Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tim Squier on Beethoven, Dutilleux and HK Gruber

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
gruber-buskingThis is the continuation of a series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Tim Squier gives his thoughts on Prom 34.

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion), Mats Bergström, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Dutilleux Timbres, espaces, movement (1990)
Gruber Busking (2007)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor (1804-1808)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Tim, what was your musical upbringing?

It was my mum that brought me up, and in terms of music it’s not worth going there really! It was very middle of the road – Cliff Richard, some of The Beatles. I discovered most things myself pretty much, she would have the radio on sometimes – but when I first discovered my own music it was via an alarm clock, an FM radio that she gave me. It was all the pop of the time in 1984-1986 – Madonna, Prince, A-ha, your Now 1984. Certainly in my early years there was Band Aid – and I wasn’t particularly cool. There wasn’t anything of a classical background in there!

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

Harold Budd is a big one for me. I do love my ambient and he doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong really. He just seems to have a certain emotion and style where you can just get lost in it. It can be background but it can be foreground as well. I can work to it, and not be fully tuned in, or I can be sitting down and listening to it and it works just as well.

I’m going for artists who have been with me for a long time, and Fleetwood Mac are an act that I could never really get enough of. They’ve gone through different phases like the 1980s pop side but I can also do the Peter Green stuff, and the Stevie Nicks especially. I just keep discovering new things off the albums too, like Oh Daddy from Rumours recently. Stevie Nicks solo – just brilliant, too. Not every single track but she’s the sort of person you can see her rehearsal footage on YouTube and it’s amazing. I’m watching it thinking it’s better than the album version!

For the third one I’ll go for someone electronic – Carl Craig. Certainly between 1990 and 1996 where he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He could do an ambient track, a banging techno track, stuff that doesn’t all into a genre – something for the dancefloor, something for the home. Carl recorded a lot of that on cassette tape, it didn’t sound very good but still did the business!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I think almost unintentionally my first experience of anything like classical music would have been through film scores. One of my best friends in London has been responsible for playing me some classical music but not so much for a long time now. I have been to one Prom before but it was a long time ago and I can’t remember the actual pieces – but I know I enjoyed it. I quite enjoy listening to it but I don’t know much about it. I’ve heard some Ravel before, and quite enjoyed that.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

The Royal Albert Hall is always a joy, it’s a great venue – and the acoustics are really good for classical rather than pop I think. I really rated the first piece (the Dutilleux) and enjoyed that the most I think.

What did you think of the Dutilleux?

It was thoroughly enjoyable, I’m a real sucker for that deep sound from the lower strings – there is a certain orchestral sound I really love, the lower frequency, and you get a lot of that in film scores. There was a lot of that coming through and it flowed really well. I wasn’t bored at all, I really loved it.

What did you think of the HK Gruber?

It started out interesting, and the introduction was good, but the trumpet was too much of a focal point and I found myself drifting out. I was trying to listen to the background more but because of the positioning I was trying to hear what was going on my right hand side, but every time I tried I could hear the trumpet. There was a variety of devices going on (the mutes and three different trumpets – Ed) I’ll always give things a chance, and I tried but it didn’t work out!

And the Beethoven?

That was really enjoyable, a nice take on it – it’s been a while since I heard the entire piece and I think it really worked. There were some quirky moments, it was great watching the whole orchestra. There was one really young player who really stood out (oboist Henry Clay), he was really good. Another thing going back to the first piece, the Dutilleux – the percussion was great. With the Beethoven I loved the whole thing and there was a really nice stereo effect coming through, the clarity was there more and I could pick up on certain things, especially being a bit of an audiophile.

There are bits you forget as well – you don’t get them played on Capital Radio four times a day after all! It was good to hear those. So I think the Dutilleux first, then the Beethoven, then the Gruber.

Would you go again?

Absolutely, for sure. I’m quite open to new musical experiences and will try most things but would do this again!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

BBC Proms 2016 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dutilleux & HK Gruber


Soloists Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion) and Mats Bergström (banjo) pictured during the performance of HK Gruber‘s Busking, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 34; Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Sakari Oramo continues to inspire. His tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to date has been characterised by imaginative programming and excellent performances, and putting an obvious spring in the orchestra’s musical steps.

Last year they delivered a Prom capped by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, an account that fizzed with enthusiasm and vigour, and these same qualities were on show for the Fifth Symphony here. Oramo’s speeds were on the aggressive side, the slow movement arguably losing a bit of expressive heart because of it, but the faster movements unquestionably thrilling in their verve and forward drive.

