Reinbert de Leeuw — Der Nächtlige Wanderer (‘The Night Wanderer’)

Review of Prom 26 concert with Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

The Night Wanderer is a huge nocturnal landscape, with an orchestra of over a hundred. There was even with a small ensemble camped up in the gallery, and a trumpet in one of the boxes. Half way through the work a man with a mallet twice his size started bashing a giant bit of wood. And earlier on there’s a magnificent antiphonal section where four players, on opposite sides of the stage, clapped their slapsticks noisily.

It was quite an experience, needless to say. An immersive, impressionistic symphonic poem that defies comparison. But it’s the kind of thing one can expect from a composer like Reinbert de Leeuw.

He seems to be a typical 60s era rebel, but the kind of equal opportunity rebel one can’t help but respecting, having taken on both the traditionalist and avant garde establishments. No doubt I have some philosophical differences with the chap, but I can’t help but be charmed, especially after reading this by cellist Zoe Martlew:

One of the original bad boys of Dutch new music in the 60s, Reinbert de Leeuw, along with fellow new mu rabble rouser Louis Andriessen initiated a now-famous riot at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by setting off a bunch of clacking clockwork frogs and other percussive distractors during a concert of Mozart in an attempt to shake up the stultifying musical establishment of the time. Since then, de Leeuw has continued to stoke the flame of musical innovation as pianist, conductor, composer, programme planner and organiser of the highest calibre

I would have wanted to throttle him were I an audience member, but viewed from a good historical distance, I find it really quite amusing.

On top of all that, he’s done some excellent recordings of Erik Satie works alongside soprano Barbara Hannigan. In the late sixties he set up the Dutch Charles Ives Society and co-wrote a biography (sadly not translated) of the great man. Being an Ives partisan myself, I naturally admire him for that.

Anyway, onto the concert. The Night Wanderer is an odd work, based on an enigmatic poem of the same name. The poem is actually read out later in the work. In fact, recordings are used throughout, starting with the opening, faint sound of a barking dog. But the moment when the poem is read is undoubtedly the most effective. A deep, gravelly, whispering voice reads it slowly; the orchestra interrupt once with a screeching, powerful chord. Then after, the orchestra crescendo on these dissonant chords, playing to a steady, throbbing pulse.

But it ends unsatisfyingly, returning to quiet. It is, in a sense, an anticlimactic work. It hits louds moments, for sure, and moments like this imply climax even if it’s never realised. But this is why it’s such a frightening work, an ever weirder walk into the unknown. Anything could happen, even though it never quite does. The piece ends where it begins, with the distant sound of a dog barking.

Listening for a second time, today, via the Radio 3 recording, I found the piece no less tense. The recording is certainly not adequate — it is a challenge to convey the use of space in stereo — but I was surprised not to find the piece irritating on second listen. I somewhat expected to grow weary of the lack of clear direction, the very deliberate ambiguity. I didn’t. I was even surprised at how memorable some of the sections were, particularly a powerful rising violin melody.

(An aside, apparently the work used variation quotations, including by the likes of Galina Ustvolskaya. I suspect, though I may well be wrong, that I heard a partial quotation of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which is the ultimate statement of uncertainty and ambiguity.)

My hands want to type the word ‘masterpiece’, but being in that fertile stage, wherein one has only recently discovered a love for classical music, I am quite aware of how excitable I can be.

Praise must be given Oliver Knussen for his precise and confident conducting. I tremble to consider how challenging it must be to conduct a work like that, where you not only have a large orchestra in front of you but offstage musicians on the other end of the hall and recordings to play alongside. But Knussen was masterly, of course.

Both Knussen and de Leeuw strike me as wonderful characters too. Knussen with his wintry beard and flame-pattern walking stick (a closet House fan, perhaps?), and de Leeuw, a very slight man, with his floppy hair and drooping moustache.

The audience fuelled my misanthropy somewhat, though. I direct my ire particularly towards whoever started clapping before the piece ended.

But what a place to see it like the Albert Hall — and why on earth can’t there be more like this at the Proms?

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A Proms Alternative

In my frustration with much of the BBC Proms programme, I keep devising my own dream concerts. This one I’m rather fond of:

Gloria Coates — Symphony No. 4

This is dark, slow, minimalist music. It is highly complex – buts its complexity masquarades as simplicity. She bucks the 20th century trend, where despite the growing complexity of works, they seemed ever less designed and ever more chaotic. Coates’ symphony is the opposite: comprehensible, ingenious, microtonal majesty.

George Tsontakis — Violin Concerto No. 2

Tsontakis’ Violin Concerto is a pretty concise work at just under 20 minutes long. But it is an immense and poignant battle between violin and orchestra. One of the remarkable musical achievements of this century. (However, this video of the third and fourth movements, the only one around, does not do it justice, sadly.)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky — Symphony No. 6 (‘Pathetique’)

I’m sure a million other people feel this, but pathetique is my symphony. How everything is ruined by an anxious state of mind, how one goes through extreme bouts of energy accompanied by much more prolonged periods of doubt, how – just like the waltz in the second movement – while everyone else dances to three, I dance to five, nearly tripping up at the end of each bar. This symphony changed all symphonies that came after. Symphonies became even more introspective. Instead of festive celebrations of the world around us they became worlds in themselves. It is so heartening to see that this performance has been watched two and a half million times.

