Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Sam Hogwood on Verdi’s Requiem

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
sammi-2This is the final installment of this year’s 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, it felt right to bring the editor’s wife along! So Samantha Hogwood (above) gives her thoughts on Prom 74.

Soloists, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Marin Alsop

Verdi Requiem (1874)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Mrs Hogwood, what was your musical upbringing?

Well a lot of it was from my father, who’s now a silver fox…and we were brought up on things like Pink Floyd, Queen and Fleetwood Mac, and lots of blues and jazz – though no specific names jump out at me. He used to play things like Rick Wakeman, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene – all that kind of stuff – and all sorts of what might be considered wacky music! There was one particular album – Rick Wakeman I think – where it was like a battle. King Arthur I think it was, and there was a cover where there was a horse being stabbed, I remember lying on the floor behind the sofa with my dad’s headphones on, imagining what it was like to do battle, and feeling sad that so many horses must have died. I was completely knocked out by things like that.

king-arthur

The cover of Rick Wakeman‘s King Arthur

There are so many amazing bands, but things that stick in your mind…and music I used to hear when sharing a flat with my dear friends Kate and Jan. I think of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, Judy Tzuke, then bands like Hawkwind, The Clash and loads more. Listening to Abba with my dear friend Anne as well. I used to hate the Sex Pistols though because they used to gob on everyone! I love Orb-type stuff, the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, and Underworld had a massive influence on me when I moved down to London. I used to listen to loads of music then, in my room.

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

Well we’ve seen the Super Furry Animals together a lot, and I love them so much because they’re wacky, original and colourful:

I used to love David Lee Roth, and had a poster of him over my bed. It wasn’t that I fancied him necessarily – well, I did! – but it was the cockiness he portrayed, the glint in his eye, the kind of music he sang and the humour as well – like the song Just A Gigolo, with his band mates onstage – a bit like Magic Mike. I went to three or four concerts on my own to see him!

I would say Joni Mitchell too, because every time I hear her voice she takes me to a place that I completely identify with, whether it’s Big Yellow Taxi, Blue or Heartbreak – stuff that you’ve done that you know you can’t get back, you have to accept it. It’s joyous but heartbreaking too, and every time I hear her I just want to melt. I know all the words, all the nuances, and all the notes, and I love her songwriting.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

Well quite a lot from the beginning, because my mum and dad used to listen to stuff like Strauss – the music to 2001 – or Holst‘s The Planets­ – but there was a whole lot more. Apparently I kicked off about learning classical guitar, so they took me to do that, and I got to grade 8. Mum and Dad do like to regale the fact that I was so frustrated with practising that I once bit my guitar! There were chew marks around it! That’s basically what they will remember. I did very well in exams but I used to bite my guitar a lot and was locked in my room and made to practise. I gave it to a woman in London.

Then I met you – my husband now! – and we realised we had a lot in common. You would suggest stuff to go and see. We talk about music a lot, and I used to regale the music I listened to – and still do now. After a period of time I went to the Proms with you, but I haven’t been very often. I love listening to classical music, and we’ve been to see Holst’s The Planets and Britten’s War Requiem, which was incredible but more depressing – but the voices lifted you up. I’m really lucky to have seen that, but I do find it difficult to sit still while I’m listening for a long period of time at concerts, where I would like to move around. If I was watching a film it would be different.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

It was mind blowing. It made my hair stand on end, as soon as I heard the orchestra and the singers I was blown away. There was one particular part that they use a lot in the X-factor, that we’re all familiar with – which is really annoying – but I loved it. It was colourful and beautiful. There were dips on occasion when the soloists were singing, which is what seems to happen, but I would say I was really listening to it, and at times I was closing my eyes and feeling the music.

I absolutely loved it, but I’ve been to a few concerts with you and so I guess you knew I would like it! I’m very good at switching myself off and on again from the day, because you can’t go somewhere in a bad mood and enjoy a concert, so I find you do have to do that sometimes.

I haven’t been to the Proms as often as you have but I think it is an amazing cultural institution that has been going for so long. I think they have been good at introducing new things, and having the tickets where you can stand is really good. I definitely think they could do more to introduce classical music to the greater public though, because I know for a fact those who have heard it on advertisements or TV have no idea where it’s come from, or the context, and they would love to go and see it. They could do more to introduce the more general classical music to encourage people.

