Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Michael Hubbard on the CBSO concert of Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series musicOMH editor Michael Hubbard gives his verdict on the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their Prom of French music.

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

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

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

There was always a guitar hanging in the lounge, as my father learnt a bit in the 1960s. He used to play things like Islands In The Sun, and then my mother would say “That’s enough!” and hang it up again. When I was in infant school, like anybody else, recorders became a fixture in my life. I had a descant, a tenor and a treble at various points. I never got round to the bass, only one person had that, maybe because her parents were richer.

In terms of the music I used to listen to, that was something else entirely. My mother was deaf, but she could somehow pick out some music more than others. She passed some of that on to me, and some of that was the opera side – especially Puccini – but there was music from King Sunny Adé through to Tina Turner, too. My father’s music taste could be discerned a little from what he used to play on guitar. When I was a little older I was able to go through his music and play some of it, from Johnny Cash to Abba. I know my mother’s teenage fixation was Elvis Presley. So although I had no formal music knowledge before I started learning an instrument, there was I suppose a lot of music around – but I had to look for it.

When were you first aware of classical music?

I was doing things in school, music class – and starting to pick up names like Purcell. When I started flute lessons at the age of 11, more of those composers became names to me, but up until then it was essentially things I heard on the radio. I had very little knowledge at that time.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I could probably name about 300 and they’d change every time I tried to answer… so this will be the first three that come to mind.

Jean-Michel Jarre was a massive hero of my early teens. He is probably the main reason why the first musical instrument I was really interested in was the synth. I was self taught; when my grandmother died she said in her will, ‘he must have a keyboard’, and my mother stuck to that. She brought me the keyboard I wanted, a Yamaha PSS-680, with its mini keys. I went on to Korgs and Rolands after that, and eventually had a couple of years of piano lessons, which supplemented the flute tuition I’d been persevering with. Knowing my way round a synth – and covering Jarre tracks with it – opened the door to composition, and before long I’d written some rudimentary pieces. I could never have done that with just a flute, on my own – the synth allowed me to play everything. Like Jarre. His enormous Fairlights were of course a world away from my Yamaha, but here was a doorway through which I wished to step.

There was also a sense of drama in what Jarre was doing, it was like ‘I’m taking over Docklands for a concert’, or ‘I’m taking over a space shuttle launch site’. I loved that, that everything stopped because music was that important. The very idea he was putting out there was ‘I AM – LOOK’. The idea that drama could be a thing that is art – something you could express from yourself as opposed to someone scripting it for you, it could be you creating it, and you could take over the whole district of a city with your lights and your sound – was amazing to me. I had videos of the Docklands concert and Rendezvous Houston. I think they helped me become aware that hiding in the corner in the hope of never being seen was a life strategy that I’d already taken too far.

Another very big influence on my life was Erasure. Vince Clarke was composing on guitar but transferring his ideas across to synth. I think I’d pigeonholed synths and guitars in different worlds until I understood his process. You composed on one or the other, and that instrument of composition would then define your music and your artistic statement. Nonsense, of course. 1984 was for me a pivotal year as I discovered the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 and its visual highlights on Top Of The Pops. The charts were, it quickly became apparent, full of gays – as well as (half of) Erasure, there was Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, and especially Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the list went on.

Through them and their conduit, the BBC, I became aware of a larger world. Andy Bell could appear in gold lamé hotpants to sing Sometimes on prime-time BBC1 and millions of our countrymen – not least my parents – would watch. I began to realise that we probably reacted differently to this performance. With my age still in single figures, the lyrical meaning of Frankie‘s Relax, I confess, passed me by – but Erasure’s songs, beginning with the chorus of Sometimes, had me analysing and reanalysing all sorts of assumptions. It marked at least the beginning of an awakening.

I’d already bought my first album on cassette tape, but my first CD album was for someone of my age not an obvious choice – Delirium by Capercaillie. En route to America for the first time, I was in a duty free shop with my father. He’d been concerned I wouldn’t have enough to occupy me on the plane, and took me into a shop and get me an album to listen to. I could choose from whatever was there. I can’t think what caused me to choose Capercaillie – I didn’t then know the band was named after a bird, or anything about their music. I did know they were Scottish, having scanned the sleeve notes, and somehow I’d lasted this long on the planet without owning any music by Scots, despite most of my family hailing from north of the border. Maybe it was a curiosity to hear if we’d have a shared connection.

Delirium merged synth sounds with their Gaelic folk music, and the latter was an otherworldly thing to my ears – I had no idea what those lyrics were about. I listened to the reels and jigs, and I wanted to listen to more of them. By extension from there started to listen more broadly to folk music. Capercaillie’s Delirium is not pure folk, but they are steeped in its traditions, and it opened that world up to me and gave me landmarks to mark the course of exploration.

The Proms does that too. You go along to see something that, as a piece of sheet music written hundreds of years ago, could be stultifying, but actually it’s alive because people are on stage and giving their own interpretations – like tonight’s Prom, with the trombonist in the orchestra in Boléro.

What did you think of the music in tonight’s Prom?

It was my first time ever hearing Boléro live, although like most people I expect I know it very well. It was my first time hearing anything by Debussy live, and had never heard anything by Lili Boulanger. I’ll work back, because I have Boléro in my mind at the moment.

I think it’s a pivotal piece of music. It’s not that exciting because once you’ve heard it you know where it goes, but that’s also true of most trance singles released on Positiva at the turn of the century. It’s a dance music track in embryonic minimalist form, building layers, reshaping loops, falling back. It’s also a pop music track because it’s instantly memorable. And it’s a classical music track because it uses an orchestra – it’s many different things. I want to know how it affects the broader world beyond classical, not if it was too fast or too slow, or which genre it neatly fits into. It’s probably not Ravel’s best in his own mind, but it’s certainly his big crossover hit from beyond the grave.

With Debussy I found myself not focusing on the musicians, but drifting. Not that it was bad, but I think that’s what it was about. I started thinking of other images the music was putting in my mind, in a way that Boléro didn’t. The first piece (the Prélude à L’apres-midi d’un faune) I thought was better at doing that than the Nocturnes. It was a nice warm-up, and I could see why it was first. Nobody stood out, it was a piece that brought everybody together. There was one thing happening organically. I couldn’t sing you a note of it now, but it engendered thoughts of other things.

With the Boulanger I found it very quiet, despite everything on stage – which felt like a choice that the performers had decided to restrain things. I thought that was odd.

What was your experience of the arena compared to elsewhere in the Royal Albert Hall?

For the Debussy I think I would rather have been sat down, but not for Boléro. It was odd to be standing up for classical, I would have expected to sit down and would rather do that I think.

Verdict: A qualified SUCCESS, even more so with seats!