Prom 1: Spectacular Walton makes for a confident start to the 2015 season

Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture should have been the ideal way to launch the 2015 BBC Proms. In the festival’s 120th year, one would expect that the first concert would begin with a bang. While the actual fireworks came after Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville, the musical fireworks were saved for the end.

Read the full review at Bachtrack.


Birtwistle’s early gems mesmerise at Cadogan Hall

Three early gems by Harrison Birtwistle brought the 2014 Proms Saturday Matinee series to an end. Thanks to some thoughtful curation by Oliver Knussen, the programme featured works which are often overlooked; although the 1995 Last Night of the Proms catapulted Birtwistle into the public eye (thanks to the uproar which greeted Panic), the pieces which most frequently occupy concert halls nowadays date from the mid-1980s onwards. It was refreshing, then, to hear works dating from 1968-71. Already displaying an assured compositional voice, they show evidence of the preoccupations which have been important throughout Birtwistle’s career.

See the rest of the review at Bachtrack.

Captivating Mahler from Alsop and the BBC SO

John Adams and Gustav Mahler might not seem the most obvious bedfellows. Separated by a large temporal gap, the two figures are worlds apart; indeed, the only thing linking the pieces featured in Prom 63 appeared to be orchestral colour. However, it was not a musical connection which tied together the programme, but the ebullient personality of Marin Alsop. Alsop has long been a champion of Adams’ music, and proved herself to be no less impressive in Mahler.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

PCM8: John Dowland Lute Songs – Ian Bostridge with Fretwork and Elizabeth Kenny

In a year holding major anniversaries for Britten, Lutosławski, Verdi and Wagner, this final Proms Chamber Music recital of the season was given over to a celebration of another anniversary-composer. 2013 marks 450 years since the birth of John Dowland, perhaps best known for the melancholic moods of his Lachrimae antiquae and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. This lunchtime concert embraced this aspect of Dowland’s music, combining it with cheerier fare to offer a balanced picture of the composer’s output. Thus, Ian Bostridge and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny joined the viol consort Fretwork to celebrate him.

Read my full review at The Classical Source.

Prom 68: A strong start to the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra’s partnership with Petrenko

Although Vasily Petrenko only gave his first concert as chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra last week, Monday’s Prom heralded this as an exciting new partnership. In a programme built around dreams and fantasy, Petrenko led the orchestra through some fantastic performances, with their Tchaikovsky especially praiseworthy.

Read my review at Bachtrack.

Prom 13: Shepherd, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich from Gergiev/NYO USA

BBC Proms 2013
Perhaps the most memorable Youth Orchestra appearance at the Proms was in 2007, when the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela burst onto the scene. Although the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America certainly rivalled them in the outfit stakes (the orchestra opted for a blazer and tie on top of red jeans and blue trainers covered with white stars), they failed to make the same impression as the Venezuelans.
Last night’s Prom was the final date of the NYO USA’s inaugural tour. Following an intensive two-week training programme, the orchestra plunged straight into a five-date tour taking them from the USA to London via Russia.
The NYO USA’s 2013 season was led by Valery Gergiev, and the orchestra’s programme celebrated this Russian connection. Inspired by Russian overtures, American composer Sean Shepherd’s work Magiya (BBC co-commission with the Carnegie Hall) was first on the programme. The effervescent concert-opener saw a four-note motif thrown between the different sections, demonstrating the players’ technical capacities. Although perhaps not exploring the material to its fullest potential, Shepherd’s piece allowed the NYO USA to display a wide spectrum of musical colour. Lyrical string ideas were interrupted by unapologetic brass and scuttling percussion, but the dialogue between the different sections didn’t seem to emerge into the expected climax.
Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. In such a piece a degree of rubato is to be expected, but at times Bell seemed to pull the piece about a bit too much and interrupt its flow. However, this created an air of freshness over which the virtuosic passagework gained a more expressive aspect. Even in the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustics, Bell managed to lend the Canzonetta a sense of intimacy, giving it the feel of a serenade. The speed at which the third movement was taken bordered on the precipitous, with some of Bell’s frenetic passagework suffering slightly from some extra-terrestrial bow noise. However, the combination of his swagger and the heart-in-mouth interpretation meant that this could be overlooked. The NYO USA clung on for the ride, with Bell and Gergiev driving the music on to its triumphant conclusion. Although the orchestra shone in Tchaikovsky’s big tunes, for the most part they seemed rather meek and tentative in their accompaniment. Bell’s encore of more Tchaikovsky allowed him to indulge in more soaring melodies, while giving the NYO USA strings more stage time.
The NYO USA’s hesitancy remained a problem in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 after the interval. The orchestra seemed to lack confidence, following Gergiev but not adding the extra je ne sais quoi into the music. This was understandable given the ensemble’s youth, but gave the performance a strangely functional air. The conductor encouraged syrupy, long-breathed lines from the orchestra throughout the first movement, but this often sapped the sense of direction and created a sense of sluggishness which even the fiery second movement could not dispel. Gergiev’s focus upon musical line paid off in the third movement, creating an eerily still nocturnal landscape. The strings lacked the intensity of sound required for the expectant Andante at the start of the fourth movement, although the jubilant Allegro allowed members of the NYO USA woodwind to shine. Particular mention must go to the principal clarinet, excellent throughout, and the piccolo (effortless at the end of the first movement).
Ultimately, the orchestra lacked the conviction needed to pull the Shostakovich off. As their confidence grows, they will undoubtedly supplement their strong technical foundation with more individuality.