Because of this approach, music that could have been over familiar received a new, sparkling coat of paint, and excellent woodwind contributions, particularly from new oboist Henry Clay, elevated the standard of playing. Guest leader Malin Broman set the tone with great vigour.

The first half gave us two contemporary pieces of very different impact. Timbres, espaces, movement became a three-movement orchestral piece when Henri Dutilleux revised it in 1990, and in this performance we could revel in its beautifully shaded colours, its sudden, strident unisons, and its captivating rhythms – all reflecting the painting on which it is based, Van Gogh’s Starry Night.


These were expertly delivered by the BBC Symphony percussion, while in the second movement the glorious spectacle of twelve cellos highlighted the genius in the composer’s part writing as well as the deep lyricism of his melodies. This was the third Dutilleux performance of the week, capping a very strong trio begun with The Shadows of Time and the Cello Concerto Tout un monde lointain…

Less obviously successful was the substantial piece by HK Gruber, Busking – a work from 2007 receiving its UK premiere. Again the composer’s inspiration was a painting, in this case Picasso’s Three Musicians:


Despite an excellent performance, in which trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger turned various shades of red and purple, all the while staying fully in command of his instruments, this was a piece that unfortunately ran out of steam quite early on.

A very promising beginning, with swaying syncopation brought on by the trumpeter with just his mouthpiece, ultimately lost its rhythmic impetus. Unfortunately the balance between the three soloists also became skewed heavily in favour of the trumpet, at the expense of brilliantly played detail from accordion (Claudia Buder) and banjo (Mats Bergström).

A doleful slow movement briefly evoked a melancholy cabaret, and did so very effectively, but here again the tones of the trumpet dominated, despite Hardenberger’s use of the mellow flugelhorn. This was not the fault of the players – and could also reflect Arcana’s position in the arena – but it was a shame to miss out on the touches of humour elsewhere. By the third movement, where some energy returned, the piece had by that time run out of substance.

That should not count against the overall success of this Prom, however, as the excellent performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra reaped their just rewards.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear other Dutilleux performances at the BBC Proms by following the links below:

The Shadows of Time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Tout un monde lointain… with Johannes Moser (cello) and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena

BBC Proms 2016 – Håkan Hardenberger and HK Gruber perform Kurt Weill & Kurt Schwertsik at Cadogan Hall

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), HK Gruber (chansonnier, above), Helen Crayford (piano), Mats Bergström (banjo & guitar), Claudia Buder (accordion), Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Broström Sputnik (2015)

Lundgren arr. Pöntinen The Seagull (2007)

Weill Speak Low (arr. Pöntinen) (1943); Songs from The Threepenny Opera (1928); Der Song von Mandelay (1929); Song of the Rhineland (1944)

Schwertsik Adieu Satie – Gymopédie; Clownerie acrobatique (2002, arr. 2010)

HK Gruber 3 MOB Pieces (1968, rev.1977)

Brahms arr. Broström Hungarian Dance no.6 (1869 / 2016)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 8 August 2016

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

After A Satie Cabaret the BBC Proms chamber music series at Cadogan Hall continued in mischievous mood, this time bringing Kurt Weill and his associates centre stage. In doing so they managed to include another tribute to Satie, courtesy of Kurt Schwertsik, a member of the unofficial Third Viennese School with composers Friedrich Cerha and HK Gruber.

The three were responsible for the creation of MOB-art, in Gruber’s words ‘a celebration of enjoyment and invention’. The approach, enjoying tonal music but pushing boundaries and frequently encroaching on jazz and musical genres, was explored here by Gruber with good friends and long-time musical collaborators, trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger and Swedish composer Tobias Bröstrom.

As well as being a composer of some repute Gruber is an excellent conductor and vocalist into the bargain, and with Hardenberger he brought Weill’s music fair off the page, not to mention the words of his collaborators, Brecht and Ira Gershwin.

The concert began with Broström and a celebration of space travel, Sputnik. This completed one bumpy orbit of the Cadogan Hall, a lively and enjoyably syncopated curtain raiser. After this Jan Lundgren’s The Seagull was a mournful companion, beautifully observed by the muted trumpet.


Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Neither principal performer could stay quiet for long however, and we swiftly moved to the music of Weill. This was in the form of an attractive selection that showed not just the importance of the trumpet in the composer’s work, but also his chemistry with the acerbic wit and poignant observations in the text of Bertolt Brecht. These were given out by Hardenberger himself, revealing unexpected gifts for vocalising in Song of the Insufficiency of Human Behaviour, but also HK Gruber, surely without parallel in this music. There was a glint in his eye as he characterised the selections from The Threepenny Opera, One Touch of Venus, Happy End and Where Do We Go From Here?

