Symphony: The fireworks of Johann Stamitz

Wednesday 2 November 2011, 12:22

Andy King-Dabbs Andy King-Dabbs Producer/Director

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Directing the first two episodes of the new Symphony series for BBC Four was a real voyage of discovery for me.

Although I've been making classical music documentaries for about 15 years now, I always find new music and new stories that I've not encountered before.

The big revelation of the series was our earliest composer - Johann Stamitz.

The first time I listened to one of his early 18th Century symphonies I was knocked out by its energy and its brio, the sheer fireworks of the thing. I found myself wondering if I hadn't somehow stumbled onto some sort of neglected genius.

Then the more I listened the more I came to realise that this ability to make your jaw drop on first listening was Stamitz's gift.

Simon Russell Beale

Presenter Simon Russell Beale in front of the Esterháza

OK, there wasn't really anything much else going on there behind the pyrotechnics - but here was somebody who sure knew how to impress a listener.

Once we started filming the music excerpts with Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment I had the privilege of hearing his work again as if for the first time.

Thanks to their beautiful, precision performance I was again totally bowled over.

Some weeks later, when we were filming the documentary stories withSimon Russell Beale, we visited the Mannheimer Schloss in south-west Germany.

This magnificent palace was where Johann Stamitz and his orchestra had performed more than two and a half centuries ago.

Sir Mark Elder and Simon Russell Beale with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Sir Mark Elder and Simon Russell Beale with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

I clearly remember walking into the main salon for the first time looking for camera positions.

Like Stamitz's music, the space immediately grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and forced you to be stunned by its decorative bravado - the glowing marble walls, the lavish ceiling paintings and scintillating, cascading chandeliers.

Later the curator told us that the original Mannheimer Schloss had been flattened during World War II and that the entire building had been carefully reconstructed from photographs in the 1960s.

Sure enough as we explored further we discovered that this salon, and the magnificent staircase that led to it, was simply all there was - the rest of the massive building being strictly functional corridors and utilitarian meeting rooms.

And if you start to look really closely, those wonderful ceiling paintings start to look a tiny bit sketchy and the finish on the plasterwork reveals itself as just a little too perfunctory and machine finished for baroque craftsmanship.

Funnily enough none of this diminished the experience for me at all - it just seemed so in-sync with Johann Stamitz's music.

As a TV director you soon learn how important first impressions are - most people are only going to experience your work the once.

So, like Stamitz and the rebuilders of Mannheim, I find myself hoping that you'll simply watch in the moment, and enjoy the wonderful music and fascinating stories.

Andy King-Dabbs is the director and producer of episodes one and two of the series Symphony.

Symphony starts with Genesis And Genius on BBC Four on Thursday, 3 November at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

This series is part of the Symphony season on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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    Comment number 2.

    Although I know a bit about this sort of thing, I'm not musically trained, so I was hoping to find out after all these years what a symphony actually is, as well as "enjoy the wonderful music". Unfortunately, the programme didn't actually illustrate what a symphony is, and we weren't able to enjoy the music for as much as thirty seconds at a stretch before one of the experts talked over it. It was as if we were trusted to work out the technical stuff for ourselves, but not to be able to actually listen to the music - we just had to take someone else's word for it, and that word was often banal. Good performances, but the OAE and Mark Elder were wasted: I'm sure I would have been "bowled over" by that Stamitz piece, but that was never going to happen in the tiny extracts on offer.
    Nice locations, though.


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