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

Prom 31 – Inon Barnatan, Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä – Homage 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

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

One of music’s greatest properties is making its listeners happy – and judging by the audience for the Minnesota Orchestra prom, wreathed in smiles as they left the Royal Albert Hall, this was an objective handsomely achieved by the orchestra and its music director Osmo Vänskä.

Making their first BBC Proms appearance since 2010, they had programmed a concert in honour of Leonard Bernstein the conductor, rather than the composer – but that still meant we got a chance to hear one of his most popular concert showstoppers, the Candide Overture. As a collection of catchy tunes and toe-tapping dance rhythms it is difficult to beat, and Vänskä conducted a performance light on its feet, affectionate and warm – if lacking a little of its composer’s highest spirits.

The performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto set that to rights. Taking the solo part was Inon Barnatan (above), whose command of the composer’s bluesy melodic style was well-nigh perfect. Gershwin is not thought of as key Vänskä repertoire but he brought to the orchestral passages a level of clarity that brought the streets of 1925 Manhattan into sharp, nocturnal focus. The string sound was exquisite, while the trumpet solo of Manny Laureano in the slow movement was brilliantly affected and played, fully deserving of its cheer at the end.

Barnatan was a box of tricks, at one moment thundering octaves down from on high, while in the other hanging onto the slow notes with great affection, as though unwilling to let them leave. The transparency of Vänskä’s conducting told of the influence Ravel has on some of Gershwin’s writing, but the swagger of the orchestra, leader Erin Keefe practically sitting next to Barnatan in a visual show of unity, was irrepressible. Barnatan gave us a perfectly positioned encore too, Earl Wild’s virtuoso study on I Got Rhythm.

The music of Charles Ives has barely popped its head above the parapet at the Proms, but here was a chance to enjoy a work premiered by Bernstein himself, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1951. It’s fair to say that Vänskä (above) secured a reading with a good deal more sobriety and control than the master might have done, but that’s not to say it was without flair and pure enjoyment.

The Minnesota Orchestra, once again playing with a smile, enjoyed the dense packing together of tunes in the symphony, while the strings dug into the serious first movement, setting out the case of a symphonic argument with impressive gravity. Once again Vänskä ensured they made a beautiful sound, the brass chorales ringing out with great surety, but as the symphony progressed so did the sense of convention edging nearer to the window.

This reaches its height at the climax of the fifth and final movement of course, and like the fast second this was taken at quite a lick, the music careering along as though about to lose its footing. And so it did, the last chord sounding its sharp clashes and some in the audience taken aback by Ives’ unexpected but wholly typical daring. Was it a mistake? Were we heading there all along? Yes and yes – and in that second, as booklet writer Paul Griffiths so aptly put it, ‘’Reveille’ was sounded’.

Yet there was one more surprise. As I write this the Minnesota Orchestra are on their way to South Africa to mark Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday in a series of high profile concerts. They gave a wonderful send-off, an arrangement of the traditional South Africa song Shosholoza, with the players joined in song as well as with their instruments. It was a joyful revelation, upping the spirits still further – and ensuring we will track their movements in South Africa with great interest.

Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!