Archives for September 2010

Waiting for the green light

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Ian McMillan Ian McMillan | 17:15 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010


Tower of books


Ian McMillan dodges toppling towers of books to tell us what's in store for the new season of The Verb

The last Verb of the season is just before the Proms, halfway through July and then, although I present a few events in the Proms Literary Festival, I don’t have a weekly commitment through the Summer; so I say thank goodness for the Proms Literary Festival, because if it wasn’t for those little islands of learning in the months without an ‘R’ in them, my brain would turn to mush.

Having to read books and new writing for The Verb really sharpens me up intellectually and linguistically; when the programme takes a break my literary muscles inevitably slacken off a bit, but now, with the programme returning this Friday, September 17th, I’m back in training, and padded bags full of books are crashing through my letterbox every day.

The Verb’s got a packed Autumn; as well as our regular weekly shows, recorded in the studio on the 5th floor at Broadcasting House, we’ve got live shows at the Radio Theatre, a show at this year’s Freethinking Festival at The Sage Gateshead, a pre-Free-thinking (there must be a better way of saying that!) live show as part of the Durham Book Festival, and a Prison Writing Special, with new writing and a prison visit by Verb regular Toby Litt.

As the books begin to arrive, I tell myself that I really must do something about our spare room, which has become a kind of book room, with tottering towers of books everywhere; occasionally in the middle of the night one of the towers falls down and I rush out of bed thinking we’ve been burgled but of course it’s a few volumes of obscure Eastern European verse or a first novel or a collection of short stories by an older author who’s recently been rediscovered.

I’ll read them all before Christmas, I promise. Well, most of them...


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The long and the short of the LNOTP

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:08 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Every year, before an international TV and Radio audience of millions, the Last Night of the Proms' conductor singles out the BBC Symphony Orchestra for special praise. But what's like being on the receiving end? Sub-principal viola Phil Hall has the answer ...

Last Night of the Proms 2010

The Last Night of the Proms 2010. Photo: © Chris Christodoulou

It is something of a mixed blessing to be known as 'the orchestra that does the Last Night of the Proms'.  For some it's a no uncontentious, flag-waving knees-up, but for others it's a fitting celebratory concert marking the end of the largest classical music festival in the world. For the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it's our longest and most exposed concert of the year. In fact in terms of global coverage, apart from the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day concert, I can think of no bigger regular gig in the world. Put that at the end of a busy summer, and it's not surprising that some of us are feeling more than a little jaded right now. I'll be honest, after 18 Last Nights some of the novelty has gone (I always tell new players that the first one is your best); but, my, when you walk out through the famous 'Bull Run' and on to the stage for the second half, that party atmosphere hits you right between the eyes every time. Sitting at the front of my section, I'm also hit on the head by party poppers, of which the violas seems to have an inexhaustible supply. As fast as I pull the streamers off my viola bow, another arrives. I'm sure they aren't all aiming at me but it's not doing my paranoia any good...I'm lucky if I can get the bow ready in time for the first number!

One thing that makes it interesting for us players (apart from seeing our female colleagues in their pretty and colourful dresses) is the choice of a non-British conductor: not only how they interpret the usual Last Night fare (some rehearse it more than others) but how they control and interact with the spontaneity of the crowd (ok, audience). 

This can make or break the event. In the public mind, there seems to be an expectation that a British conductor should do the Last Night, 'though recently, for my money the only Brit who really took to it like a duck to water was Sir Andrew Davis. However, Leonard Slatkin, a natural raconteur and anglophile, didn't bat an eyelid, despite having the unenviably difficult task of dealing with it a few days after 9/11. Similarly, his compatriot David Robertson last year seemed undaunted. Maybe these loquacious Americans are more used to massed social interaction than us reserved Brits. Or perhaps it is just that they aren't saddled with the baggage of Last Night Tradition, having not grown up with it. They also didn't seemed unduly worried by The Speech.

 When I got married 19 years ago, the one person more nervous than I was my Czech father-in-law. 'Do I have really to make such speech in English?' he pleaded. 'It's a tradition in this country,' I replied, passing him another (Czech) beer and completely brushing away the fact that the poor chap would have to speak in public in a language foreign to him. However I could tell Jiří Bělohlávek had done his idiomatical homework, since at Friday night's rehearsal he beamed: 'Now we rehearse Parry's Best pair of Nylons!' He muttered some remarks about various versions of You'll never walk alone - I had no idea he was so au fait with Rodgers and Hammerstein arrangements and that set me off on a momentary fantasy: Jiří conducting Carousel with the John Wilson Orchestra at Liverpool's football ground, Anfield... I reeled myself back into reality and asked how his Last Night speech was progressing. He said that he was going to rely on the inspiration of the evening... (I secretly hoped he was half-joking). But, fortunately, as at my wedding, the speech was short, sincere, without notes, and to the point. Who could ask for anything more?

