Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Kulwinder Singh-Rai on the Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
kulwinder-singh-raiThis is the latest in the 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, Kulwinder Singh-Rai (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 64.

Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle

Boulez Éclat (1965); Mahler Symphony no.7 (1904-05)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Kulwinder, what was your musical upbringing?

I listen to a lot of Bhangra music, Punjabi music and hip hop. Being born in the city of Birmingham I would experience a lot of dancehall and bashment music, but always something with a real beat to it. All the genres I’ve mentioned have got a real strong beat to their music. I listen to a lot of music in the car, so would listen to a lot of music with a beat there, and from my phone.

I grew up with what was on the radio, in houses and at parties I went to. Even when I was a student, you would hang around people who liked similar music to you. So I didn’t have much contact with classical music!

Did you have much contact with Indian classical music?

Not then, but recently one of my friends is an Indian classical musician, and I find that music very relaxing and soothing. That is something that I have appreciated, listening to music with silence in it, which is quite a new experience!

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

That’s difficult, as it varies from day to day! It’s what with me at the time, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re groundbreaking. What you have is a snapshot of me now, really – in a month’s time it would be totally different stuff! Currently I would say Diljit Dosanjh, who’s pretty big in Punjabi popular music. From pop music I like Drake, because again it has a really good beat and varies a lot.

I’m trying to think of what I play in the car, although when I’m in the workplace I do play some calmer stuff. (looks at phone) I don’t play any pop music at work, especially when I’m doing reports and need something to calm me down. I just go by what I like rather than the name, and these are quite old recordings. (shows Arcana Glenn Gould plays Mozart). It’s because I need something to keep me steady at work, and I would listen to it on headphones.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

All the famous adverts really. I’ve been to two classical concerts before, and only recently. I think this is the third, but previously I went to see a concert at the Royal Festival Hall – Messiah I think it was, with a choir, and we were really high up. It was uplifting and you were whistling tunes for the next few days at work!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

It was good to see the crowd there, because the only other crowds I really experience are at football matches. It was a similar kind of experience in that sense, though a lot more interesting than the last match I went to! (Kulwinder is a West Bromwich Albion season ticket holder, and the last game he was an interminable goalless draw with Middlesbrough! – ed)

You have some chants and jeering there obviously, but it’s similar – the crowd gathered around, affiliation to the team – and so it was very enjoyable. I was surprised by how mixed the audience was, not all middle class – and the dress sense. The guy next to me could easily have been from a park bench! So it was a lot more accessible than I thought it would be, which was really good.

What did you think of the Boulez?

I must admit I didn’t really get into that. It finished so quickly that I can’t remember much of it. It was early in the concert and I hadn’t really acclimatised to it, and I was expecting more of a build up like you normally get. There wasn’t really time to do that, so I can’t remember a great deal. It could be that the other piece was so intense that it washed away the memory.

And the Mahler?

I thought it was very emotional, which was a good thing. I watch different things like the conductor to keep my attention, but I would say it was very convincing and I was deeply engrossed in it. If I heard it again I would have more thoughts and pictures about the story I think, but it drew you into the music and you could have drawn more into the narrative if there was a more obvious one.

I would say I felt relaxed but alert, if you know what I mean. Calm but the music was quite surprising sometimes – some of what happened in the middle I would expect to happen at the end. Normally I would expect a crash at the end and you would expect them to stop, but here it carried on.

Would you change anything about the experience?

No I don’t think so. It’s very popular, so obviously people are aware of it with the queues to get in. Maybe if they moved it around a bit, more outside of London – bringing it to other cities – it would work! Because it’s my first one I can’t think too much of that but I thought the venue was great, and the audience were great as well – very quiet and paid attention.

Would you go again?

I would definitely go again. Not having been bought up with classical music it’s all new to me, so I’m looking as a child at the different sounds and instruments. Maybe if it was some vocal music I would be more likely to go, but either / or is doable!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

BBC Proms 2016 – Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle: Mahler Symphony no.7

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler‘s Symphony no.7 (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 64; Royal Albert Hall, 2 September 2016

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Mahler is the composer Sir Simon Rattle was born to conduct. That may sound like a grandiose statement, but for four decades now Rattle has been immersed in the composer’s music. Now he is at the top of the musical pile, on the verge of taking over the London Symphony Orchestra job next year, and this Prom was another opportunity to appraise the results of his tenure – not always easy – with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The results were little short of spectacular. To see the Berlin Philharmonic in the flesh is to witness the pinnacle of orchestral playing, especially when the woodwind principals are soloists in their own right – flautist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer and oboist Albrecht Mayer to name but three.

All were integral to a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.7 that will live long in the memory. The work is often regarded as problematic, and sprawling, but in this performance Rattle and his charges brought compelling characterisation to the central movements in particular.

In the right performance the work still sounds remarkably modern given its 1913 composition date, using sonorities composers of today would struggle to create. Mahler writes two Nachtmusik movements, placed two and four in the five-movement structure, and here it felt as though we had stepped unwittingly into a magical garden in the heat of summer.

The night time flying bodies were out in force, realised through music that was at turns macabre, enchanting or just downright weird – allusions to the Habañera could be detected in the second movement. The mandolin and guitar in the fourth movement were odd in the extreme but also gave prime examples of Mahler’s amazing scoring, able to reduce a symphony orchestra of 110 from ear splitting climaxes to near-silent conversation in the blink of an eye.

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Horn player Stefan Dohr was rightly cheered for his contribution to the first Nachtmusik, a recurring folk-like motif that set the outdoor tone beautifully. The first movement was an invigorating Alpine march, with warmer moments when the violins swept into the second main theme, and a colder, steely approach when the march took a greater hold. The scherzo, placed third, had no such let-up, and was a macabre dance into the darker areas of the mind.

This undercurrent followed the music to the end, for although the last movement was largely jubilant, and let timpanist Rainer Seegers off the hook with a riotous opening solo, it frequently looked into the unknown. Nowhere was this more evident than the approach to the end, Rattle making sure the brief but significant pause and harmonic detour was signposted.

Rattle is often accused of micro managing Mahler but here his interventions were both instinctive and stylish, followed to a letter by his superb orchestra. The audience hung on their every note, and although some of Mahler’s phrases and turns of foot are difficult to follow and comprehend, this account was as strong and sweeping as any.

By way of a palette cleanser, Rattle and some of his charges began with the 1965 piece Éclat by Pierre Boulez. This was an exercise in texture and resonance, Boulez using instruments primarily for their reverberant qualities. It was indeed a vibrant set of sounds, but they were occasionally difficult to connect – purely because of the anticipation of the Mahler to follow and the exuberance of the crowd. We were there to see a memorable performance – and Rattle duly delivered. Berlin’s loss will most definitely be London’s gain.

Ben Hogwood

In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle: Dutilleux centenary

sibelius-5Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Julia Bullock (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle, live from The Barbican Hall, Wednesday 13 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the music?

Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (18 minutes)

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) (1983-85) (25 minutes)

Delage – Quatre poèmes hindous (1912) (11 minutes)

Dutilleux – Métaboles (1965)

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2 (1912) (17 minutes)

Broadcast link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2663

About the music

henri-dutilleux

If you are in any way intimated by newer classical music, Henri Dutilleux (above) is an excellent place to start. ‘One of the most aurally sensual programmes you could ever go through’ is how Sir Simon Rattle describes this concert of orchestral works. Doubtless that statement was made with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in mind, and also the music of Henri Dutilleux, the centenary of whose birth falls on 22 January 2016.

Dutilleux continues in a line of French orchestral masters whose music is every bit about the overall sound as it is about the melodies and harmonies within. His mastery of orchestral colour owes a lot to Ravel’s influence, and that of Debussy too – as you will hear in the Violin Concerto L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) and the virtuoso piece for orchestra Métaboles.