BBC Proms 2016: Some Thoughts

There is a deliberately forgotten truth that needs rescuing from its postmodern captors: most classical music is better than most other music. It has centuries of tradition and theory on its side, years dedicated to achieving the most profound, beautiful, evocative, and intimidating music ever heard. Its use of harmony, its written tradition, and the passion of its creators and admirers sets it apart from all other music.

So, we have a new BBC Proms to celebrate this wonderful music. And I have been, of course, terribly excited for the programme announcement today. Then I see the BBC news headline: BBC Proms 2016: Strictly, Bowie and music in a car park. You couldn’t make it up. (Maybe one day the tide will turn and we’ll actually think the headline ‘BBC Proms 2016: Stravinsky, Brahms and music in a concert hall’ to be the transgressive novelty.)

There is indeed a sizeable amount of populist crap this time round. On top of the Strictly Come Dancing and David Bowie Proms, there are some other themed Proms: a gospel Prom, a two jazz Proms and what looks to be a lame Jazz-Classical hybrid. And there’s a CBeebies proms, though to reject that one feels rather cruel, like taking candy away from a baby, as it were.

Of course there’s also the motherload of gimmick, that tiresome national embarrassment that is The Last Night of the Proms. For those who blame dodecaphony for the supposed death of Classical Music, I say you’re ignoring the flag-waving exercise in cultural suicide with which we end an otherwise-excellent classical music festival.

[ETA 16/02/2017: my hostility to Last Night has lessened. I’ve no desire to go, and the programming could most certainly be improved, there must be a place for light or popular classical and for patriotic sentiment. In this sense, it is gratifying to see the music having a social function.]

We do nevertheless have some exciting concerts. There are thirteen world premieres and quite a number of UK premieres. I very much do appreciate this, and the organisers deserve much credit. But, as the Guardian laments, ‘there is an absence of big, ambitious new orchestral works, which the BBC has the resources to put on better than anyone else in the UK, and in the Proms, the perfect platform on which to do it.’ More on that in a minute.

First off, there is, suitably, a late-night tribute to Boulez. However, there are no works by Peter Maxwell Davies, former Master of the Queen’s Music who also died this year. His death was later than Boulez’s, so I can partly understand the omission. But it is nonetheless discomforting to see a prominent classical composer like him neglected while David Bowie gets a headline act.

We all know the ostensible reason for having these non-classical Proms. It isn’t because of a lack of classical music — there’s several centuries of work to choose from. And I don’t think it’s due to finance, as most of the classical concerts have little problem selling out. It’s about image. The Proms want to diversify, with the worthy ambition of trying to evangelise those who otherwise don’t like classical music. And it looks like this is set to become an even bigger part of the Proms experience. David Pickard, the Proms’ new director, has said that ‘there are areas that it would be nice to explore in the future … for instance, I accept that in world music there are probably great riches out there to be discovered.’

The trouble isn’t only that this isn’t exactly the point of the Proms; it’s that it doesn’t work. This is not bringing people into classical music. It is accommodating the Proms — a classical music festival — for non-classical tastes.

I don’t even particularly like the focus on the ‘great’ works of classical music (great as they most certainly are). If you want to attract a new audience — a younger audience, even — you need something unexpected, something very distinctive in character.

I did not fall in love with classical music a year ago because of Doctor Who-themed concerts, and neither did I fall in love with classical music because of another bleeding performance of Ravel’s Bolero or Beethoven’s 9th. I fell in love with the music when I heard striking, exciting classical works. Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No. 9, Thomas Ades’ Violin Concerto, James Macmillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which I’m happy to say is in fact on the programme), Debussy’s Nocturnes, and so on.

When I first heard Mozart I didn’t at all understand it; when I first heard Ives I was astonished. Classical music, in my mind, was all about florid melodies, musical rigidity and an over-abundance of major keys. When I heard modern, relevant pieces — say, Steve Reich’s 9/11 remembrance piece — I became aware of just how important classical music could be to my life. Then, afterwards, I was able to go back and understand the pre-20th century works I found culturally inaccessible, and I now adore them just as much.

I know I am not the only one like this. A common misconception about classical music is that it’s old and poncey. Playing newcomers Mozart’s Jupiter or hosting a David Bowie tribute concert will not change that. You’d be much better off, for instance, replacing Verdi’s Requiem with Ligeti’s much more frightening, unique one. You could cut out Ravel’s Bolero and replace it with La Valse. Instead of the traditional Last Night, end the Proms with a massive work like Messiaen’s Turangalila. Or if we’re forced to keep the Last Night, at least start it off with something youthful and arresting such as Ades’ dance-music infused Ecstasio from Asyla, or Ives’ wildly dramatic orchestral version of his song General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.

But instead of using the diversity of classical music to draw new people in, we have pop and jazz and gospel and Strictly, as if that will somehow expand classical music’s reach.

Still, I must emphasise that there’s still a lot I look forward to. Four Henri Dutilleux works, Mahler 3 & 5, Bartok’s Bluebeard Castle (which I’ve never actually heard before), Beethoven 5 & 7,  Tchaikovsky 4, Bruckner 9, Boulez night with Elliot Carter’s Penthode too, The Sixteen, Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me Tell You, Nielsen 5, the aforementioned world premieres, and probably many other works unknown to me that I’ll fall in love with.