Just don’t mention Spanish guitar music! Roger Wright talks to Mark Damazer


Earlier this evening I took my seat in the chapel of St Peter’s College, Oxford. The large space (formerly a parish church) was bustling with music-loving fellows and students alike. The reason for this gathering was one of classical music’s most powerful figures: Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3. After an introductory question-and-answer session with Mark Damazer (Master of St Peter’s College and former controller of BBC Radio 4), Wright gave some fascinating insights into his career.

Wright skipped through his posts with the Cleveland Orchestra (as artistic administrator) and Deutsche Grammophon (where he became vice-president) which preceded his role at the BBC. Since his appointment to controller of Radio 3 in 1998, Wright has elevated the status of jazz and world music. He became Director of the BBC Proms in 2007.

It was on the Proms that much of the discussion was focused. Wright spoke of how he viewed them as a festival (not a season), with the balance between large-scale and distinctive crucial in lending the Proms their individuality. Even though some programmes would not be expected to draw big audiences (referencing this year’s Vaughan Williams ‘trilogy’ as an example: symphonies 4, 5 and 6 in one evening), the concert-goers are attracted by the bold and sometimes eclectic programming. Wright exemplifies Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi: although he would by no means rank it among the ‘best’ pieces of music, it deserves to be heard. It is this championing of the lesser-known pieces which gives the Proms their identity: they celebrate a vast range of repertoire.

It is not only the programming which keeps the audience coming back for more, but also the intimacy of the Royal Albert Hall. Despite its gargantuan scale (and less-than-perfect acoustics), Wright describes a full house as lending an intensity to the performance, particularly in late-night chamber recitals.

The conversation turns to the anniversaries of composers, and how Wright is careful in his treatment of the anniversaries of composers. Given their divisive nature, he is careful not to correlate events such as April 2012’s ‘The Spirit of Schubert’ with a commemorative year, thus maintaining the careful balance of the Proms. Wright denies the presence of quotas to maintain certain levels of new pieces, for example: he sees this as unrealistic.

Throughout the discussion, Roger Wright revealed himself to be a thoughtful and devoted music lover, revealing that he attends all of the Proms each year (even concerts including Spanish guitar music, the one type of repertoire he dislikes). His desire to give lesser-known pieces their airtime is clearly a formula that works for the listeners. He rejects any suggestion that Radio 3 competes with Classic FM, arguing that both stations are complementary.

When I arrived home this evening, I scanned the Radio 3 timetable once more. Even though I am a regular listener, the talk with Roger Wright has helped me to appreciate just how lucky we are to have such a resource at our fingertips (as the music critic Alex Ross has acknowledged). As I type, I am listening to Ivo Neame and his Octet: just another world-class piece of music which is but a click away.