The ‘sensual’ description does not apply so readily to Le tombeau de Couperin. The opening Ravel piece is an elegiac suite paying tribute both to his friends who died in World War I and the past generation of French ‘Baroque’ composers, who – Couperin among them – lived and excelled in the 18th century.

Also included are the Quatre poems hindous of Maurice Delage, written just a year after the French composer travelled to India. Delage writes for a much reduced ensemble of just ten instruments to accompany a soprano in four brief but exquisitely realised text responses.

What should I listen out for?

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin

3:23 – an attractive and slightly reflective Prélude where not a note is wasted. Ravel’s writing for the wind instruments is particularly beautiful, the oboe taking much of the lilting tune.

6:54 – the Forlane­, a dance where Ravel sounds like he’s written the wrong notes – but in fact has written tunes spiced with harmonies that are surprisingly catchy. Again the orchestration is exquisite, whether in the held string chords behind the woodwind tune or the little points of percussion and harp that provide punctuation. There are four more sections that include equally likeable tunes, with the main tune coming back between each one – structured carefully as a French Baroque composer would.

13:01 – the softly scored Menuet, a dance that has its bright colourings but is sorrowful at its heart. It turns darker in its quiet, minor key Trio (14:57), where a shiver of cold where the spectre of the War can clearly be felt. This builds to an anguished climax before the Menuet, now a brighter and more relaxed presence, returns.

18:14 – there is a sense of purpose about the Rigaudon, a brisk dance where Ravel is getting on with things again, in the face of the Menuet’s sorrow. It is a fun quickstep, pausing briefly for a slower middle section with oboe (19:31) before the main material returns, broken off quickly and emphatically at the end.

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams)

28:28 – the violin begins this work on its lowest note, and after a thoughtful beginning becomes animated. The orchestral backdrop is beautifully crafted and carefully shaded. The colours are strongly suggestive of a forest, as is the humid atmosphere.

At 30:59 we hear the cimbalom for the first time as part of the orchestral texture. From 33:00 the tempo is faster, and then from 34:44 there is an upward surge to two bell strokes, which bring in the first interlude – and some agitated thoughts from the violin around 36:30. Now the music is energetic, the violin trading musical thoughts with the woodwind, and often using multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once).

Then, with the mute on, the violin disappears into the distance after 39:00. The cimbalom can be heard again – the second interlude – and then the music becomes nocturnal, and it feels as though we are at the heart of both the forest and the work.

From 41:21 we hear the oboe d’amore, part of an important duet, the two instruments close together while the strings and percussion observe from a distance. The colours here, particularly when strings join around 44:00, are especially beautiful. After a bigger passage with full orchestra, the high strings dazzle at 46:05.

Then at 46:37 the violin can be heard tuning – but this is part of the third interlude, Dutilleux not wanting to relax the intensity of the piece. Sure enough the transition to the final section is seamless, the bells prominent again – and an energetic last movement gets into full swing. Then, as the violins hold a high note, a solemn section of chords is heard, bringing in a coda.

At 52:14 a scratchy sound from the violin and cimbalom, then a big, percussive statement from the orchestra brings the piece to an emphatic end.

Delage – Quatre poems Hindous

Texts https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quatre_po%C3%A8mes_hindous

1:21:33 – Madras – a sultry flute sets the forest scene before the soprano comes in half a minute later. The music has sensual twists and turns, aided by the flute and cor anglais.

1:24:08 – Lahore – the keen ear of the composer for new sounds can be clearly felt here, the cello pizzicato and accompaniment seemingly from another world as they depict the ‘lone tree in the north’. This song – the most substantial of the four – ends with an exotic vocalise from the singer (music but no words).

1:29:03 – Bénarès – the cor anglais is prominent in the accompaniment here, and light percussive effects from the harp and strings vividly set the scene. The coming of Buddha on earth is announced by the excited singer.

1:30:39 – Jeypur – the flute is prominent in setting the scene, before the questioning vocal takes over. The instrumentation is relatively rich but again the flute has the final say.

