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.

BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try

bbc-proms-2015

BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try

It’s nearly time for the BBC Proms. The world’s biggest classical music festival – which seems to get bigger every year – starts this coming Friday at the Royal Albert Hall.

With so much to choose from Arcana has taken on the task of choosing ten Proms to attend, watch or listen to – which you can read about and preview below. The idea is to mix up a few obvious recommendations and a wildcard or two.

The Arcana coverage of the Proms is going to be a little bit different from your average review site. For a start any Prom reviewed in person will be experienced from the Arena rather than from a seat. This is for two reasons – the Arena has arguably the best acoustic in the notoriously tricky hall, and it’s also the place where the biggest cross section of musical public brush shoulders.

This year in its Proms coverage Arcana will also be focusing on new music, offering an appraisal of each premiere at the festival. This is a surprisingly demanding task, because there are 32 new pieces from the likes of Eric Whitacre, Hugh Wood and even a newly discovered work by Olivier Messiaen. An early interview on Arcana will feature percussionist Colin Currie talking about the new concerto into the open…, written for him by HK Gruber. So here we are then – ten Proms and tasters for you, however you intend to experience them. Happy Promming!

18 July: Ten Pieces Prom (Prom 2 – repeated on 19/7 at 11:00am) (TV)

Ten Pieces is the BBC’s initiative to get classical music into schools – but of course the learning need not stop there! This prom, presented by Dick and Dom, Molly Rainford and Dan Starkey, is comprised of all ten pieces, from John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine through to the end of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. Here’s a link to a preview of all ten pieces:

http://bbc.in/1HIJOLe

20 July: Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium (Proms Chamber Music 1)

Once again Proms Chamber Music will visit the Cadogan Hall every Monday lunchtime – but to begin with The Cardinall’s Musick will perform sacred music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad – a world premiere – and the jawdropping Spem in alium of Thomas Tallis, a 40-part choral piece that simply has to be heard. Here is the Tallis Scholars’ conductor Peter Phillips discussing the work:

 

28 July: Prokofiev – Piano concertos 1-5 (Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan and Alexei Volodin, London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (Prom 14)

Not one for the faint hearted, this! Prokofiev wrote for the piano both as a percussion instrument and a lyrical one, so some of his works feature stabbing but often jaunty tunes. The Piano Concerto no.2 is particularly epic:

 

3 August: MacMillan – Symphony no.4; Mahler – Symphony no.5 (Prom 24)

The world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s Symphony no.4. Donald Runnicles will also conduct the underrated BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no.5, which promises to bring new life to the old warhorse:

 

4 August: Monteverdi – Orfeo (Prom 25)

Described as ‘the first great opera’, Orfeo will be sung in Italian and conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who will, to quote the BBC Proms website, ‘transform the Royal Albert Hall into the 17th-century Mantuan court of the Gonzagas with some of Monteverdi’s loveliest melodies and most colourful instrumental writing’. Here’s what we have to look forward to:

 

5 August: Late Night with 6Music (Prom 27)

Following the successful 6Music night two years back, the station returns – this time with Mary Anne Hobbs at the helm to explore new music from two composers on the Erased Tapes label who write with classical music in mind. These are Nils Frahm

…and the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen:

 

17 August: Osmö Vänska conducts Sibelius – Symphonies 5, 6 & 7 (Prom 43)

An obvious recommendation perhaps, but if you wanted to see a Sibelius concert and had a choice of conductor, Osmö Vänska would surely be it. His interpretations of the composer are both incredibly detailed and deeply passionate, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will no doubt fall under his spell for three of the composer’s symphonic masterpieces:

 

19 August: Elisabeth Leonskaja plays Mozart (Prom 45)

Elisabeth Leonskaja is quite simply one of the best pianists in the world today – and in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.22 her performance should be sublime. Charles Dutoit and the RPO will no doubt prove sensitive accompanists – but in Debussy (the Petite Suite) and Shostakovich (Symphony no.15) they should also be rather special. Here is Leonskaja in solo Mozart:

 

9 September: Nielsen and Ives (Prom 72)

This intriguing night of music takes two wildly different forces from twentieth century music – anniversary composer Carl Nielsen, born 150 years ago, and the maverick Charles Ives, gradually revealed as one of the most influential composers of modern times. The former is represented by the impressive Violin Concerto, which will be played by the extravert violinist Henning Kraggerud. The latter by Symphony no.4, which really is best experienced in person. It contains a number of hymns, performed by a choir beforehand. Andrew Litton will be the guiding hand.

 

11 September: Elgar – Dream of Gerontius with Sir Simon Rattle (Prom 75)

Sir Simon Rattle returns for a second night at this year’s festival, leading the Vienna Philharmonic and a starry trio of soloists in Elgar’s magnificent choral work, with Toby Spence, Roderick Williams and wife Magdalena Kožená. Here’s an excerpt from the Berlin Philharmonic: