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.

Steven Isserlis and friends – Czech chamber music

Fate by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, 1920

Jeremy Denk (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Steven Isserlis (cello), Wigmore Hall, 20 May 2015.

As Steven Isserlis wrote so eloquently in the program notes for this concert, ‘Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?’

This, the first of two parts, revealed a quartet of composers intent on spoiling the listener with a mass of tunes (teacher Dvořák and pupil Suk) or using their music to express the highly charged climate in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (Janáček and, from a distance, Martinů)

Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Lawrence Power planned this concert to perfection, the abundance of tunes placed first and last, with the deeper moments in between.

It is doubtful Suk’s Piano Quartet, the first published piece of a precocious seventeen year old, has ever had a performance like this, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. After a forthright statement of the first tune from the ensemble, a beautiful solo from Isserlis revealed the work’s softer underbelly, which came to the fore in a similarly affecting tune in the slow movement, the cello releasing a beautiful mellow sound.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata wore a permanently furrowed brow. The icy reach of the muted violin in the last of the four brief movements was key to summing up a work that bristles with anger, though redemption was briefly found in the second movement Balada, with a theme of silvery consolation.

The second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů was next. Isserlis has championed these works for more than 25 years, and gave a commanding performance of a moving work. Written in America in 1938, the composer having successfully fled Paris and the Nazis, it is a deeply felt and resilient utterance, especially in the second movement where time stood still.

As far as the tunes were concerned, the best was saved until last. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet no.2 positively bursts with Czech melodies – which are revealed to be surprisingly close in mood and contour to the American tunes he was to use towards the end of his career. Here they were swept along in a wonderful performance of good feeling, played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Denk, whose phrasing was key to the utmost charm of the Scherzo, the tender Adagio and the rustic finale.

Yet this was music for a team of friends to enjoy, the music surging forwards with a positivity rarely experienced to this extent in the concert hall – and happily caught by microphones, hopefully for a future release on Wigmore Hall Live. Those Czechs, they knew a good tune – and these four were the best possible Bohemian Rhapsodists in waiting!

The music from this concert can be heard here on Spotify. Part two of this series is at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23 May, and will include the Dvořák Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio by Smetana.