They were superbly accompanied by accordionist Claudia Buder and Mats Bergström on guitar and banjo, both stylish players, while pianist Helen Crayford enjoyed the colourful harmonies and spiky rhythms. The string players of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields supplied extra body and impetus, clearly enjoying themselves.

After the Weill came two movements from Schwertsik’s suite Adieu Satie. The first of these was a lovely piece of expanded pastiche in the form of a Gymnopédie, led by Buder and supplemented by the strings, before the irreverent Clownerie acrobatique took enjoyable liberties with syncopations and melodic figures.

This led us to Gruber’s flagship work, the 3 MOB Pieces, where chamber ensemble and drum kit team up neatly with humour and touching asides. Composer Broström was now required to play drums, and did so with aplomb.

Finally all the performers were united for Broström’s mischievous but rather brilliant arrangement of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no.6, which called on Hardenberger to play at dizzying speed – and found him unexpectedly overshooting his final note. If anything this added to the enjoyment, for it was an occasion where spirit and humour were to the fore, with the distinctive colours of accordion, banjo and piano adding to the already ebullient strings.

The BBC Proms have delivered several imaginative chamber concerts this year, and this one was an excellent introduction to the music and world of HK Gruber ahead of a performance of Busking in Prom 34, where Buder, Bergström, Hardenberger and Gruber will once again join forces.

Ben Hogwood

Proms premiere – HK Gruber: into the open…

hk gruber

HK Gruber photo by Jon Super

Colin Currie (percussion), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds (Prom 5)

Duration: 28 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

The Gruber starts at 3:46 on the programme, with commentary beforehand

What’s the story behind the piece?

In an interview with Arcana, Colin Currie revealed the piece to be a memorial to David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. Drew became known principally for his work revitalising the output and reputation of the composer Kurt Weill. In his obituary of the director, composer Alexander Goehr wrote for the Guardian how “he prepared scores, travelled Europe and America promoting the works, was instrumental in forming the Weill Foundation (1973) and not only changed, if not created, the public perception of the composer, but contributed to a sea-change in the development of composition in the second half of the 20th century.”

These works included Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). Weill is a composer close to HK Gruber’s heart – and Gruber became an established composer on the Boosey roster.

Currie told Arcana about how, “The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.”

The Radio 3 broadcast talks of how the performance parts ‘verge on the impossible’ – and not just for the soloist!

Did you know?

Gruber sang with the Vienna Boys’ Choir as a child – and went on to play double bass in the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Initial verdict

The immediate reaction to this piece is that it will need more than two hearings to fully come to terms with the music within! It is a substantial piece of work, a work of many colours – using the multitude of percussion to the limits of its potential.

A cold emptiness is immediately evident at the beginning, the marimbas in prominence early on, as the size of the structure becomes clear. This is a slow building piece, in keeping with Gruber’s concept of it as a procession – and there are a few signposts that became clear on the first hearing.

At 8’40” in the program link there is a notable change as softly oscillating woodwind offer some consolation, then the brass have more thoughts about 11’32”, the orchestra gathering itself for a powerful onslaught towards the end of the piece – but the end is quiet.

To be honest I did rather lose the thread of the piece from halfway but I suspect that is a ‘listener fault’ rather than anything Gruber has done! Hence the need for more than one further listen.

It should be pointed out the performance standard seems to be incredibly high, despite what Currie was saying about the difficulty!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

A good next port of call is BBC Radio 3 program CD Review, who explore recordings of Gruber’s music here – which gives you the ideal opportunity to hear snapshots of his music along with the thoughts of others.

Proms Interview: Colin Currie – Into the open

colin-currieColin Currie. Photo: Marco Borggreve

It is not an exaggeration to say that Colin Currie is one of the most exciting classical musicians at work today. The percussionist has been instrumental in securing a number of vital commissions from leading composers – Steve Reich, Elliott Carter and Rautavaara among them. Now he returns to HK Gruber for a second percussion concerto, into the open…, which he will give at Prom 5 with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and John Storgårds.

The piece is dedicated to the memory of David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. In a chat with Arcana Colin took us through the piece itself, the instruments he uses and how Gruber’s music responds to bereavement.

Do you remember your first encounter with the Proms?

Yes – I think I played before I attended! It was in 1993, with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. I was playing timpani, and we played Holst’s The Planets, and a new violin concerto by Thomas Wilson. It was a typical Proms programme.

What was your first Prom as a soloist?

