The wide-eyed wait is over, anticipation satisfied and rumours confirmed or quashed. (Actually, they’re invariably confirmed, simply because any orchestra, conductor or classical artist that publicises a scheduled appearance at a “major British/London summer festival” has invariably been booked for the Proms but simply isn’t allowed to say so, which, in this day and age, is a bit silly really). But it all kicks off on 18th July, and there are proms for families, proms for poets, proms for singers and proms for children; there are midnight proms, chamber proms, proms in the park and proms for stage and screen. If none of this creeps into your ears, you have no soul. Continue reading →
The world has lost one of the greatest musical virtuosos of our time. The renowned and charismatic conductor Claudio Abbado died on Monday. You only have to contemplate his Mahler 9, Bruckner 9 or his Brahms 3 to appreciate the breadth of his interpretative capacity and the profound grasp he had of musical form. Listen intently to the pulse of his sound: the silences have a cavernous depth; crescendos soar in emotional ecstasy; and his adagios creep toward heaven almost in communion with the divine. He was as serene on the podium as he was silent in life: music was his worship, and that was the gateway to freedom – spiritual and political. For him, no movement should distract and no words deflect from the sanctity of sublime orchestral harmony. Continue reading →
A free main-evening Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. What a great idea. And before anyone bleats about the outrageous cost of elite arts subsidy to the poor BBC licence fee payer, no musicians were paid in the making of this Prom. In fact, I am assured that no money exchanged hands at all. Tickets were allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, and they flew out of the box office faster than semi quavers in an allegro. This was real orchestral outreach – making music available to anyone and everyone. Sir Henry would have been proud. Continue reading →
The 2013 Proms season begins in just a fortnight. Every year since I was 14 and thoroughly captivated by counterpoint, I’ve eagerly awaited publication of the BBC’s lavish Proms brochure. Some years, of course, it’s more lavish than others. I used to open it up and quickly highlight all the Beethoven gigs, which usually determined the magnitude of my spiritual rapture and sublime ecstasy. Now I’m a bit more eclectic in my tastes, and embrace just about anything except Bartók.
There are some undoubted highlights this season, which marks the 200th anniversary of the births of Wagner and Verdi (1813 was a vintage year). 2013 is also the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten and the 50th anniversary of the creation of Dr Who (sorry to mention that in the same paragraph, but this column is very broadly about ‘culture’ and there’s bound to be a few ConHomies who prefer Time Lords and Daleks to latent Risorgimento and synthesised Gesamtkunstwerk). Continue reading →
On April 23rd 2016 – and probably throughout the entire year – we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. By ‘we’ I mean not only England and the English, or the United Kingdom and the British, but all nations and cultures of the world where Shakespeare is a passion, pastime or of any scholarly interest. And that necessarily embraces the whole of civilisation. As the holder of the Guinness World Record for performing the Complete Works single-handedly non-stop (five days without sleep – never again), I’ll certainly be raising a glass or two to the world’s greatest poet-playwright.
My record still stands after 25 years, and has just been re-published in the 2013 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. I will forever be grateful to those fine English teachers I had at school – Roger Calvert, Daphne Cooper and Jean Tidy – who between the years that spanned my O-levels and A-levels introduced me to Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear. From the academic confines of the classroom to the emotional exuberance of the school play, I found my soul simultaneously steeped in dramatic greatness, lyrical beauty and profound wisdom: ineffable, noetic, passive – it was like a religious experience. Every visit I made to Stratford-upon-Avon became a pilgrimage: sometimes wrestling with darkness and devils, and then rejoicing with angels and ministers of grace. Continue reading →
There really couldn’t have been a more fitting climax to the 2012 BBC Proms season. The past eight weeks of world-class music have spanned everything from Beethoven to Broadway; following hard upon the patriotic fervour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; running concurrently with the agonies and ecstasies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It has been a summer unlike any other – and Roger Wright, BBC Proms Director, knew he had to pull something special out of the bag to complement the national mood rather than try to top the bill.
And he did it. The programme was eclectic, patriotic, at times quite exhilarating, and (very wisely) significantly pulled back from last year’s rambling and tacky ‘Down-at-the-Old-Bull-and-Bush’ feel, which had us all singing about pappadums to the tune of ‘Nessun Dorma’, and gave us a pantomime Britannia dressed up like a Christmas tree, but outrageously deprived us of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Songs. No, this year was perfectly pitched and much better balanced between the classical and the ‘red, white and blue’. It was also broadcast live in 3D at Odeon cinemas across Britain, in addition to the open-air gigs in Belfast, Caerphilly, Glasgow, and the London ‘over-spill’ in Hyde Park. This was great access to a great British institution: the BBC does more every year to expand Henry Wood’s vision of making classical music accessible to the masses. Continue reading →
You usually get everything represented at the Edinburgh International Festival: it caters for all self-indulgent tastes in the postmodern world of moral relativism – from binge-drinking and bigamy to buggery and blasphemy. Gradually, over the decades, the arts have aided the rehabilitation of medieval notions of sin and human vice: lust has become love; wrath is free expression; greed is a work ethic; envy is a spur to social mobility; pride is aspiration; sloth is simply genetic; and gluttony has become a human right.
We’ve come (or gone) a long way since the Lord Chancellor’s censoriousness was curtailed. Our theatres may indeed still be monuments to our prodigality and folly, as the Puritan preacher the Rev’d Thomas White declaimed at St Paul’s in London during the plague. But one wonders about the contemporary equivalent of his evangelical apocalyptic observation that ‘the cause of plagues is sin…the cause of sin is plays; therefore the cause of plagues is plays.’ Continue reading →
No matter how much Beethoven, Bach, Berlioz and Bartók I take in at the Proms, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that no season would be complete without the all-singing, all-dancing Big-Band exuberance of the John Wilson Orchestra and the sensational Maida Vale Singers. Really, it’s not possible to use too many superlatives for these gigs. Yes, it’s a lot of showbiz glitter and utterly camp razzamatazz, but John Wilson is the Fred Astaire of orchestral conductors, swooning his way through each turbo-charged performance, and the feeling is electric, if not ecstatic. Continue reading →
Historic, patriotic, intoxicating, mesmerising: “Team GB’s heroic success seems to have re-awoken in us our sense of national pride,” wrote Sir Roger Bannister, the first man ever to run a mile in under four minutes, “a realisation perhaps that, as a people, we have the ability, the drive and the determination to be great.”
Sir Roger is one of Britain’s greatest sporting legends, into which pantheon can now be added the likes of Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy – people whose achievements are not merely exceptional, but truly and monumentally great. And that greatness is measured not only in the extent to which a triumph or victory enters the national consciousness – which is ephemeral – but also in proportion to its longevity in the league tables of history: to surpass is admirable, but to pioneer is unique and non-replicable. There is only one who can be the first. Continue reading →
Prom 18: Beethoven Symphony No.9 in D minor, ‘Choral’. Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (Royal Albert Hall)
“By assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands,” mused Count Ferdinand Waldstein, as he packed the young Ludwig van Beethoven off to Vienna to fulfil his dreams. Little could Bonn’s great patron of the arts have known that Beethoven’s own hands would surpass those of Haydn, his tutor, or that his spirit would soar above that of Mozart, his inspiration and muse.
This evening marked the culmination of Daniel Barenboim’s complete Beethoven symphony cycle at the Proms – the first by a single maestro since Henry Wood conducted them in 1942. I have either watched them on TV or listened on Radio 3, and it has been a mesmeric, occasionally revelatory cycle. Continue reading →