Archives for October 2011

The week on In Tune - dazzle and grit on the parquet floor

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Sean Rafferty Sean Rafferty | 16:51 UK time, Monday, 31 October 2011

Alina Pogostkina and Diana Ketler on BBC Radio 3's In Tune, 31 October 2011.

Week after week of dazzle and delight on In Tune - curtain down on one collection of stellar guests; curtain up on another.

The week ahead captures some of the great musical events and their creators. The young Russian born violinist Alina Pogostkina plays Bartok today - she started life as a street musician when her family came to Germany without a Pfennig (or cent!). She went on to win the prestigious Sibelius International Competition - brilliance and real grit. Tarik O'Regan is here today too: two Grammy nominations for his ethereal and compelling Choral Music. Next stop: Covent Garden tomorrow for the opening of his opera Heart of Darkness.

The rest of the week has some pretty spectacular performers too. Alfie Boe - another rags to riches story - the singing car mechanic who's now a superstar. He shares our lofty parquet floored studio with Pavlo Beznosiuk for a Riot of Baroque. Oh - I thought I'd casually mention - one of the most famous divas: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. What a line up!

Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer Stacey Kent and her quartet perform live on Wednesday and we'll be catching up on a Beethoven marathon on at St Pancras Station.

Thursday brings one of the most thrilling amber voices of our time - when the baritone Simon Keenlyside sings live with pianist Malcolm Martineau. Marcelo Bratke moves on to the piano stool after Malcolm vacates it and we have Sir Neville Marriner keeping watch over proceedings - still sparkling after seventy years making music! Conducting keeps you on your toes, literally and figuratively.

We have Eve Loiseau as Edith Piaf to end our week and the fabulous Nicola Benedetti - who's gone from strength to strength ever since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year.

What a week. Hope you'll tune in and share some of the most uplifting music and musicians around. Sheer delight!

Sean Rafferty is presenter of In Tune

  • The picture shows violinist Alina Pogostkina and Diana Ketler at the piano in studio 80B.

Finnish, then, thy new creation - BBC Symphony Orchestra news

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 17:30 UK time, Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Photo of Maida Vale studios on Tuesday 25 October. © Steve Bowbrick

The scene at Maida Vale studios for Tuesday's live broadcast. Photo © Steve Bowbrick

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall reports from Maida Vale studios, where revered conductor Neeme Järvi appeared with the orchestra live on Radio 3 this week.

At the Barbican this Friday (28th) of this month the BBC Symphony Orchestra begins its Sibelius odyssey. Each of his seven extraordinary symphonies will be performed across the season, four of them with a Finnish conductor.

My first job as a wet-behind-the-ears violist was in a Finnish orchestra and there is something very special about the way that country's conductors interpret the character of the Finns' nature, iron will (known as 'Sisu') and quirky personality that are all so well-represented in Sibelius's masterpieces.

It was something of a warm-up yesterday, then, to play our Maida Vale live studio broadcast of Nordic music with a conductor who hails from just across the Baltic sea in Estonia, Neeme Järvi. Their language is the closest of any other to Finnish, (Järvi means 'Lake' in both Finnish and Estonian) and the well-known difficulties of the languages mean that they are known to comparatively few outside resident speakers. At the start of the morning's rehearsal our esteemed maestro, perturbed at seeing the diacritics missing from his countryman Tönu Körvits' name on the schedule, insisted on teaching us how to pronounce the letter Ö, followed by the letter Ō....

It is always a joy to welcome an experienced and avuncular conductor through the portals of Maida Vale and the orchestra relished the barnstorming character Neeme brought not only to Finlandia and the Karelia Suite but also to fellow Finn Uuno Klami's French-perfumed Sea Pictures. The concert began with a UK Premiere - Sung into the Wind - by Estonian composer Tönu Körvits who was present. It's an exotic and colourful work inspired by the wind. Try and catch the concert on Listen Again and see if you can hear the orchestra humming at the end of the Körvits!



Unravelling the mysteries of the symphony

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Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick | 09:49 UK time, Monday, 24 October 2011

Picture shows the BBC SO - Sidonie Goossens and Jeanne Chevreau on the harps.

Editor's note: producer Steven Rajam introduces Radio's 3's new, six-part guide to everything symphonic (starting Wednesday November 9th), presented by Sue Perkins and Tom Service - and needs you to supply the questions.

It's difficult to think of any other genre in classical music that's entered the public's consciousness like the symphony. People of all ages and backgrounds, people who've never bought a classical CD or gone to a concert in their lives, have some idea of what a 'symphony' is... and (I reckon) could probably hum you the opening of Beethoven's Fifth.

