Note-By-Note

Classical Music (I capitalise it because it is Important) is missing a trick.

In these days of universal internet access, the coverage of Classical Music events remains hopelessly outdated.

Sure, there have been innovations such as the ‘Conductor-Cam’, whereby you can examine the maestro’s every wiggle in infini-slo-mo; or ‘Bat-ear’, which records and analyses individual players’ performances to see if they were actually playing all the notes or just busking their way through.

But while television presentation has moved with the times, written concert reviews remain dry, factual and boringly informative. I maintain that this is because they are written after the event, when the reviewer has had ample opportunity for calm reflection and consumption of over-the-counter sedatives.

In these modern days of instant gratification and on-the-hoof opinion, something more immediate is required. Perhaps Classical Music can look to Sport (also Important) for inspiration.

For several years now, sports fans too mean to pay for a Sky subscription have been familiar with the ‘live blog’ school of sports coverage, a handy way to experience live sporting events second-, or even third-hand.

Pioneered by the Guardian’s infamous ‘over-by-over’ cricket coverage of the 2005 Ashes, the genre has diversified to the extent that there is barely a sporting event that isn’t being covered by a sweaty journo somewhere, hunched over a laptop in a darkened room, hammering out 200 words a minute while trying to maintain the live TV feed on a Sky box held together with gaffer tape and spit.

‘Over-by-over’, ‘minute-by-minute’, ‘rally-by-rally’, ‘dart-by-dart’. Nothing is immune.

I’m looking forward to ‘snatch-by-snatch’ coverage of the weightlifting in the 2012 Olympics.

So how would this translate to Classical Music?

Glad you asked.

Always at the forefront of technological advances, Runny Thoughts is proud to bring you the first ever note-by-note (NBN) coverage of a classical music event.:

Proms 2010 live blog

Preamble

It doesn’t get bigger than this.

Plagued by its history of underachievement, Dutch classical music finally gets a chance to redeem itself after twenty-five years of hurt tonight, as the Concertgebouw Orchestra tackles one of the ‘Titans’ of the repertoire: Mahler’s First Symphony. Guess what its nickname is?

At the helm, Austrian maestro Heinrich von Shlumpff.

The orchestra has an unbeaten record against Mahler this season, subjecting the ‘titanic Teuton’ to some gruelling defeats on home soil.

But this is the Proms, and Dutch courage has been in woefully short supply here in Kensington since the glory days of ‘total music’ in the 1970s.

As for Maestro von Shlumpff, he comes to this fixture in dreadful form, desperately in need of the confidence boost that a good Proms run can bring. He’ll be looking for an early breakthrough.

The players have tuned up and here comes Maestro von S.

Toi toi everyone.

1 min: shaky start there, the violin harmonics not speaking properly. Always tough in damp conditions.

3 min: this is unimpressive so far from von S. He’s unsteady in tempo and missing cues left right and centre.

6 mins: the woodwinds beginning to get into the game gradually. Some nifty interplay between flutes and oboes.

8 mins: ooh that was shocking. Late challenge from the 3rd horn. Split it like a banana.

12 mins: I’m sorry but this is desultory stuff. Bad ensemble, dodgy intonation and no sense of adventure. Stodgy tempi from von Shlumpff who, in all honesty, is having an absolute shocker. Niggly conducting – why can’t he just let them play?

14 mins: Mahler says ‘frisches, belebtes Zeitmass’. Von Shlumpff says ‘not on your nelly, Gustav.’

16 mins: at last an injection of enthusiasm from the unlikeliest source: R.T. Thvack, the bespectacled timpanist. Pity it came too late. No use getting your game together in the coda.

End of first movement: Gus 1 Schlumpff 0.

An email!

“von Shlumpff is a notoriously bad starter, but has a great record in last movements. Don’t give up on him yet!”

Well I’m sorry, NLebrecht66, but so far it’s pisspoor, and some of us may have changed over to Andrew Graham-Dixon’s art docco by the last movement.

Peep! We’re off for a thigh-slapping Scherzo with some strudel in the middle.

2nd movement:

1 min: This is much more like it. Snappy articulation from the woodwinds in the opening phrase and excellent dynamic contrast throughout. it’s like listening to a different team.

2 min: you’ve got to love Mahler’s showmanship – bells in the air, everyone! And not a cracked note in sight.

4 min: ouch. How fragile it all is at this level. Principal horn Jean-Yves Embouchure makes a total hash of the linking solo and all that good work in the scherzo is undone. To be fair he’s having an indifferent season, but life is harsh at this level, and he will fear for his place in the next concert.

5 mins: it’s all fallen apart now. And I’m afraid the players must take some of the blame. The conductor can’t play the notes for them, and he looks horrified at some of the stuff going on out there, to be honest. These are professional musicians, but they look all at sea.