DutilleuxMétaboles

Rattle describes this as the most perfect ‘bonzai’ concerto for orchestra. There are four movements, and each shows the different parts of the orchestra one by one, bringing them together at the end.

1:40:08 – sometimes with a contemporary composer you can tell just from the first chord what they are about. Métaboles is one such example, with a chord of extraordinary colours starting the first section, a fluid tour de force for the wind players. At around 1:43:30 the strings are much more in evidence, a velvety texture used. A high cello solo emerges from the mist.

1:46:38 – a lower clarinet starts off a new section where the music is quicker and lighter, aided by string plucking and carefully placed percussion.

Then with the full orchestra Dutilleux builds up a huge wall of sound to the finish. The audience reaction suggests this piece is well on the way to becoming one of the most popular in recent times.

RavelDaphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2

This is a shorter suite from the ballet, which lasts around an hour.

1:59:28 – surely one of the most wonderful evocations of dawn in all music. Ravel’s wonderfully mysterious tableau starts by murmuring in the lower reaches of the sky until, with calls from flute and oboe, the sun reveals its glorious light at 2:00:26. The rest of the movement continues with a sense of wonder at the new day until a massive climax at 2:04:06, the metallic glint at the very top of the sound courtesy of the triangle.

BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try

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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:

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies

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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051czxp

on the iPlayer until 13 March

Spotify

For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Sir Simon has not recorded this piece with the Berlin Philharmonic, but this is a recording he made with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (track 6):

 

What’s the music?

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(c) Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.7 in C major, Op.105 (1924) (22 minutes)

What about the music?

This symphony is a remarkable piece of work that reveals more and more with each subsequent listen. Initially it can seem too simple in its melodic material or too dense in the sheer amount of ideas, but in fact it is an amazingly self-contained unit, like a single long melody lasting for just over twenty minutes.

Sibelius worked on it at the same time as his Sixth Symphony, hence the reason for Rattle performing the two together without a break – but the recommendation (from here at least!) is to make the most of each piece on separate terms.

In my mind’s eye I often feel as though this piece is a seascape, with the spray almost tangible to the touch. The music is brooding at times, and its complex harmonies can twist the human response, but it is an overwhelmingly positive way in which to finish a symphonic cycle. And how better to finish than with a C major chord, regarded as the purest in all music?

Performance verdict

Rattle’s interpretation of the Seventh would appear to be spot-on tempo-wise, and as is the conductor’s wont it picks apart the structure to highlight all the different themes the composer uses – yet is always moving forward to the next musical ‘signpost’.

In each of the three occurrences of the trombone theme he stresses its heroic quality, and the overall impression of the symphony is a positive, resilient one.

What should I listen out for?

The symphony is in a single section, and though it is possible to break it in to constituent parts, it is so compressed and tightly bound together that is it best to listen to it as a single whole.

1:31:24 – a single timpani roll ushers in an ascending scale on the lower strings. Already the music is noticeably broader than the Sixth Symphony.

1:32:13 – the wind play a relatively distant figure that assumes great importance as the symphony progresses.

1:36:43 – the strings swell to a rousing theme on the trombones, just about rising above the whole orchestra.

1:41:00 – now the music is speeding up, with the strings adopting a similar figure to that found in faster moments of the Sixth Symphony.

1:41:52 – the swirl of the violins gets gradually slower, until 1:42:11, where the trombones return with their tune, now more isolated.

1:43:43 – the quicker theme returns on the woodwind.

1:48:21 – the ascending scale from the opening of the work simmers, but there is a tension between two different speeds before the trombone theme returns at 1:48:40.

1:51:43 – the final section, which ends with what seems the simplest resolution at 1:53:02.

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.7 – if you’re on Spotify – keep listening and you will hear another of Sibelius’s orchestral ‘tone poems’ – that is, an orchestral piece that describes a particular story or event. This one, Nightride and Sunrise, is not so well known, but is a descriptive work that draws on an unknown sequence of events for the composer.

For more concerts click here