It's that universality that I love - and the fact that once you delve deeper, past those famous symphonic excerpts - the Ode To Joy, Mahler's Adagietto, the opening of Mozart 40 (all regularly fed into the popular imagination in countless films and television shows) - there's an ocean of eclectic discovery there, all under the 'symphony' moniker.

Whoever you are, whatever your musical tastes: you might connect with the sparkling, unadorned brilliance of Haydn, Mozart and Stamitz; the drama and intensity of Romantic symphonists, from Beethoven to Bruckner; the yarn-spinning, picture-painting symphonies of Berlioz, Liszt and Richard Strauss; the open vistas and raw, repressed emotion in Sibelius, Shostakovich and Schnittke.

Symphonies were probably my first contact point with classical music as a kid - and I'm really chuffed to have the opportunity to produce a celebration of perhaps classical music's most hallowed genre as part of the BBC's Symphony season. But how do you feed all of that appeal, all that variety, all of four centuries of brilliant musical composition - into six twenty minute episodes?

I'm very pleased to have at my disposal two of the most engaging and witty music broadcasters in the business: in one corner, the comedienne (and no mean conductor herself) Sue Perkins; in the other, Radio 3's Music Matters guru, Tom Service.

Our aim is to create a series that's accessible to anyone who's curious about anything symphonic - to unravel the mysteries and blow away some of the myths of this venerable musical form. We want your questions - anything, whether simple, complicated, maddening or strange, that you've ever wondered about symphonies(and were perhaps too afraid to ask).

To give you an idea, an entirely unscientific, impromptu Q+A (my friends in the pub) came up with:

  • Why does a symphony comes in movements...and is it 'wrong' to listen to just one? And at a concert, why do people stare when you clap in between them?
  • Why symphonies have such a big reputation as the 'pinnacle' of classical music? Can you be a truly great composer without writing a symphony?
  • Are people still writing symphonies, and are they still relevant today?

But even if you know your Haydn from your Hovhaness, your Bruckner from your Berio, we hope there'll be plenty to surprise, delight and engage you. Sue and Tom will be discussing, debating and debunking some of the thorniest symphonic queries - with a host of musical excerpts from the 17th century to the present day.

So: get those questions in! You can email, via the Radio 3 Facebook page - or via Twitter at @bbcradio3 - use the hashtag #r3symphonyqt to join in.

We kick off on Wednesday November 9th, in the interval of Live in Concert - hope you enjoy it!

Steven Rajam is producer of Symphony Question Time

  • Listen to Symphony Question Time in the intervals of Radio 3 Live In Concert, beginning on Wednesday 9th November at 20.20 and then on 17th, 18th, 21st, 26th and 30th November.
  • The picture shows a symphony from another era: Sidonie Goossens and Jeanne Chevreau, members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, on the harps, in 1939.

Mogadishu - drama about what happens in schools

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Matthew Dodd | 15:51 UK time, Sunday, 23 October 2011

Image of a child in a school corridor - BBC Radio 3's Mogadishu, 23 October 2011

"People think they know what happens in schools. But they don't". So says playwright Vivienne Franzmann in the introduction to her play, Mogadishu which we're broadcasting on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday. Franzmann should know - she's a former teacher, this is her first play and it won her the prestigious George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and was a critical success. BBC Radio 3 has a tradition of tackling difficult issues through bringing the best of new playwriting to our audiences. Mogadishu is no exception. It's a hard-hitting story - which shows how an inner-city secondary school is driven by anger, vindictiveness, cowardice and misguided idealism when a student falsely accuses a teacher of racism. And if that description sounds excessive - last weekend the press reported figures from the Department for Education revealing that around 44 per-cent of claims made by pupils and their parents against teachers were "unsubstantiated, malicious or unfounded".

Mogadishu started life on the stage at Manchester's Royal Exchange. But now Franzmann has re-imagined it for radio. And fans of radio drama will know that transferring to the airwaves gives a play an intimacy and a directness, a reliance on language, which can leave audiences frozen as they stop the washing up, the tidying and just listen - sometimes delighted - and sometimes disturbed by the things they realise they want to hear. We're right there in the room as a father, worn down by a low-paid job and family tragedy, humiliates his bullying son, desperate to stop him throwing his life away. We're listening over the shoulder of a head teacher in his office as he brutally washes his hands of a good colleague, because social services have decided to investigate her home life.

