Tag Archives: BBC Proms

102 years in the making: the debut of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, photo:Chris Christodoulou


Prom 60, Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2018

Does Leonard Bernstein 28 years after his death really need an advocate? In this country  we are particularly keen on celebrating or commemorating the births and deaths of composers. In March it was 100 years ago Debussy died and his music has been heard all over this scepter’d isle, this blessed plot, this England. Leonard ‘Lenny’ Bernstein was born the same year Debussy died. Lenny was not as prolific a composer as Claude, but he more than made up for it by being a very active conductor and enthusiastic pedagogue. The focus has lately been totally on Bernstein because his centenary was on the 25th of August. BBC radio 3 and the magnificent BBC Proms festival are very good at marking these kind of celebrations with concerts, documentaries and podcasts.

Bernstein is a gratifying subject because he lived so many different lives and careers simultaneously. He was a most remarkable conductor, pianist, composer, educator, humanist and political activist. There are still a great many people around that can talk about the different aspects of his character and his many talents. On YouTube you can find a seemingly endless amount of concerts conducted by the maestro. Many of his best educational programmes that he recorded for American TV are also available online. No, Bernstein is far from forgotten, but some of his compositions deserve to be played more often. And who better than Marin Alsop to look after his compositional legacy? Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein, but of course she is also a marvelous conductor in her own right. She has been the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since 2007 and this was their debut concert at the Proms. Alsop is much loved by Proms audiences (having conducted The Last Night of the Proms twice) and the welcome she received while walking to the conductor’s rostrum was thunderous.

Bernstein's most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop is one of Bernstein’s most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou

The concert started out with a piece never heard before at a Prom. For Slava! A Political Overture (1977) Bernstein decided to incorporate two numbers from his musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had tanked the previous year on Broadway. Slava was dedicated to the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who had just become Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Slava means glory or praise in Russian and it was also Rostropovich’s nickname. I am  sure this occasional piece is very political to the initiated, but the snippets of pre-recorded election speeches that are shouted over the music make no sense to me.  Apparently President Carter was in the audience at the premiere in 1977 and perhaps that is the most political aspect. This overture is perfectly loud, brash and entertaining but really quite inconsequential. I think it would have worked better as an encore.

After this fluffy appetizer I was ready for some music of consequence and with meaty content: Bernstein’s second symphony. Quite honestly I was unfamiliar with the work before this year’s centenary celebrations, but now I consider it one of Bernstein’s best compositions.

Bernstein told an interviewer that after having read W.H Auden’s 80-page (!) poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ the music almost immediately started to sing. The poem is mostly set in a New York bar and consists of conversations between four strangers: three men and a woman. They end up in the woman’s apartment, but two of the men leave and the third one passes out drunk. Perhaps the woman should be relieved. In many ways the main themes are loneliness and a search for meaning in a recently war-torn world. The poem was published after the war(1947) but it reflected the emptiness that many people felt after all the misery that they had experienced.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein's symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou
Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein’s symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou

Alsop and the BSO treated the Prologue with its clarinet duet with a good deal of gentleness and a sense of trepidation. The descending scale played by the flute forms the bridge to the Seven Ages: Variations 1-7 . Then we are introduced to the piano setting out a slightly dissonant melody. The piano transports us from one variation to the next, with each variation elaborating on an idea or theme from the previous one. After three or four variations it becomes clear that this really is a piano concerto in all but name. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet recorded this concert five years ago with the same orchestra and conductor. On this occasion Thibaudet’s interpretation displayed even more flair, neurosis and a sense of life’s struggle than on the recording (available on Naxos). It was a nice touch to hear the jazzy Masque scherzo (for piano, bass, timpani and percussion) played without too much stomp and bravura. This seems to signal that the carousing at the woman’s apartment is not a bacchanalian feast after all. It is certainly one of the most memorable movements in American orchestral music. One could argue that the piano represents Bernstein’s own voice and at times I thought that Thibaudet perhaps was trying to portray the composer’s multi-faceted personality in this piece, one could hear so many different shades. The Epilogue is a different beast. In the revised edition from 1965 (played here) the piano is given a cadenza that seems to suggest a sad and lonely life, but then the orchestra takes over and signals a sense of hope and it all ends with the big orchestra treatment that you will find in so many American films from the 40s and 50s. The plaintive element and “loss of faith” may dominate the symphony and therefore the optimistic spin added on at the end can seem an afterthought, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make it all sound perfectly obvious and matter of course the way only Americans can. All in all, splendid!

