Archives for April 2010

Code Read ...

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 17:50 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Proms website launch is a particularly busy period for us - it involves the entire Radio 3 Interactive team. Asking for a blog entry on the day itself would invite a dusty answer. But after a few days to recover and reflect, senior content producer Gregory Stevens tells it like it was. - Ed.
gregory_stevens_300.jpgIf I answer the phone, I'll forget where I am - which is halfway through Prom 39 changing text dashes (known to typographers as n-rules, the 'n' indicating the length of the dash) for html (a bit of online code which tells the interface to display a dash, or n-rule). Are you with me so far?  Well, if I don't answer the phone, they will only ring again.  And in the quandary, I forget where I am anyway and the phone stops. 
However well prepared I am, Proms site launch day is always a nightmare.  In an idle moment I ask members of the team to proofread the site and then receive half a ream of printout with myriad corrections.  They're eagle-eyed and a bunch of sticklers, bless 'em. How can I bribe someone to take on the fixes?  Chocolate is the currency of the day.  You have to be especially careful with orchestras: some seem to want the indefinite article, some don't,  and I always seem to have got them the wrong way round.
We're also launching a bespoke Proms site for mobile phone users, which shares most of the web site code but not all, so the site breaks. More chocolate is needed to lubricate the throat of the 'mobile guru'  who, between mouthfuls, advises on a fix.  And it works - for the first time ever we are launching mobile and web together - it's a very shiny new site which looks great on mobiles and especially wonderful when viewed on those devices with big touch-screens. I am reminded of the advice to over-exuberant owners of these gizmos: 'Remember: you bought one, you didn't invent it...'
The Proms press team commissioned a film to be shot of the launch of the Proms at the Albert Hall, with Nicola Benedetti playing Vaughan Williams's 'The Lark Ascending'. At around 4pm, half way through the latest set of corrections, the film is sent to me electronically.  So I break off and start the somewhat tortuous process of re-coding the film to fit on to our website and to recode an old page to put it on. Somewhat to my horror, I find I am in a race with the Guardian website who are editing our footage for their own purposes ... no pressure, then.
Throughout all this all members of the Radio 3 web team and Proms team check and correct the website, as more changes come through. The office is mostly deathly silent: headphones are firmly clamped to earholes and my webmeisters produce no more than a woollen-mill's chatter of mass keyboard-clicking, punctuated by the odd shriek of triumph as a particularly tricky bit of coding publishes, and that part of the site starts to work.  Lunch is abandoned and the cake that I should have bought for tea to thank the team remains unbought...
Finally, it's done, the whole site is live and we can start to promote it from the Radio 3 website. Now all I need to do is to closely attend to the Radio 3 Message Boards, where expert listeners with an eye for finding missing umlauts and Koechel numbers, lurk.  So I put them right immediately, before they cast too many nasturtiums ...
  • Gregory's photo is by Proms video blogger Jon Jacob

Rob's thoughts on the Specialist Classical Chart

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Rob Cowan Rob Cowan | 15:29 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

I have been finding it quite fascinating to observe and analyse reactions to the regular 'Specialist Classical Chart' slot on Tuesday's Breakfast. It seems that the mere mention of the word 'chart' sparks off numerous disparate reactions, many of them only vaguely connected with the true nature of the exercise.

What in effect this half-hour feature achieves is to focus the music-loving public's classical CD preferences, what it most enjoys listening to, new release-wise ... and that includes a good many full-scale works that would be impossible to programme complete on Breakfast.

Still, better a substantial slice of Mahler 2 or 8 than no slice at all, and the reaction to what we have played more or less squares with the enthusiasm that the music generated in the first place.

But the really interesting aspect of the charts is the presence of what I would normally have considered, in purely popular terms, relatively esoteric repertory: aside from the Mahler, there's Gluck's opera Orfeo and Eurydice, Dvorák's grizzly tone poems, Mendelssohn piano trios (the Second, in particular, is only rarely played) and choral works by Victoria and Vaughan Williams. Which only goes to show that when it comes to classical CD sales, nothing is predictable ... and which in turn promises a very varied half hour between 8 and 8:30 on Tuesday's Breakfast. What do you think?

The show must go on ...

