Last night’s Prom offered the invigorating spectacle of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing beautifully under their fine young conductor Ilan Volkov. One of the good effects of globalisation has been on the standards of orchestral playing. Because of the widespread availability of music both live and recorded, nobody can now hide in a corner and pretend they don’t know how well their fellow musicians are playing elsewhere. And because of the international music circuit, musicians now move between countries much more than they used to, with the result that orchestras are now interestingly multi-cultural. In the case of the BBC Scottish, whom I used to know fairly well when I was a student in Scotland, the improvement in their morale since those days is simply enormous.
As a student I once had the opportunity to play a piano concerto with them. As usual with concerto soloists, I had been practising the piece every day for months and months, but as usual with orchestras, I was given just one rehearsal – part of one rehearsal, actually. The piece was a long one and by the time we’d been through it once, stopping to discuss this and that, it was time for a tea-break. The conductor looked at the orchestra with a twinkle and said, ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’ll do. After all, we’re not here to be extremely musical.’ Everyone laughed. And that was the end of my rehearsal. The experience stayed with me for a long time.
So it was cheering, to say the least, to watch the orchestra last night, accomplished, engaged and alert, flying the flag for Scotland in front of an appreciative Proms audience.
An American friend has sent me an article from last Friday’s New York Times about piano competitions. Michael Johnson, who has served on prestigious competition juries, laments the corruption that allegedly prevails.
Perhaps there are competitions whose juries engage in vote-swapping, fixing, accepting bribes and all the rest of it. I’ve heard the stories too. But there are ways of making it very hard for juries to indulge in such behaviour. In this regard I’d give honourable mention to the Scottish International Piano Competition, whose jury rules were so strict that we didn’t once discuss the pianists we’d heard, not even after the final result had been announced. After ten days with my fellow jurors I had no idea who had voted for whom at any stage, or what anybody thought about the outcome.
Maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe I’m naive, or maybe I’ve never been at the relevant competitions, but I’ve never encountered any tricks or tactics. On the contrary, my fellow jurors have always been anxious to do the right thing and united in hoping that someone will walk out onto the platform and play in such a way that we can push away our score sheets, lay down our pens and simply listen.
It’s true that the technical standard of playing keeps rising, and that there are now staggering numbers of pianists, from more and more countries, who play with amazing control and accuracy. All the same, even amongst these highly-trained and polished players, the artist who ‘speaks straight to the heart’ is still a rarity and is still easy to spot. As György Sebök would have said, ‘the standard of mediocrity is rising all the time.’
In the Review section of today’s Guardian, I’ve written a review of Daniel Levitin’s book, ‘The World in Six Songs’.
If you’d like to read the review, here’s the link.
I’ve been thinking about Charles Hazlewood’s article in Monday’s Guardian. He wrote about some open-air orchestral concerts he’s going to conduct in a field in Somerset, explaining that he wants to bring great music out of the intimidating concert hall and into a fun relaxing space. Good for him. I started my professional career doing something just like that with Domus in its geodesic tent, so in some ways I felt completely sympathetic to Charles’s views – until I came to the sentence:
‘I want people to hear really exciting music played by the best, but in a context where they can clap when they want to, chase their toddlers, drink beer, take photos, get lost in the music and generally be themselves.’
And this is where I have to differ. I’ve tried playing music in this kind of setting, and I don’t believe it works. For a start, the kind of music I play is not amplified. A performance of acoustic music can’t thrive when there are competing sound sources.
Secondly, and more importantly, I feel strongly that music is designed to draw us out of ourselves and let us enter another imaginative realm. Where that’s possible, listening to music can be a profound experience. But nobody can be drawn out of themselves if other members of the audience feel free to ‘chase their toddlers, drink beer, take photos and generally be themselves’. There’s so much of that going on all around us as it is. It’s an old paradox: feeling free to behave as you like often means that other people can’t behave as they like. If some people feel free to run about and be noisy, they deny others the possibility of falling silent, forgetting their surroundings and being drawn out of themselves by music. And I can’t believe that those who run about are going to get much out of it either.
Last night, I stupidly didn’t watch the first part of the MGM Film Musicals Prom on television, and only turned on for the second half. I’m so used to concerts of this kind being slightly embarrassing; orchestras often sound uncomfortable with the idiom, and there’s an awkward air about the proceedings which I’m often glad to avoid.
What a wonderful surprise I got when I heard the John Wilson Orchestra last night. I have no idea who they really were, but listening to them reminded me of the tales of Hollywood’s great days, when some of Europe’s finest instrumentalists – many of them émigrés to the United States – let loose the full might of their talent on rich and complex film scores which offered them plenty of scope. The Proms information referred only to John Wilson’s orchestra being ‘hand-picked’, which it most certainly was. John Wilson has undertaken the task of restoring some lost MGM orchestral scores, apparently transcribing them by ear from the original sound recordings, an incredible feat. His orchestra sounded like a bunch of hungry lions who had finally been given their favourite meat.
‘Joyful’ was the word which kept coming to mind, and I only wished I had thought to record the whole thing – which I hope will be repeated as soon as possible. In the meantime, you can ‘listen again’ on Radio 3 for the next week.