Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Jak Hussain on the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert of American music

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Jak Hussain gives his verdict on the Minnesota Orchestra and their Prom in tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Bernstein Candide Overture (1989)
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F major (1925)
Ives Symphony no.2 (1897-1902, 1950)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

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

My musical upbringing is Top of the Pops and The Chart Show, on a Thursday and Saturday. When we were all growing up we didn’t have much money to buy albums, and one of my earliest memories is my elder brother borrowing a tape recorder. We had two and he used them to record the Top 40 from one radio to another. Music was something that was in our house but it wasn’t a necessity to buy an album…but I remember my older sister used to listen to George Michael and Wham!, and everyone would gather round the television to watch Top Of The Pops in the early 1980s. We would sit there and watch when they came on, and that’s where I remember music the earliest.

Then The Chart Show on a Saturday morning – those were my outlet for music. It was an actual event to watch on Thursdays who would be the number one!
After that my sister got married, and her husband brought in the rest of it – easy listening, classic rock, and that’s what made me start listening to other genres – classical Indian music too. It all grew from there. My mum listens to traditional classical pieces from Bangladesh and India, and I think she is a lover of classical music, though she decided not to come to the Proms with me – she said no, take your wife!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

One is Jeff Buckley, one of my favourite artists of all time – and I love him because of the sweet and sour of his music. He made one album in his lifetime which is an absolutely sublime masterpiece, and then he passed away tragically. That masterpiece has left a legacy though. I reluctantly listen to the other pieces that have come out, because it’s his unfinished work, so it pains me to listen to it. It’s not how he would have liked it. That one album is sublime though, and fuses Western and Eastern music. One of his heaviest influences on that album is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – his Elvis Presley. You’ll notice that his vocal range is based on the Indian Raga scales.

The second one would be the band Queens Of The Stone Age. I think it’s Josh Homme’s voice more than anything, and the productions of his work.

The third would be film scores – they are my thing. I annoy my wife by telling her about composers and what music they’ve done, how they sound. John Williams uses a lot of horns, Thomas Newman a lot of piano, that sort of thing. I love film scores for what they evoke in the actual film they are trying to evoke. For me, film scores are the new classical music – they incorporate absolutely everything.

Where I grew up you were only supposed to like a certain genre of music, like hip hop or street culture. That wasn’t me – I like what I like! It doesn’t matter if it’s classical, pop music – something that evokes an emotion in you. This is what music is for me. You go through phases, and in my twenties I was very heavily into guitar band music, while my friends were listening to hip hop and drum and bass. I’d put a CD on in the car, of people like Jim Croce, Crosby Stills & Nash, stuff like that, and they would be “what are you listening to? This isn’t cool!” I think what’s better is that in my circle of friends their tastes actually grew, and rather than sticking to one genre they are receptive to different types, they’re appreciative of all genres, which I think is great.

Was this your first experience of the Proms in the Arena?

Yes. I had this misconception that it would be high brow, suited and booted – but it is very different to what I thought it would be. It’s absolutely brilliant, and shows you not to be judgemental about how things might me. It’s reverse snobbery! I had this idea of suits and ties, but it’s just people who love music. It sounds better in the arena than the seats, and you’re actually closer to the orchestra. You are a bit more detached in the circle and the boxes, it’s more regulated – but down here you can see what is going on.

What did you think of the Bernstein?

I’m familiar with West Side Story, but to answer that question I would put the first and second pieces as very similar. It reminds me of old Hollywood – and again movies from that era. One of them (the Gershwin Piano Concerto) reminded me of Cleopatra, when the drums were playing it made me think of the beginning credits. I remember watching these old movies with my dad and thinking they were brilliant, and that’s the whole thing with me liking movies, the scores make you remember the actual film. It stays with you, and so this music reminded me of a bygone era.

What did you think of the Ives?

The first couple of movements started off light and got heavier, but the last movement was the one I enjoyed the most. It had elements of Yankee Doodle, an American army tune that starts getting you going, and it ended absolutely brilliantly with the conductor jumping up and down to get the orchestra to make all the emotion he wanted. I loved the crescendo of sound, the military music – and then classical music all coming into it with a huge sound. I love the way they know how to lessen a tone in one part of the orchestra and bring it out elsewhere. I can’t read music so I don’t know how they do it, but it’s just amazing to see it come to life in front of you.