6 mins: the end of this movement can’t come soon enough for the demoralised musicians of the Concertgebouw. They’ll be looking to principal double bass Ferdinand van Roojsen to restore some pride early doors in the slow movement.

NLebrecht66 won’t give up. Here he is on the conditions: “don’t forget that the humidity and heat inside the Albert Hall are light years away from the air-conditioned comfort of their home concert hall. It’s so easy to underestimate the effect of the prevailing conditions if they haven’t had the chance to acclimatise properly.”

Sorry, Norm, that’s a load of guff and you know it. No excuses at this level.

That’s it for the 2nd movement, and this orchestra’s got a mountain to climb.

3rd movement:

1 min: you have to hand it to van Roojsen. That is a world-class double bass solo. The man is showing his pedigree. Can his colleagues respond?

2 min: no.

5 min: you still there? Mind if I join you?

7 min: get on with it!!!!

11 min: well that’s a small patch of my life I’ll never get back.

4th movement:

I’d like to say it’s nearly over, but the last movement is 20 minutes long.

1 min: Wow where the hell did that come from? Amazing opening to the last movement – daring, edge-of-the-seat tempo, pinpoint precision in the strings, and barnstorming brass playing. Perhaps von Shlumpff’s reputation as a coming-from-behind merchant is well-deserved after all. But has he left it too late?

5 min: this is magnificent stuff now. It’s as if they’ve suddenly remembered who they are. Either that or they’ve got a train to catch.

7 mins: that little luftpause was perfectly executed with magnificent understanding of the unique acoustic in this building. Conditions shmonditions. Take that NLebrecht66.

13 mins: this is turning into a procession. They have the symphony totally under control and are beginning to showboat, with breathtaking extremes of dynamic and devastatingly virtuosic passage work. Hats off.

14 mins: easy lads. Don’t get over-excited.

15 mins: ok I take it back. They know EXACTLY what they are doing. Who cares about the rubbish in the first three movements? The heart of the symphony is right here, in the finale, and they know it.

18 mins: slight over-confidence there from the horns, but calmly corrected by von Shlumpff. He’s proving himself a true Mahlerian. I was down on him early on, but what do I know?

20 mins: quite simply staggering stuff in the finale. They were all over the coda like a rash and ultimately produced a performance that will take some beating. All the reservations I had in the earlier movements were swept away by the sheer perfection of the finale, and it was exhilarating to hear an orchestra grow in stature right in front of you.

They’ve laid down a marker for the rest of the festival in the sweltering Albert Hall tonight.Are you listening, Berlin Phil?

Thanks for following it with me. Don’t forget to download the post-concert analysis podcast, including exclusive interviews with some of the key players. Night all.

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5 thoughts on “Note-By-Note

  1. You can tell this is satire because Norman Lebrecht is excusing the orchestra. An interesting slant.

  2. I will never watch a Proms concert in the same way again. This was even funnier than those Guardian sports writers who blogged Isner vs. Mahut using a zombie metaphor. Also, can you introduce me to Jean-Yves Embouchure? He sounds like just my type.

  3. YES! This is it.
    Actually, if one had ‘Live Music Blogging’ available to read during concerts, it would certainly improve my uninformed listening experience. There’s also something to be said for the mid show analysis that totally contradicts the final analysis that you get with a post show review.
    Gosh, apart from being highly funny, I’m starting to think this is a really good idea. It would even give a visually stimulated person like me something extra to look at, after I’ve counted the musicians and checked out the people sitting behind the orchestra etc.
    I do think you need some special little graphics though, like the Beeb have in their ‘as it happened’ series. Maybe a ZZZZZZ symbol for snoozy bits and a cymbal or two for an excellent crescendo. And a clapometer is surely essential. You could even borrow from the footie and have ‘goal’ and ‘penalty’ graphics for particularly significant moments of artistry or otherwise.
    Finally I insist that the less occupied members of the orchestra get to tweet along with the blog – the trombones for example… or that guy that plays the triangle for 2 mins in the 3rd movement. Much wit would abound surely.
    I wait in anticipation 😀
    xx

  4. Oh yes, I forgot. Anyone who blogs that any musician, conductor or even audience member on the way to the toilet is ‘On a charge’ must be deleted from the Internet permanently and possibly internally combusted for good measure.
    xx

  5. Its possible your suggestions may be taking it a bit too far for the people who want simply to listen to the music. But of course they could always turn that stuff off.
    They did do a conductor-cam last year, with hushed and reverent commentary from an expert, on the lines of well-modulated opening there for Sir Charles. No fuss on that first pause. He exudes a very relaxed demeanour and this rubs off on the players.
    The interesting contrast (and I know Im not comparing like with like, but what the hell) is that pundits at music events are much more reverent. There is never any question of a Hansen-type saying (at the interval or whenever) Im sorry but the first movement was far too fast, and the intonation was shocking.
    Its as if theyve signed an obligatory enthusiasm clause in their punditry contract…
    Lev

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