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Proms at home on TV and radio

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Sir Colin Davis
[Prom 30 Saturday 5 August 2006]

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Janácek: Taras Bulba
Sibelius: Pohjola's Daughter; Symphony No. 7 in C major
Live on BBC TV TWO and on BBC Radio 3, repeated 10th August
Available as audio on demand for the following week.
Broadcast on BBC Two LISTEN ONLINE Available as audio on demand for the following week.

Angelika Kirchschlager/BBCSO & Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis
[Prom 32, 8 August]

Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth (BBC Commission; world premiere)
Live on BBC Radio 3, repeated 11 August
Available as audio on demand for the following week: LISTEN ONLINE

Unable to get to the Albert Hall for the NYO on the night, some thoughts about their Sibelius, and about Anderson's Heaven is Shy of Earth also heard at home, may be of interest.

NYO concerts are always notable events, and lend themselves ideally to television. Davis's Sibelius is well represented on superlative CDs, but this Pohjola's Daughter and the 7th made exceptional impact with the camera ranging around the young faces, showing their intense concentration and confidence in delivering well rehearsed professional excellence. What was remarkable was how the huge orchestra used (to give everyone on the course a chance to take part) did not compromise the sound quality, which was clear and vivid as balanced by the BBC engineers.


I was in time to catch the interval, with the bonus of rehearsal extracts with Sir Colin. I have sampled the first half on the computer LISTEN ONLINE but it is not the same thing; the screen and thekeyboard are distractions... I look forward to hearing the whole on good hi-fi equipment tomorrow, and hope that BBC/NYO will seriously consider releasing this great concert on DVD?


Anderson's choral work is a powerful addition to a genre which has not gained too many new masterpieces this century; Heaven is Shy of Earth may well prove to be one. Now professor of composition at Harvard, Julian Anderson had done a stint in the LPO Chorus to familiarise himself as an insider with the problems of choral writing and this has surely paid off. For those at home, without the programme, the introduction was not as helpful as might have been, and I was surprised that the short Emily Dickinson poem was not read out on air for our benefit (the text was kindly supplied by the BBC afterwards; you can also access it on line):

Out of sight?  What of that?
See the Bird -- reach it!
Curve by Curve -- Sweep by Sweep --
Round the Steep Air --
Danger!  What is that to Her?
Better 'tis to fail -- there --
Than debate -- here --

Blue is Blue -- the World through --
Amber -- Amber -- Dew -- Dew --
Seek -- Friend -- and see --
Heaven is shy of Earth -- that's all --
Bashful Heaven -- thy Lovers small --
Hide -- too -- from thee --

and it would have been helpful too to know that the Latin text Quam dilecta, with its depiction of sparrow and swallow in the Lord's "amiable tabernacles", had a close link to Dickinson's theme ... But the complexity of the musical setting meant that most of the words went for nought, and few were obvious for home listeners except for sections of the familiar Mass text.

The Proms are well supported on the BBC's website and Julian Anderson's programme note for Heaven is Shy of Earth is to be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/aboutmusic/anderson_heaven.shtml.

See Tom Service in The Guardian: - - Anderson has done nothing finer.

P.S. I have been grateful to receive the score from Faber Music. It is immensely complicated to try to read (microscopic print, c.f. The Times about a Harvey score, also Faber Music : - - So faintly marked, so microscopic: the notes in the score to Jonathan Harvey's recent orchestral piece . . . towards a pure land  hang on the page like dying ants. Following the score as the music progressed was impossible. - - 

Under a brightest light I could just follow it at home. Its intricasies on the page are mostly lost to the ear, and there must have been a great blur at the Albert Hall, but a general euphony helps the listener warm to this music even though the words go for little and the key Dickinson text could easily pass unnoticed.

Although Harvey claims it is not a sacred work, those from the Mass are the only words which come across, and that too must be what 'places' the music of this large-scale choral work for first time listeners.

H K Gruber Frankenstein!!
BBC Symphony Orchestra
HK Gruber chansonnier/conductor

Prom 52, 22 August 2006

I caught up with this one-time favourite on R3 Listen Again and it links with my response to the Proms Shostakovich film matinee at Cadogan Hall; I noted the absurdity of transmitting that event only on radio. Similarly, I quite looked forward to renewing acquaintance with Gruber's mock shock-horror extravaganza, which I had enjoyed years ago.

But here I shared the frustration of the R3 presenter, who only wished that listeners could have seen the bizarre goings on on stage. Heard in morning sobriety on R3 in 2006, it was a disaster; unfunny, unshocking - a dated nullity.

Yet the cameras were in place at the Royal Albert Hall after the "main" concert - in place but unused! Would it have cost so much to have kept the crew on to film that late night Prom, even if overtime rates might have applied?

See also Anne Ozorio in Seen&Heard: The most important reason for attending this Prom was Gruber's Frankenstein!!   It is an event, a piece of theatre as much as of music.  It needs to be experienced live.  One day Gruber will be too old to create the spectacle afresh, and it will exist only in memory. 

- - - - - - - - -

A big theme, about which I should welcome discussion from readers, is the question of whether the nightly televising of the main symphony concerts insensitively can undermine the concert experience, equally for viewers at home and by distracting those present?

I am finding the nightly Proms on BBC Four for the final weeks quite a turn-off, sick of being invited to watch in extreme close up hair styles, bits of individual instruments and their players, clever mixed images, all conspiring to distract attention from the music itself in the name of popularisation and expanding viewer numbers; with every item "sold" to us before and after by enthusiastic smiling "experts".