The thing that comes into my head with Ives is an image of a horse cantering. That’s the best way I can describe it! He goes from a minor key to a major key, and you think am I feeling sad or happy? I didn’t understand how some of it would go into a sombre mood and then it would go funny. In my head I have a structure of a piece of music – melancholy, happy or something – but here everything is in together. It works. With Gershwin I could understand the elements of jazz, but I didn’t understand if he was classical too. The music was great – it’s just the understanding of where it was going at the time. That was the first piece of Ives that I have heard though, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the end as well, it was one of those things where you think – should that be there?! I love delving into that sort of thing. Music is great, isn’t it?!

Verdict: SUCCESS

On record: Morton Gould – The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings (RCA)

morton-gould

RCA bring together six discs of largely unavailable recordings made by composer / conductor Morton Gould and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1965 and 1968. The varied repertoire ranges from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to Ives and Gould himself.

What’s the music like?

Colourful. If you want a slightly random introduction to some very different styles of 20th century music then this is an excellent place to start. Charles Ives heads the bill, with the fiercely patriotic Three Places In New England and bracing Symphony no.2 exploring hometown themes in modernist settings.

Nielsen’s Symphony no.2, The Four Temperaments, is revealed as an emotional tour de force, while Gould’s own Spirituals are heart on sleeve and all the better for it. From the previous century comes a selection of Tchaikovsky waltzes and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar Symphony, whose insistence on an exceptionally catchy tune burns it into your consciousness.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are edge-of-the-seat performances. One of the shortest pieces here, William Schuman’s orchestration of Ives’ Variations on America, is also one of the most entertaining and humourous. The Russian repertoire is punchy and powerful, and including a rare performance of Myaskovsky’s Symphony no.21 a bonus, but it is the bigger Ives works that make this set so worthwhile.

The Three Places In New England are brilliantly played, bringing the homespun melodies through the complicated but invigorating textures, while the two symphonies make the strongest possible impact – even the first, where Ives was still writing conventionally. Here it is fresh and charming, channelling the spirit of Dvořák. If you have not heard the Symphony no.2 before, make sure you listen right to the end, as there is a surprise in store!

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s a bargain – and nicely packaged too, with RCA using the original artwork and some interesting documentation of a brief but meaningful relationship between conductor and orchestra.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

Road Trip

Featured recording: Aurora Orchestra – Road Trip (Warner Classics)
road-trip

In which London’s Aurora Orchestra head for the open prairies of America, sampling folk and pop song in between modern classical music from John Adams, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The folk and pop arrangements are done by Nico Muhly.

What’s the music like?

Very accessible. There are folk tunes arranged by Nico Muhly, who has worked with US bands like Grizzly Bear in the past, as well as establishing himself as a talented composer blending a love of old church music with a tuneful modern style, and the orchestra’s viola player Max Baillie,

The classical pieces are nicely contrasted – from the hectic Chamber Symphony by Adams to the luminous Appalachian Spring, Copland’s ballet. This features American folk tunes in fresh, open-air orchestral scoring, peaking with an arrangement of the song Simple Gifts.

Added to these we have a piece by Ives, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, taken from his Three Places In New England. Ives is incredibly difficult to describe, as he operates with so many different orchestral styles, but there are always tunes – and the slow beginning to this piece brings a tear to the eye.

Does it all work?

By and large, yes. The performances are excellent, expertly marshalled by Nicholas Collon, and are closely recorded to get the intimacy of the Copland in particular. The Adams is brisk and punchy – a good listen while running, no doubt! – and has bags of rhythmic interest. The Ives is unlike anything else, though, packing into its short duration a lifetime’s worth of feeling.

Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes sings the folksongs well but I found Nico Muhly’s orchestrations had too much going on – in part a deliberate tactic from the composer – but the ear was often distracted from the tunes themselves. The subjects are a bit macabre, too – especially The Brown Girl, with its dark tales of death and divorce.

Is it recommended?

Yes, overall. The Aurora Orchestra do these sort of themed presentations very well, and as a starting point for modern American music this can be either self-contained or open out into further exploration of the composers on the disc.

Listen on Spotify