Photo: Decca- Harald Hoffmann


Interview with Alisa Weilerstein at the Royal Albert Hall, London, July 2017

The American cellist Alisa Weilerstein could probably tour the world playing the cello concertos of Elgar, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich ad infinitum. You can still build a career on just performing  the popular classics, the standard repertoire. Amazingly that goes for singers, instrumental soloists and orchestras alike. But Alisa Weilerstein is keen to  create a new standard and is committed to expanding the repertoire. She has championed new compositions by Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach, Bright Sheng and last year she presented a new work by Matthias Pintscher at the Proms. This year Alisa returns for her fourth Proms appearance playing another work written for her, this time by the  Frenchman Pascal Dusapin.  It is a co-commission with the BBC and the world premiere took place in Chicago last year. It has since then also been heard in Paris and Stuttgart. Therefore we can assume that Alisa is well rehearsed  for the UK premiere of Outscape which takes place on July 19 at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert will also be available to listen to on the BBC Radio 3 Proms website (that is if you live in the UK).

No audio was available before the concert but you can get a feel for Dusapin’s work by listening below to Alisa’s description of what is going on in the composition.

It is worth mentioning that Alisa’s  younger brother Joshua will be wielding the conductor’s baton at this Proms while the BBC Symphony orchestra accompanies Alisa. Joshua is fairly unknown on these shores and this will be his Proms debut.  Alisa has already filled him in about the effect of playing in front of 5000 totally absorbed people, some of them standing right in front of you. Alisa claims that ‘the Prommers’ are the closest a classical musician will come to experiencing what a rock concert audience can be like. She finds them so attentive.   “People are standing in front of you and there is electricity in the air like nothing else. Anyone who has experienced a Proms feels that.” Alisa tells me that normally a concert can feel like a very solitary experience. “ [At a Proms] I don’t feel that it is. You feel the audience. You feel the kind of feedback. It is a two way conversation and at the Proms you feel that very intensively.”

Alisa Weilerstein premieres Outscape at the BBC Proms, Photo: Paul Stuart/Decca

Alisa comes from a very musical background. Her father Donald is a violinist and her mother Vivian Hornik is a pianist.  Alisa has  performed (and occasionally still does) with her parents as the Weilerstein Trio.  At 13 she made her concerto debut with the Cleveland Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Two years later she appeared at Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony. She tells me that she grew up admiring Jaqueline du Pré’s recordings and she wore out du Pré’s interpretation of the Elgar cello concerto. She also always loved Daniel Barenboim’s playing and conducting. Jaqueline was of course until her tragic death married to Barenboim. In 2009 Weilerstein was introduced to the maestro and in 2009 he invited her to work on the Elgar.

“I probably learnt more from him than almost anyone. I always thought of him as one of the great geniuses of our time. To work with him especially on the Elgar was unforgettable, a very deeply moving and wonderful thing. Of course we talked about structural things. He knows string playing, technique so well he would actually even give me fingerings which was quite unique. It was all about trying to connect to the notes and this extraordinary expressivity that he has in his playing, his musical makeup. It taught me to think in a new way and I apply it to everything.”

Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle Berlin at the BBC proms 2017 Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Weilerstein first performed the Elgar with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Barenboim and a few years later they made a much praised recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin. On the same disc you can find Alisa’s interpretation of the tricky Elliott Carter Cello concerto. I urge you to watch on YouTube Alisa’s meeting with the 104-year old (!!) composer in 2012. She plays passages from the concerto and despite claiming that he can’t hear very well, Carter turns out to be extremely sharp/eared. He immediately starts to correct and suggest things in the score to Alisa. It is both amusing and moving.

“Look, Eliott Carter was a completely unique figure. Listening that acutely at age 104 was unbelievable, I don’t think anyone expected that. With that giant magnifying glass that he had looking at the score. I find it very helpful when composers say what they think. Everyone is different.”

Everyone is different but Alisa Weilerstein is a little bit extra special.