Symphonic music can be filmed in ways that do not detract from the listening experience, but that needs musicians at the helm, not film experts; q.v. Gunther Wand's Bruckner, the patient conductor never 'playing the audience', but even there I had to deplore the common producers' assumption that viewers must be continually diverted with shots of orchestral soloists or sections having 'the tune' for a few seconds (up to some 14 camera changes a minute). Of course, you don't have to watch the screen constantly...

P.S. 25 August. TV presentation of the Proms does vary. . Televising of Lindberg's spectacular UK premiere, with its unusual orchestration, was helpful; my main problem is with the approach to standard classical repertoire, but this seems to depend also on the producer's choces of camera images; e.g. the Salzburg Mozart concert with a small orchestra, Vogt & Gens, also made for good watching. PGW

How people listen: some reader responses:

1. - - Enjoyed reading your piece. Infuriated with the BBC policy on televising the Proms. They used to select items of particular interest /suitability, but last year and this they’ve resorted to the cost saving measure of picking a couple of weeks and televising the lot. The instrumental close-ups bother us less than the panoramic view, because of the saturation of stage surround with lurid coloured lighting schemes – a practice first seen in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall a few years ago and now spreading, a true abomination !!!

2. - - By and large I share your frustration with the filming of the Proms - both in respect of what is chosen and what is not covered. Late night Proms have always seemed an ideal subject for filming to broadcast at a later date. The programmes are often interesting and the artists can be of a reasonable stature too. Andras Schiff’s Mozart recital in the Royal Albert Hall would draw a TV audience and thereby reach a wider public; just show me an artist who would not welcome that.

If the hall is less than full, don't concentrate on the audience, concentrate on the music - that is after all what people go to concerts for. Forego the pundits and whizz-bang image mixing - keep it simple. Before my time (I'm in my 30s) it was something Britain’s public service broadcaster (and even the then one commercial channel) did rather well, creating a standard other countries aimed to equal. A simpler approach also credits the audience with intelligence to be able to watch and listen without losing interest after 3 seconds. Music, more than the other art forms, takes time to appreciate - so let's give it the attention and respect it's due.

There has to be the will to do something different for a reason - which brings me neatly to HK Gruber. Gruber in his own music plus Eisler and Weill is an irresistible combination. His appearance alone knocks the whole idea of stuffy music making out of the window, let alone what he does with the music itself. Given that one increasingly reads the word 'populist' in association with 'media' these days, it's all the more surprising that Gruber's anarchism was not fully grasped by the powers that be at the BBC.

Gruber shows that one can be popular yet also thoughtful, insightful and musically erudite. I remember a free event Gruber conducted with school children a few years back - afterwards they all wanted to perform the music again (and they did). Just think for a second how hard it can be to engage - let alone enthuse - teenage brains sometimes. Surely that says a great deal for the man, and the performances went down a storm with the audience.

OK, a mad thought just occurred to me... why not try Gruber's Frankenstein!! (with the man himself) on the programme for the Last Night one year? John Drummond in his final years as Proms director started a move ro include a modern work in the Last Night programme, but it never really took off. If it worked well then, who knows, maybe music by the likes of Thomas Ades or Luciano Berio might become more widely known.

3. - - I prefer NOT to see/hear music on tv; the main criticism is those awful cameramen who think they're doing such a wonderful job. After live concerts  (of which I never have enough) my preference is for private listening where I can create as perfect a sound as I can out of the resources I possess - nowadays a lovely pair of Bose headphones and a fine-ish cd player - - and since pretty well all extraneous noise is cut out, this is as near to pefection as I am likely to get (in my dotage). Ideally, I will also have a score before me where I can totally lose myself in conjunction with, and sometimes feel the presence of, the composer (be he a contemporary one whom I perhaps am acquainted with personally - or one of the greats such as Bruckner, Beethoven, Nielsen, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, Ravel) - whoever.

I find audiences (generally) rather tiresome - eager to be the first to clap, cheer, yell out 'bravo' and all that crap. Having said that, I too get just as excited - but these days much more self-controlled. I view at least 98% of the population with disdain; at best perhaps, with a stern indifference. This makes me sound awful - perhaps I am - but I don't care about that. After all, I was young once -and passion still guides in matters musical.

Even in concerts (live) I prefer to listen as if I'm alone with the musicians - even beyond them - alone with the composer - not as a person, but as a creator of the most beautiful magic that is going on: his music (or hers - one of my recent 'favourites' is Ethyl Smyth - a fine composer if ever there was one.) It is the 'noise' these people create that (to me) is important - nothing else.

I have been called a snob - 'narrow-minded' (it is always being said that I should embrace other genres) and my response is something like this: My record collection consists of several thousand pieces of music ('classical') so when I have learnt all of them to a degree whereby I can call to mind, recognise and quote from - as well as carry them in my head with a modicum of knowledge and understanding, then, and only then might I be prepared to give time (never promising credence) to other genres than the ones I most attend - principally symphonic music from 1750.


PS I never really like to watch operas - in truth they survive on their musical merits - not on anything else. My personal favourite opera of all time is Peter Grimes - but I have never felt the need to see it - my own imagination does that from Britten's wonderful score - -

4. -- shots of orchestra etc: I think all those close-ups, in some cases shots unrelated to the music, are great. I love them and am always impressed by the skill of the directors.

- - experts: Well, I think it's hit and miss. Journalistic and academic experts who talk about the pieces are usually poor. But these are people who are supposed to know something about the music, so it's hard to blame the BBC - - the test is audience figures. Is the BBC pleased with them?






Peter Grahame Woolf