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Roger Short Roger Short | 15:30 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Roger Short is a Radio 3 producer specialising in the network's World Music output; the Icelandic ash cloud crisis finds him stranded several thousand miles from home, and a BBC studio. But in the great showbiz tradition ...

roger_short2.jpgI was booked on the BA flight from Toronto to London on Sunday night, and due to go to a meeting with a colleague, Carlos from London University, on Monday morning.  By Sunday afternoon it was clear I wasn't going to make it.  I texted Carlos to let him know I was stranded in Canada.  'Don't worry', he texted back, 'I'm stuck in Mexico'.
It was Thursday lunchtime when my Canadian mother-in-law told me excitedly about the news of the volcano, and that all flights were to going to be grounded.  I assumed it was my mother-in-law's usual over-dramatics.  No way would they ground all flights, surely, and if they did, it would certainly all be over by Saturday. 
So there I was, and here I am, stranded like so many others, far from base, with a busy week's work to get done, including two programmes, two-and-three-quarter hours of transmission time, to be ready by the weekend.  My trip to see the in-laws was actually tacked on to the end of a work trip to Cambridge Bay, a small town in the Canadian Arctic Circle - I was working with an Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, on a soundscape of Arctic life and Inuit culture.  And that was fortunate, because that means I have a suitcase full of BBC recording equipment with me, including a full portable SADiE editing system ('And why do you need THREE laptops, Sir?' I was asked by the fourth security man...)
So, thanks to the wonders of the BBC's remote desktop system, I am able to do a fairly good impression of being back at my desk, sending emails, compiling Radio Times listings information, filling in compliance forms.  And thanks to a proxy file transfer site and some very understanding colleagues back at Broadcasting House (Question: 'Why is a recording of Indian classical music in London called "Watford T58?" Answer: 'Well that was where the OB van was before our concert, and we didn't get round to changing the filenames...' ), I am able to receive the sound files for the weekend's edition of World Routes, edit them, and send back a finished programme, complete with full paperwork.  All from my mother-in-law's sewing room.  
Our hearts go out to those who have missed births, marriages and deaths in the past few days, and indeed to third-world farmers who can't export their perishable produce. There are certainly far worse places to be stranded than my mother-in-law's sewing room.  But there are probably better places too...  Mexico, perhaps!

  • In response to an editorial question as to whether Roger's canine companion is a Portuguese Water Dog, he replies: 'She's a Black Russian Terrier, a fairly new breed that's got PWD in it, but is mostly Giant Schnauzer - she is only a puppy, will grow much bigger...'

Final countdown to the Proms launch ...

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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 11:14 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010


roger_wright_royal_albert_h.jpgThere are still some truths left in the world.

Top of the list for me today is that you are never more than ten months away from a BBC Proms festival! Today I am not more than 24 hours away from the launch of the 2010 BBC Proms. I am constantly in awe of the Proms team. I am so lucky to have them as colleagues - their creativity, professionalism and attention to detail is extraordinary.

The usual round of last minute preparations is kicking in - but there is always something new to which we have to respond. This year we are finding out who might be unlucky enough to be stuck somewhere outside the UK and not able to join us at the launch. Our Radio 3 schedule has already been affected (a replacement artist at Wigmore Hall lunchtime on Monday and conductors not able to get to work with some of the BBC orchestras, etc).
Luckily (for us) Nicola Benedetti, who'll be making her Proms debut in the Royal Albert Hall, is able to join us at the launch as she was unable to cross the Atlantic and therefore is not stuck on the other side of the ocean.

sir_henry_wood_lnotp.jpgI have already done some interviews with the press who have advance deadlines. Then the day of the launch is taken up with press briefings and more interviews. I start at 9 in the morning at the Royal Academy of Music (home of the Henry Wood bust that we display on stage during the season). I start by meeting the arts correspondents, then it's off to the hall for the photo shoot (let's hope that the sun shines on the south steps!), interviews for the website and for BBC News, Radio 3's In Tune and Radio 4's Front Row and anything else that gets set up on the day. (To wear a tie or not is still a decision to be taken - usually it starts on and soon gets taken off!)

