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!

Prom 44 – CBSO Choruses & Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot – Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

Prom 44 Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (above)

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

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo of CBSO (c) Upstream Photography

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

One of the BBC Proms’ most valuable undertakings this season is the music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Her biggest choral work, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) was the centrepiece of this enchanting concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot.

For once the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was ideally suited to the instrumentation of a piece, especially with the amount of detail lit up by this particular interpretation. Beginning with organ and lower strings that seemed to be positioned somewhere underground near the loading bay, the piece grew assuredly in stature and emotion, finding the nub of its text. The assembled throng of the CBSO Chorus sang as one, shaping Boulanger’s phrases beautifully while enjoying the harmonic twists and turns that give this piece – completed a year before its composer’s death – a distinctively modern turn.

Boulanger (above) was a friend of Debussy but had a tragically short-lived existence, dying from complications of illness at the age of 24. In that brief time she had already served notice as a composer of considerable invention, deep emotion and the ability to extend colour, harmony and melody in particular. All these things were on show in Psalm 130, the performance notable for its exquisite brush strokes.

The only problem was a difficulty in following the text itself from the arena. Although the right notes were undoubtedly there from the chorus, and mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė was full of tone in her solo passages, the words themselves were difficult to grasp above the texture. Some of the blame for this could go to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic itself – and it certainly wasn’t at the expense of a quite wonderful piece that should occupy a much firmer place in the repertoire.

For the rest of the programme Morlot and his charges gave us popular Debussy and Ravel, beginning in the heat haze of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and ending with the minimalist Boléro. These pieces were fascinating to contrast, from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s languorous flute solo that led off the Debussy – beautifully played – to the insistent, temple-knocking side drum of Adrian Spillett in the ubiquitous Boléro. Morlot paced both to perfection, giving us a chance in the Ravel to indulge in Matthew Knight’s trombone solo but also bringing out the Spanish rhythms and colour that make the piece a riot. He brought percussion section leader Spillett to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call at the end.

Before Boléro we were treated to the exquisite Nocturnes of Debussy – which would have been even more exquisite were it not for a barrage of coughing around the hall. Still, that did not completely harm a sensuously shaded account of Nuages (Clouds), the first Nocturne, whose softly oscillating chords left their understated mark, before the second and much quicker Fêtes (Festivals) ran lightly on its feet. The central procession episode of this pictorial movement was brilliantly paced by Morlot, with a hallucinogenic effect achieved through to muted trumpets, distant horns and wide open string textures.

While these two movements were special the concluding Sirènes (Sirens) was bewitching, fusing women’s voices and orchestra in an innovative combination that predates Holst’s The Planets by some 20 years. The CBSO Youth Choir were superb here, singing as one and hitting the high notes without fear – and without compromising the colour Debussy so clearly strives for. Morlot portrayed the vast, wide open scope of the sea – but also seemed to be looking beyond, casting his gaze far into space. This worked extremely well in the Royal Albert Hall, though perhaps quelling the coughers at the end was an even greater achievement!

This was an inspirational Prom, giving us familiar classics and the relatively unknown, boosting the profile of Lili Boulanger while reasserting the claims of Debussy and Ravel to be masters of their field. French classical music at its finest.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

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

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!