That’s where I think your website could be the most amazing thing. Nobody makes enough of an effort to introduce people to new kinds of classical music. We’ve got loads of friends who love the classical music we’ve played at parties, from 1 o’clock in the afternoon, people who have loved it but don’t know an awful lot about it. It would be amazing if we could encourage more people like that along to the Proms to experience the environment, because tonight was absolutely gorgeous and amazing!

Would you go again?

Definitely. I loved it!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

A New World in old clothes

A New World in old clothes – The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Adam Fischer, bring new life to Dvořák’s New World symphony, with Brahms’ Violin Concerto from Viktoria Mullova

oae
Viktoria Mullova (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Adam Fischer – The Anvil, Basingstoke, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0535tzx

on the iPlayer until 28 March

Spotify

For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link to the same program – with Viktoria Mullova’s recording of the Brahms included.

What’s the music?

Smetana: The Bartered Bride Overture (1865) (7 minutes)

Brahms: Violin Concerto (1878) (39 minutes)

Dvořák: Symphony no.9 (From the New World) (1893) (45 minutes)

What about the music?

dvorakThe composer Antonin Dvořák

This is a ‘period instrument performance’ – that is, played on instruments either from the time the music was written or before – and performed in a style audiences of the day might have witnessed. It is relatively rare for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to venture this far forward in time, for their instruments tend to be more geared towards the performance of music between 1700 and 1850.

They begin with a popular overture, a crowd pleaser – the curtain raiser for Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride. The work is something of a Czech institution, full of Smetana’s interpretations of Czech dances such as the polka and furiant. As BBC Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley says, Smetana became ‘the father of Czech nationalism’ through his patriotic and uplifting set of works for orchestra, Ma vlast (My Country), completed in 1879.

Dvořák was a Czech composer, but the action in the New World symphony takes place far from home. Always one to fill his music with good tunes, the composer turned to American heritage for a lot of his source material, declaring in the New York Herald that “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music“. Dvořák was homesick at the time, and the melancholy tinge to some of his tunes reflects that.

The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and given its first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1893, and has been extremely popular ever since. In recent years themes from it have frequently been heard on TV, most famously when the tune of the second movement Largo was used in a Hovis advert.

In between these Bohemian classics is music by Brahms, his Violin Concerto – which, at the time of composition, was one of the biggest such works around. It was written for the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a composer himself – and he had considerable input into the piece, having also commissioned a concerto from Dvořák. When receiving the parts for the first time Joachim remarked on the symphonic design of the concerto, and on how difficult it was to play – even for him!

The first movement is a big unit in itself, lasting longer than the second and third put together but gripping the listener as a closely fought dialogue between violin and orchestra, both seemingly on equal terms. The third movement finale is based on a gypsy tune, and caught the eye of Paul Thomas Anderson, who chose it for the closing credits of his film There Will Be Blood.

Performance verdict

Having emphatically blown away the cobwebs with a vigorous account of the Smetana overture, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment get their teeth into Brahms.

The Violin Concerto benefits from their slightly smaller numbers, and thanks to Fischer’s conducting we can really hear all the inner workings of the orchestral introduction. The pace is relatively slow at this point, but picks up when the violin enters. Mullova’s tone is lovely, though just occasionally in the first movement she is a little ‘under’ the note of the orchestra – which, given the performance is on period instruments, could even be due to the heat in the venue.

The rustic finale has plenty of swagger, enthusiastically led by Mullova, while the slow movement – which seems to go quickly here – is beautifully rendered.

For the Dvořák the lean textures of the orchestra bring out the beauty of his melodies, and also the strong sense of longing the composer felt from New York for his home. The spiritual melodies help him to express this, but Fischer also keeps the spirit of dance to the fore.

What should I listen out for?

Smetana

2:24 – a brisk and breezy introduction from the orchestra. Soon the violins take up a rushing theme, as do the violas (3:08) and then the cellos and basses. As with much of Smetana’s fast music he generates terrific energy.

Later there is a gentler passage for the woodwind, with a more ‘reedy’ sound than a modern symphony orchestra would provide. This is rudely interrupted by the drums.

The music dips and then comes back with a terrific crescendo, where it feels like the players are standing on tiptoe.

Brahms

12:08 – a smooth, ‘legato’ start to the first movement, marked Allegro non troppo (fast but not too fast). This is the beginning of a long orchestral introduction. It is a long time before we hear the violin

14:22 – a sudden injection of power from the strings, a moment of real drama in this music that prepares the way for the entry of the violin 20 seconds later.

20:08 – the violin now takes up the energetic music the strings had earlier, and this is taken up by the full orchestra. There follows a lovely unison melody at 21:27.