Later in the afternoon I brief and take questions from all the classical music press - I do that one from memory just to keep me on my toes and see how much of the season I can remember (always hard at this stage of our planning cycle when I have so much of the 2011 and 2012 season at the front of my mind!). Finally it is time for the launch event back at the Royal Academy. It is one of the largest gatherings in the arts calendar and I look forward to it enormously - although there is always the pressure of the speech! Not least because of he decisions of what I have to leave out of it. It is however a hugely enjoyable event and above all a real sense of release and relief to be able to talk about the season at last.

How I have longed to respond to the questions and to post on the message boards when ideas so wide of the mark (or close to it!) appear there - now the truth is out and I look forward to my Q & A sessions online and in person at the venues as I meet the audiences.
The Proms website and Radio 3 are the home of the Proms throughout the season and you will be able to see and hear all the up-to-date information there.

Now I can't wait for the festival itself to start

  • The Proms 2010 website goes live to the public at 1830 on Thursday 22 April 
  • The lower picture shows Donald Gilbert's 1936 bust of Sir Henry Wood, garlanded with its traditional chaplet by Prommers at the Last Night 

Magic moments at the Barbican

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 01:24 UK time, Monday, 12 April 2010

BBC Symphony Chorus alto Monica Todd completes her series of blogs on the premiere of Ian McQueen's Earthly Paradise

Andrew_and_Pat_sm.jpgIt was the biggest wooden mallet I've ever seen. The handle was several feet long and the head looked big enough to serve as a traffic bollard. It was quite a spectacle when it struck the wooden box beneath it, making a huge resonant boom. This piece is big. Very big.

And such a big piece of music needs a big orchestra. This made the distance between us and our conductor Sir Andrew Davis bigger than usual. Fortunately he conducts so clearly that it was as if he was standing directly in front of us, something we rely on when performing such a large-scale and complicated piece. Rehearsing with a piano doesn't prepare us for the full extent of the orchestration hence I can get surprised by giant mallets!

To perform such an epic work as Ian McQueen's Earthly Paradise, the only possibility is to launch into it wholeheartedly. We gave it our all. Hearing the texts over so many instruments meant we had to spit out the consonants with exaggerated clarity. We wanted the audience in the hall to hear the words and for the Radio 3 microphones to pick up every detail. The Symphony Orchestra's chief producer Ann McKay listened from the outside broadcast van and recorded the concert for Performance on 3 on Tuesday 13th April at 7pm. I can't wait to hear it again. I'm sure it will sound different from what I heard in my place right behind the huge percussion section!

Often I approach the concert platform looking forward to one or two particular moments, little snippets that I particularly relish. This piece was no exception. I love the huge, robust ending of the first movement: three strong chords which bring it to a very gratifying close. And movement three contains my favourite chord of the whole piece. After the line 'Little there was of joy and mirth' (and again after 'Seem'd foolish things that waited death') the music is suddenly hushed for the most glorious shimmering chord in the strings. It's very atmospheric. (For some reason it makes me think of a misty glade in the moonlight. That movement is all about a knight wandering through woodland so perhaps I am not too far off in my imagery.)

I love the very end as well. My anticipation was focused on the spine-tingling moment when the huge climactic final chord finishes and the bells continue to ring out for a few seconds... All activity on stage ceases and yet the performance continues. All eyes are on Andrew who stands motionless yet still in charge. The audience and performers are hushed, anticipating his signalling the end of the performance by lowering his hands. Then the applause begins and the performers relax, sit back and take their praise. Magic.

  • The photo shows Sir Andrew Davis autographing a copy of the concert programme for the Symphony Chorus archive, a long-standing and much-loved tradition. He is with our chairman Pat Dixon.

Sounds of Earthly Paradise

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 20:07 UK time, Wednesday, 7 April 2010

BBC Symphony Chorus alto Monica Todd continues her account of rehearsals for the imminent premiere of a new work.

chorusmaster_pianist_and_composer.jpg'Who is that?' muttered a few of the singers to their neighbours, pointing at the friendly-looking chap standing by the piano. 'It must be Ian McQueen...'We are used to meeting composers who are neither dead nor wearing breeches and a powdered wig but we can still be surprised if we haven't met them before.

Some people thought he was older than they expected, others younger; however, his soft Scottish accent surprised no-one. He came across as matter-of-fact and affable, cheerfully answering questions and chatting to chorus-members.