  • The Last Night of the Proms on BBC1, BBC2 and Radio 3 is available for three more days on the BBC iPlayer 



Last Night of the Proms 2010

Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek with soprano Renée Fleming. Photo: © Chris Christodoulou


Goethe's Faust - an entertainment?!

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Nicolas Soames Nicolas Soames | 12:35 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Did you hear the one about the bloke who sold his soul to the devil? No, really! Independent producer Nicolas Soames of Ukemi Productions Ltd. looks ahead to a unique opportunity to hear Goethe's surprisingly amusing Faust on Radio 3.

Goethe in Italy

Goethe in Italy

'What I suggest,' I said to my friend, a sales manager for a classical CD label, but well-read, 'is that you clear the evening of 19 September and listen to Radio 3 - our production of Goethe's Faust. You don't often get the chance to hear it. And especially not Part 1 and Part 2, in one go - running for four hours.'

He looked at me with a pained expression as if I had suggested we swim the Channel together.

And that, to be really honest, is the response I have had from most people whom I have told. In a way, I understand. It does sound like a heavy duty. Sure, Goethe's Faust is a pillar of Western literature. We all know that even if we have never read it (most of us!). But four hours of a serious 18th century German verse drama on a Sunday night? Has Drama on 3 gone bonkers?

Well, I can tell you that when the 17-strong cast, with Samuel West as Faust, Toby Jones as Mephistopheles and Anna Maxwell Martin as Gretchen, gathered together at the studio, the biggest surprise to all was just how much fun it was. No, really!

Goethe's Faust is closer to Andy Hamilton's Old Harry's Game than Marlowe's Dr Faustus. As sure as eggs are eggs, Mr Hamilton's research involved reading Goethe, and probably in the delightfully colloquial, wholly accessible translation by John R. Williams which we used as the basis for our adaptation.


Mephistpheles tempts Faust

Let's not go completely over the top. This is A Great Work of Western Literature. It does address issues of the human condition: need and greed, integrity and deception, ambition and power; it does show mankind being tripped up by wavering emotions time and again - which underpin the tragedy of Gretchen and the despair of Faust. This is all embedded in poetry of the highest order, especially when spoken by an outstanding verse actor such as Samuel West.

But Goethe wrote a drama, not a tract. And it is truly funny. You will smile at the very beginning as The Lord (Derek Jacobi) and Mephistopheles start the banter that sets the story rolling. You will be entertained by the slapstick comedy in so many of the retorts or asides from the persuasively immoral Mephistopheles (a masterly characterisation by Toby Jones). And you will truly laugh at some of the outrageous lines and situations, (a homunculus in a glass, Walpurgis Night) even in Part 2 which slides into fantastical pantomime.

We never record the initial read-through of a play of course, but sometimes it is a pity. In this case, we could have captured the laughter of the cast as Goethe came alive in a 21st century radio studio - that alone would have confounded expectations of a worthy project. If David Timson, the director/adapter, who had lived with Faust for over a year, bringing in the composer Roger Marsh to write incidental music, had one single intention, it was to show Faust in its true colours. And worthy it is not.

  • Goethe's Faust is broadcast on Radio 3 at 645pm on Sunday 19 September. For full cast details, click here.
  • Click here for details of Radio 3's Drama on 3 series

Speech bubble ...

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 15:51 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

As Abigail Appleton, Radio 3's Head of Speech Programmes explains, she's touched by the BBC Proms as much as anyone else - but Proms programmes are only part of the paperwork cluttering her floor at home right now ... 



I accidentally stepped on Sir Alan Ayckbourn this morning - a script for one of his dramas, I should add, not the man. For it's that time of year again, when much of the floor space in our house is taken up with piles of scripts and proposals that producers have put forward in our commissioning round for Drama on 3.

I like to spread them out as I think about the individual plays and the overall mix - hence the multiple trip hazards. Those we commissioned last autumn are now on air and I'm waiting to see if the shortlist I agonised over will live up to expectations. The current season looks the strongest in recent years but commissioning is far from an exact science and there's a fair bit of gut instinct involved.

Each season has its own mix of new writing and classics, established writers and new voices, large-scale productions and some, you hope, a little cheaper. Sometimes a proposal seems to have all the right ingredients on paper but doesn't quite work on air. At other times they turn out even better than you'd imagined. When producer Turan Ali suggested we adapt James Baldwin's seminal love story, Giovanni's Room, I was amazed someone hadn't done it before and snapped it up; but I didn't anticipate just how wonderfully witty and sincere Neil Bartlett's adaption would be. If you missed it, don't worry, we'll certainly repeat it. There's also a host of powerful stories coming up, from Brian Friel's intense chamber piece, Faith Healer to the epic narrative of Goethe's Faust, and some bold new writing.

