of the cello developed as an extension of the voice. “In my second lesson I learned how to make the music vibrate, to use vibrato, and it made so much sense to me. My mother had a natural vibrato from between the ages of three and four and I picked it up. I had a minority complex about my voice, but when I got the cello it all happened and I ran screaming through the house, I was so happy!”

Gerhardt has performed the Dvořák concerto at the Proms before, stepping in for the indisposed Heinrich Schiff in 2001. “It was a huge thrill, to be playing such a big piece on the biggest stage of all.” How will this experience be different for him? “I think by now I am so old” (he’s only 47! – Ed) “but I am very much looking forward to working with Charles Dutoit again. The stage doesn’t matter so much anymore, I find, and I don’t get inhibited or frightened. I do respect the stage more though, wherever I am. Everybody deserves a good performance wherever I am, and it shouldn’t necessarily be better just because I am at the Proms. The last time I played it was exhausting because you have to produce more sound in the Royal Albert Hall. In the last six years I have been playing with earplugs, as I used to force my sound, and that has helped enormously.”

This year the BBC Proms is focusing intently on the cello, with ten concerto performances and four premieres. Does that reflect the instrument’s popularity? “I would love to say yes, but I don’t know”, he says candidly. “There are many seasons for each of the orchestras where the violin and the piano are far more in demand. It might reflect the number of wonderful cellists there are these days, though I do find I am missing a bit, a wonderful protagonist like Mstislav Rostropovich who created works and was such a natural force for the instrument. He was not created by any PR or fancy stories, but there was a huge hunger in this guy. Now we have specialists and PR people – they are wonderful players but none are of that stature so far. It could be a couple of people standing up for the instrument, but then maybe it’s Rostropovich’s fault, that nobody has stepped up like that since him! Maybe Casals did, but there has not been anyone quite of the same stature. It feels like we are still trying to catch up.

Gerhardt has yet to record the concerto, save for a disc given away with a past issue of the BBC Music Magazine, but from the sound of things is not in a hurry to do so. “I’d like to one day, but there is no rush. It should be in the perfect setting. I don’t want to do it for the sake of it. It is such an important piece, such a symphonic work. To make it special it would have to be recorded with genius people. I think ahead of the Dvořák I have pushed for the Bach suites, but that is maybe the next thing I would love to tackle.”

And what of the considerable honour of performing the piece at the Proms? “It will always be special, the excitement is so much bigger. I believe my father played at the Proms with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1960s. I think it was when Herbert von Karajan came to the Proms for the first time (this appears to have been in January 1973 according to the Proms website) and it was a very political occasion. He told me that when the oboist Lothar Koch gave the ‘A’ the whole audience hummed it! The orchestra thought it was sabotage, but then they realised the orchestra was so excited. When I was asked to the Proms around 20 years later I played Shostakovich in the late 1990s. I got frightened, but now I am excited to play for this unbelievable audience.”

He goes on to discuss the advantages of planning for the festival. “At the Proms you can schedule almost anything and people come! For instance this year Steven Isserlis is playing a new orchestral version of Thomas Adès’s Lieux retrouvés, and it is one of my standout Proms, as I love Isserlis. I am sure it will be full.” There is a note of regret, too. “I wish this could be translated into other seasons, because I think it proves you don’t always need the big names like Beethoven and Brahms to fill a hall. Music is for all seasons, not just the summer!”

Staying with the Proms theme of the cello, does he think it true to say the instrument is popular for new works? “Not so much in the last 40 years”, he says. “Not since the Rostropovich commissions. We live in times where there is a much shorter life, things expire quickly, and so to get a piece into the repertoire is impossible. This has happened with the Dutilleux concerto perhaps (Tout un monde lointain) but not since then, especially if you compare those pieces to Shostakovich and Prokofiev.”

He muses on the reasons for this. “It is difficult for a player to learn without having a pianist accompany them, and for that you need a piano reduction. People love modern music, and there is lots being written, but it’s been written, played once and then never again. Maybe that’s how it was 300 years ago, after all Bach had to write a cantata every week! It is nice to go back to a piece and rediscover it though. I have been able to do that with some contemporary pieces which is great as you can do so much more with them. With the Dvořák I can tell a story with it, and I can channel my energies so that I am not dead by the end of the first page, and can carry through the whole piece!”

What of recommending a piece of cello music to Arcana readers? “The Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly did tell me that Lieux retrouvés is a fantastic piece”, says Gerhardt, “and he thinks it is one of the greatest pieces written in the last few years. I think that is my favourite last cello recording, the one made with Isserlis and Adès themselves. I do love to go to concerts rather than stay at home and listen though, I am not a big consumer of recordings. Having said that this one is also special for the Janáček and Fauré pieces they include, it has a beautiful combination of works. They are such fantastic musicians, and at times they remind me of Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten in partnership.”

It is nearly time for Gerhardt to head home and pick up his cello. “I will summon the energy over the next six days to completely fall in love with the piece again”, he declares. “I have a complete score and will go back to basics, to look at the part without any marks on the page and look at what the composer really had in mind. Otherwise I find that I do things in the moment and repeat them. A clean score, with no markings, fingerings or bowing instructions, brings you back to the composer.”