Formulating the first ever performance of a newly-composed piece is a very different experience to the more usual task of devising an interpretation of an older, frequently-performed work as there are no precedents to follow and no accepted wisdoms to refer to. In fact, a movement of this piece has been re-written since rehearsals began. In that way, the work of a living composer is like a living being itself.

'Earthly Paradise - Sayings, Songs and Poems of William Morris' sets various texts by Morris. Movement 1 includes the passage: 'The doomed ship drives on helpless through the sea' and I will confess that there were moments in rehearsal when I really related to that imagery! Scoring that deviates from normal notational protocol always presents challenges. For example, the altos and basses have to snore at the start of movement 4 - trust me, this is what is says in the score: "Hroh! Hrr! Hurrorr~~~~"! It is incredibly difficult to snort (like waking up suddenly) in time with each other and exactly on a half beat but it is something we intend to do perfectly on the Barbican stage in the performance!

Ian attended our last rehearsal and so could offer advice about some of the more innovative and opaque aspects of his score like the non-language syllables that are intended to create vocal harmonics or the imaginative stage directions that on one occasion ask us to be 'insidious' and at another point ask the tenors to chant with an 'asthmatic Icelandic accent'. Good thing we have the humour to tackle the seemingly-impossible with confidence...

marking_the_score.jpgOur remaining rehearsals are with Sir Andrew Davis who will conduct the concert on Saturday. Longstanding members of the chorus remember him from his 11-year tenure as chief conductor and we see him quite a lot now in his current role as conductor laureate. He is always cheerful and the chorus have complete confidence in him. Since there is a full symphony orchestra between us and him when we perform, feeling a personal connection is really important. We all know that he will lead the performance at the Barbican on Saturday expertly. You can hear it on Performance on 3 on Tuesday 13 April and Ian McQueen will be live in the studio with presenter Martin Handley to introduce his piece. Tune in!

  • The live concert presentation of Ian McQueen's Earthly Paradise is at the Barbican Hall at 730pm on Saturday 10 April. For details click this link.
  • The top photo shows BBC Symphony Chorus conductor Stephen Jackson with rehearsal pianist Paul Webster and composer Ian McQueen.

Inside the BBC Symphony Chorus

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 17:03 UK time, Thursday, 1 April 2010

Monica Todd works in Radio 3 production and is an alto member of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Over the next two weeks Monica will be reporting on the chorus's preparations for the world premiere of Ian McQueen's  Earthly Paradise, in a concert at the Barbican Hall on Saturday 10 April

BBC_Symphony_Chorus.jpgOk, I'll admit it. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, braving the London Underground's evening peak to get to a BBC Symphony Chorus rehearsal is not that attractive. But I like the fact that it is one of the few journeys I make in London that quite commonly involves running into people I know, and the 500-or-so metre walk to the studio from the station is busy with chorus members on rehearsal nights. (It is acceptable protocol to overtake slower walkers by the way. We all do the journey so often and have our own tight timetable of ablutions, refreshments and conversations which culminate in being seated and ready for the rehearsal to start at 6.40pm!)

maida_vale_plaque.jpgI remember the excitement (and nerves!) of arriving at the Maida Vale studios for the first time when I took my entry audition, passing the 'British Broadcasting Corporation' plaque by the door and timidly introducing myself to the security personnel in reception. Now I breeze in like I own the place, waving my membership card and heading straight to the canteen for a quick but much-needed meal. Lots of us use catering manager Said's food as essential fuel for singing, and considering we are such an assorted bunch, we're very friendly and sociable. This makes the canteen quite a buzzy and fun place to be. I enjoy it even if it does involve inhaling my food quickly whilst staring intently at the clock!

Unlike some choirs, we don't meet for a weekly rehearsal on a set night; instead, we work to the BBC's season of concerts which is planned far in advance. Once the decision has been made about how many rehearsals are appropriate for a particular piece of music, they are scheduled into the preceding weeks and months at about two per week. For a run of concerts in close succession (which sometimes happens during the Proms) there may be a set of rehearsals way ahead.  But, like the orchestra, the scoring of the music dictates the personnel needed. We then commit to individual concerts (and associated rehearsals) separately.

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