Sir Henry Wood

Another of the hazardous piles of papers on the floor - you do have to tread carefully here until commissioning is completed and there's time to tidy - is a collection of Proms programmes. To keep, or not to keep, is an annual topic of discussion between my partner and me. Though at times we may both feel overwhelmed with 'stuff', we are both inclined to hang on to them. Thankfully, Sir Henry Wood - founder of the Proms - was clearly a hoarder too. A wonderful collection of his concert programmes, only recently rediscovered in the British Library, was the source of intriguing insights in last Saturday's feature, Sir Henry's Hoard. I was struck by the revelation that so many of the programmes, which came by subscription from across Europe, featured female performers and composers. Sir Henry Wood himself can be credited with introducing women into his Queen's Hall Orchestra, though when it came to the Proms they weren't allowed to play, as it was thought to be too tiring for them!


Bettany Hughes

On the theme of listening highlights, I was completely fascinated by Bettany Hughes's feature Tracking the Aryans, broadcast on Thursday, in which a visit to the prehistoric site of Arkaim on the Siberian Steppe became a meditation on the complexity of understanding ancient history and the politics of archaeology, in particular the search to identify 'half of humanity's original mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European'. One of her contributors concluded that the intellectually healthy position was simply to accept uncertainty. A healthy position for a commissioner too, I think, as I admit to myself that writing this is a displacement activity and that I really must get back to reading those scripts.


Social Media - new ways to connect listeners

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Andrew Downs Andrew Downs | 16:56 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

Radio 3 Interactive Producer Andrew Downs explains how Twitter and Facebook have been harnessed to link Radio 3 fans at the Last Night of the Proms.

Radio 3 Facebook

Are you the kind for whom Twitter invokes tutting rather than tweeting? I could have fairly counted myself as one of the former kind when the chance came earlier this year to wear the Radio 3 interactive team's new Social Media hat.

The principal challenge facing me and my fellow interactive team members is how to guide licence fee payers to Radio 3 online content they would find interesting if only they knew about it. The world we call 'social media' offers tools to help meet that challenge.

 In a limited experiment this year we've harnessed social media sites Facebook and Twitter to tell people about online content related to the BBC Proms. This is content like photo galleries, video clips, MaestroCam and PlayerCom, and recommendations to help orientate the overwhelmed, for example this video from Sara Mohr-Pietsch with her choice of concerts as the 2010 season draws to a close.

At the end of the experiment our team hopes to understand better what sustainable social media activity could look like for Radio 3 and the Proms.

In the short time I've been wearing my new hat, it's become increasingly clear that online social media applications now mean that the likes of Facebook and Twitter have a significance approaching the scale of Google's for bringing people to online content. This power mainly comes from two things Facebook and Twitter make easy: networking and personal recommendation.

Earlier in the season Radio 1's Rob da Bank offered his Proms recommendations on Facebook. That's an example of the power of social media to connect people and interests, agnostic of demographic expectations. What could be more in keeping with the spirit of the Proms?

Watch out for Twitter and Facebook activity at the Last Night of the Proms. To join in the conversation on Twitter include the hashtag #bbcproms in your tweets and follow @bbcradio3live and @bbcproms.

Radio 3 Twitter Page


Bliss in Edinburgh

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 13:19 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

The BBC Symphony Orchestra provided the pit band for the European premiere of Brett Dean's opera Bliss at the Edinburgh International Festival. Sub-principal viola Phil Hall was doing his bit for the music and the offal industry ...

Every so often the BBC Symphony Orchestra is allowed out of the Proms lest we forget that there are other summer festivals happening elsewhere on the planet. In the past we have visited Salzburg, Lucerne, Berlin and Edinburgh - the latter is where we find ourselves this week. Usually it is just a 'hit and run' repeat Prom concert, then back to the Albert Hall before anyone knows we've escaped, but this time we have taken up residence for almost a week in Auld Reekie in order to give two performances of Australian composer Brett Dean 's new Kafka-esque opera, Bliss.

We are billeted out by Arthur's Seat, the craggy 350 million-year-old volcano which, if climbed, affords some of the best views of the city and across the silvery Firth of Forth. My plans to jog up it before breakfast however are scuppered by the previous night's intake of curry and single malts... well, when in Rome...

A few of us take advantage of a free morning and go to the Tokyo String Quartet's coffee concert in the Queen's Hall. Their refined Debussy and Schubert is inspiring and in keeping with the Australian theme; composer Peter Sculthorpe is in attendance to witness a performance of his 18th quartet.