24:25 – the culmination of the movement, violin soaring above the orchestra.

27:45 – deep unease in the violin part as Brahms writes some very uncertain double stopping for the instrument, with mysterious lower strings, until the injection of power happens again at 28:02. This leads through to…

29:13 – the start of the cadenza, a showy section for violin alone. This is a pivotal part in any performance of the Brahms, as a large number of cadenzas from different composers are available – or the soloist can perform their own. I suspect this one is by Joseph Joachim. The orchestra return at 32:07 and the mood has changed to one of calm reflection – which builds to an affirmative finish at 33:40 – at over twenty minutes, a first movement of impressive size!

34:50 – the start of the slow second movement, marked Adagio (slow). Soothing horns and woodwind set a scene of calm. If the music ever sounds out of tune, this is because the brass have a ‘temperament’ that can be slightly out of kilter on certain notes. If anything it makes the music more authentic! The violin comes in at 36:49 with a sweetly toned melody.

42:34 – a wonderful gypsy tune to begin the finale, which sounds full of the open air. This performance brings out the dance, and Mullova takes the lead effortlessly. Lovely woodwind trills at 43:11 too. The catchy tune appears on a number of occasions, structured by Brahms as a ‘Rondo’, running through to the end at 50:30.

Dvořák

1:16:19 – a solemn introduction on lower strings, then woodwind, before the full orchestra interrupt suddenly. Gradually the tension builds before a statement of the main theme of this movement from the horn (1:18:08)

1:18:38 – full brass on the theme, then the texture drops to 1:19:09 and a dance-like melody.

1:20:17 – another tune from the flute, slightly mournful this time, but then given more power by the brass (1:20:44), at which point the horn returns to the tune from the opening.

1:25:19 – the recap of the symphony’s themes so far begins with the horn once again, then the introverted flute tune (1:26:01), then moving seamlessly to the slighty mournful flute tune (1:27:01) – again heard with much greater power a few moments later. There is then a tautly argued close.

1:29:26 – the famous second movement Largo begins, with its homesick melody first heard on the cor anglais at 1:30:07. This is wonderfully controlled by the OAE’s Gonzalo X. Ruiz.

1:32:09 – a more involved section starts with the strings gradually moving the music on by way of a variation on the main theme. Beautifully hushed in this performance. Then the cor anglais returns at 1:33:01.

1:34:02 – the music switches key from major to minor and a darker shadow emerges, but at 1:37:10 this is emphatically put to rights by the woodwind – and then we hear a reference to the first movement in the loudest part of the Largo.

1:38:03 – the tune returns, again on the cor anglais – and then we get the solemn music of the brass introduction, now closing a rather special reverie.

1:41:48 – the third movement (a Scherzo) begins, with spiky fragments from flute and clarinet, taken up by the violins at 1:42:17 and debated by the whole orchestra. This section is repeated.

1:43:23 – another winsome melody from Dvorak, begun by the woodwinds, before the music works its way back round to the mood of the opening.

1:44:46 – this symphony has its mysterious moments, and here is another from the cellos and basses – before yet another catchy melody begins in the woodwinds at 1:45:07. This works around to another statement of the main tune (1:47:10). The orchestral sound is still wide open, as though standing on the prairie. We hear all the tunes again, then the horn brings in another reference from the symphony’s first movement at 1:49:08.

1:49:53 – a terrific sense of expectation with the introduction to the final movement here, justified by the theme that appears on the brass at 1:50:10. This is music of great resilience. Then at 1:51:05 an equally thrilling and persuasive dance tune appears. Yet another big and resilient tune appears at 1:52:31.

1:55:31 – at this point Dvorak brings back the main theme from the symphony’s first movement, now in defiant guise, with extra input from the brass. This theme effectively ‘resets’ the symphony, the feeling now of greater resolution – even when Dvorak skilfully combines two themes at 1:58:35 and we hear some pretty discordant music. The music subsides until…

1:59:57 – the coda of the symphony, with a solemn utterance of its first theme, then proclaimed by the orchestra to an ultimately winning finish over rolling timpani, ending at 2:01:10.

Want to hear more?

How about some dances? All three composers wrote dances for orchestra, so here is a playlist combining two other dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, some Hungarian Dances by Brahms and finally some of Dvořák’s winsome Slavonic Dances with Adam Fischer. As another bonus, dropped into the middle is Dvořák’s own Violin Concerto, written for Joachim and played here by Julia Fischer:

For more concerts click here