I gave the premiere of Ruby by Joe Duddell in 2003. By then I had attended many Proms as a student. I would stay down in London over the summer and Prom ‘binge’, and from around 1995 I went to dozens of Proms, usually as a Prommer. I think it’s the best way to experience the festival, and the best way for me is to stand towards the back of the arena. The gallery also gives a really nice perspective.

It is amazing to play in the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, it is a huge hall and a wonderful audience. There were people packed around the orchestra in this concert, and it was wonderful.

You’ve worked with HK Gruber for nearly 15 years now. How do you think his music has changed and / or developed in that time?

He is always going through different stages of density in his music. At certain points his writing has become incredibly dense, and at other times he has the confidence to let things thin out, to use his charm and charisma. His qualities become transparent that way. He is developing often in a most challenging way, always looking for new angles and takes. His is an extremely creative and inquisitive mind, and he does things with a childlike wonder. An interesting comparison to showcase is the first percussion concerto, Rough Music, but I think this one is a better one. Rough Music is a wonderful piece, but this shows how things have moved on. It is more challenging for the soloist and for the orchestra, and it is highly intensified, more extreme, more daring and audacious!

The impression HK Gruber gives is that he has a keen sense of humour.

He does have a wicked sense of humour, that’s all true, but he is also extremely serious about his music, and it is done with lightness and enjoyment. It’s all about music and high art, nothing else matters, and he is incredibly passionate about it. If you don’t want to listen it is beyond him, and that’s why music is so strong for him.

You must have built up quite a set of memories of collaborations with composers.

Definitely. These composers I have got to know and I treasure those experiences, they are fascinating to me. I have come to relate strongly to their endeavours and the challenges they face. They are extremely strong characters, and not always easy, but it is an amazing sweep of personalities that I have been lucky enough to work with. I try to be a facilitator, and I will put them way ahead of anything that might be bugging me. I will put their music over and above their egos, and I try to put mine last!

into the open… is scored for a variety of percussion instruments. Can I get you to explain these ones?

Cencerros: “they are tuned cow bells”

Plate bells (or bell plates) “They sound like large church bells. There are three of them in this piece, and they are deep and resonant. None of the instruments are especially unusual, but the combinations Gruber uses are unusual. The plate bells are used with the marimba, gongs and temple blocks. It is a monstrous percussive machine! There are also six timpani with tom toms, snare and bongos – a grand total of 22 drums!”

Cajón (pronounced ca-hon) – “A box you sit on and play with your hands. It is used in Latin music.”

African balafon – “essentially a xylophone”

Did you know David Drew at all?

I did meet him briefly, but only meeting him once I was completely inspired by him. He was eccentric, and without being disrespectful it is fair to say he was crazy about music. I met him not long before he died, when I gave a concert in 2009. It was a concerto by Kurt Schwertsik, a Boosey & Hawkes composer, who is Austrian and a good friend of Gruber. Drew signed them in the 1980s I believe, and he was so passionate, jumping up and down like a child as he was energised by Mozart, Stravinsky and Schwertsik. I’ll be doing my best to do him proud in the performance.

(click here to watch an introduction to Schwertsik’s Marimba Concerto from the Scottish Ensemble

How does into the open… remember David Drew?

The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.

You have worked with John Storgårds on new percussion works previously. Do you find him particularly understanding to your requirements?

He is the best! He has a wonderful way of working with soloists, and he has been a vast presence in maintaining concerto-level performances. Nothing is ever too complicated, and nothing gets between him and the music. He always get the simplest approach, and gives us soloists confidence while also keeping us calm. He and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are fantastic, I could not be happier with them.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

I am going to Vienna, which is a big deal as I am playing at Wien Modern, a festival I have revered from afar. I am playing the Gruber with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and it will be wonderful as it is my debut there.

I have some concerts further away but I am giving the premiere of a Percussion Concerto by Andrew Norman called Switch next season. That will be with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, they are celebrating their 75th anniversary in Cadogan Hall.

Are you continuing to work with Steve Reich?

Absolutely, the group is very busy touring away. Next season we will play the Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal Festival Hall, and will play the Quartet that he wrote for us. We are also very busy with upcoming projects and playing in Japan, and all around music. There is a great spirit for collective music, we have a lot of fun playing it. The Southbank performance will be part of my role as Artist in Association there, and after the Metal Wood Skin festival we have some wonderful plans in the pipeline!

Colin Currie performs into the open… with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds at the BBC Proms on Monday 20 July, in a concert that includes Haydn’s Symphony no.85 and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

You can get more information about his disc of Gruber’s first Percussion concerto, Rough Music, by clicking here.

Finally an obituary and appreciation of David Drew from the composer Alexander Goehr can be read on the Guardian website