Brett Dean - Bliss

We rehearse in the Festival Theatre and the conductor Elgar Howarth quickly realises the acoustical differences between this theatre and the place he and Opera Australia performed the piece previously, the Sydney Opera House. This means tweaking a lot of dynamics downwards to let the voices be heard and a firm hand on the tiller of the Midi keyboard which, with the touch of a single button, threatens to drown everything. In the pit the orchestra is sitting in a different layout to the norm with first and second violins swapped over and all the wind and brass on the conductor's right. The presence of a grand piano, contrabass clarinet and more percussion than you can shake a maraca at necessitates such seating.

Before the first performance there are fears for one of the singers who is not feeling well and also for the revolving stage which was being temperamental during rehearsals. Fortunately the gods smile and the European premiere of Bliss is a triumph. We troop off to the City Chambers for a convivial reception courtesy of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who lays on haggis, neeps and tatties...(well, not literally, you understand, that would be messy...)

The next day is free and after nipping round the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel (which is of consuming interest to Dan Brown readers ...) I pop into the Usher Hall to catch our BBC Scottish colleagues rehearsing Mahler 8 under Donald Runnicles. It's funny to be reminded of our own First Night so close to the end of the Proms season. It sounds great in the hall and I catch up with friends and sip Earl Grey on Earl Grey St. (why not?) before catching another Festival treat - the evergreen Paco Peña, in the evening.

scottish breakfast

The weather is uncharacteristically gorgeous and a few of us stroll up Arthur's Seat the next morning. I'm overtaken at considerable speed by a bionic woman, closely followed by a bionic man with 'South African Triathlon Team' printed on the back of his tracksuit. As if there wasn't enough already going on here, Edinburgh is also hosting the World Duathlon this weekend which explains the presence of impossibly fit Canadians sitting at the breakfast table next to me. They give me a look as I tuck into a condemned Scotsman's breakfast of black pudding, sausages and vegetarian haggis. I feel like telling them I have to get through three-and-a-half ours of difficult contemporary music this evening but fear they just won't understand.

Another successful performance ensues and we fly back to London and say goodbye to each other, but it's only au revoir as tomorrow we'll start rehearsals for our last two Proms. Then a week off....bliss!

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra perform music by Wagner, Tansy Davies and Bruckner at the BBC Proms on Wednesday 8 September. They return for the traditional Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 11 September.
  • The BBC has recorded Brett Dean's Bliss for transmission at a later date 



Listening to the Proms - the important bits

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Gabriel Gilson Gabriel Gilson | 17:00 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

Gabriel Gilson, interactive editor for the Proms and Radio 3 websites, on a technical improvement that might be music to your ears...

Natural History Museum Darwin Centre

A day out with the kids is usually a mixture of treats and tantrums (not necessarily in that order). But last week we were stopped in our tracks by some digital magic. On a day trip to London's Natural History Museum with my two boys, we dallied with butterflies then found our way to the new Darwin Centre. It houses specimens, and the scientists who work on them. In a neat bit of theatricality, you can observe both through big plate glass windows. Amid the usual exhibits, we came across a set of drawers designed to show how they store collections for posterity. Open the top drawer and you see a standard tray of bugs skewered by pins. Open the bottom drawer and you get not a tray but a computer screen with a picture of a set of archived bugs. Close the drawer and open it again and you see a different set of creatures. And that's when the drawer came to life. As we looked, a bee rose up and buzzed around the virtual tray. Close and open again and this time a set of plants ripple to an imaginary summer breeze. Children and dad transfixed. Magic Draws!

Visiting the Royal Albert Hall over the summer has had a similar feel. You never quite know what you'll get when you round the corner. What age of audience, what smell of perfume? Inside, the conductor raises a baton and the music comes to life. Ranks of string players rippling like corn, percussion punctuating via ears and stomach.

Part of the challenge of running the Proms website is how to take all that and capture it on a computer screen. Luckily for us we have sound as well as pictures. And this week's small step in the evolution of radio is an experimental extra high quality audio stream available via the site for the remaining live proms this year. We've increased the amount of digital information used to deliver the sound ('bits', to be technical...). To my humble ears, it does an even better job of bringing you in to the concert. The sound of the Hall, so intrinsic to the Proms, is more tangible. There's a better sense of space and clarity around each instrument. There's more music. But don't just take my word for it. If you haven't tried plugging your computer into your Hi-Fi yet, or plugging a nice pair of headphones in, give it a go during the final week of the Proms.

Technical bugs permitting, we'll be adding more ways of bringing the music to life over the coming months. In the meantime, give this a go and tell us what you think. We'd love to hear if it adds to the magic.

  • You can access the experimental extra high quality audio stream by visiting the BBC Proms website
  • You can read a technical blog about the project by Rupert Brun, Head of Technology for BBC Audio & Music, by clicking this link.
  • Technical FAQs are available by clicking this link.
  • To join the conversation about this story on Twitter include the hashtag #PromsXHQ in your tweets.

An archive image of the BBC Radiophonic`Workshop


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