And that closeness to the action, an almost documentary feel, doesn't just apply to social realism in radio drama. Over the last six weeks on Radio 3, our broad range of drama offerings could have rushed you through the enchanted forest with the young lovers of Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night's Dream, recorded over night in woodland outside Brighton. You could have lounged in the Parisian cafes with comedian Tommy Cooper - played by Russ Abbott - on a trip to the French capital he never really made. Or, unbelievably for most of us, you could have found yourself giggling away to a seventeenth century French classic! (Courtesy of a brilliant modern comic version by Ranjit Bolt). Radio drama does that. You're not in the most expensive seats in the stalls. You're up there with the actors.

When I first saw Mogadishu in the theatre I was astounded that a young cast could bring such theatrical skill to such a compelling text - and appalled at the situation and the authentic behaviour they portrayed of contemporary Britain. Now audiences at home will have the chance to experience that event. As Vivienne Franzmann herself might put it: people think they know what happens in radio drama. But they don't. Try listening on Sunday.

Matthew Dodd is BBC Radio 3's Head of Speech and Presentation

Notes from a composer, Part 7 - Still Centre

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 16:56 UK time, Thursday, 20 October 2011

Picture of the Buddha


Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his seventh post explaining the process


In many ways I only want to write serene, tranquil music. Here are some favourite examples by others: the slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet, the second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, the first piece from Ravel’s Mother Goose, much Morton Feldman, most Arvo Pärt.

And the fourth movement of my set of seven will be a moment of real stillness – the still centre, time standing still.

But how to do this and not be dull, monotonous? That question is especially in my mind when I approach writing something of serenity. And also another: if I would always like to write tranquil music, why don’t I?!

A search for lasting tranquillity is a personal quest for me, the image of the perfectly centred, enlightened Buddha, beyond suffering, at the core. But art that simply imitates a state of inner peace feels to me ultimately unsatisfying. There was a vogue for it, of course, particularly in the 1960s. I still get my students to sing La Monte Young’s Composition 1960  No.7 – a piece of just two notes a fifth apart with the instruction ‘to be held for a long time’. Cage’s ‘freedom’ allowing all sounds to be equal, to be themselves, remains an enticing idea. But it seems to me – perhaps being the Westerner I am – that peacefulness, deep serenity and so on, is only really appreciated as such within the context of tension, struggle perhaps.

Present-day packaging of ‘relaxing classics’ and playing single movements from pieces etc – we all do it now with our play-lists – seems to me misleading, for it omits context. The Schubert, Bach and Ravel are poignant islands of stillness not just in themselves, but because they are juxtaposed with fast, agitated movements; the Schubert is in fact calm only in the outer sections of the movement. Feldman, meanwhile, may appear untroubled on the outside – a music without direction - but there are many disturbances of pattern within. Arvo Pärt appears to me much better than many of his imitators because there is a real strength of structure that counterbalances the simple sounds.

So though my impulse is just to write something smooth and gentle, I know I have to shape things carefully to make it fully effective – and affective.

I hope for a start this still moment of no.4 will appear startling and effective because of  the roar, the surprises and the expressive tensions of what will come before. And within the movement itself I want to try to maintain tension by appearing to set up the sound of a long slow movement only to cut off its stillness only just after it has fully settled. The ending is not an ending.

And I hope too the smooth surface of the movement consisting mostly of evenly moving beats in a simple, unchanging minor mode, is balanced by the layering in the piece, its basic material heard at different speeds. This is a little like what I did in movement 3 and want to do again in the final piece: my idea of different time levels haunting this piece too.

Now as I write this, I wonder if the piece may have become too active! If – in my concern not to be boring – I have swung too far the other way. Where is the crucial balance point between necessary change and focussing on the same? How do you produce something of serenity which yet keeps you awake? This compositional tension is one I think I’m destined to continue to live with.


Terry Gilliam directs Berlioz's Damnation of Faust on BBC 4

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 11:35 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

Photo of Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust

Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust

Last May, former Python and film writer/director Terry Gilliam was invited by English National Opera to direct a new production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust.  


It's a problematic work - Berlioz called it a 'légende dramatique' (dramatic legend) - and it is more often performed in concert halls than in the theatre.

But the Faust legend and work's dramatic potential attracts opera companies and directors - by inviting Terry Gilliam, ENO sought to harness the director's visual flair and fantastical imagination.

The production certainly caused a stir, and you can see it this evening on BBC 4 TV, at 7.30pm.

ENO have also made an interesting backstage video about the work of the backstage technicians in the fly tower of the London Coliseum - to see the video and find details of the broadcast, follow the links below.

Graeme Kay is an interactive producer for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Classical Music TV

Find details of The Damnation of Faust on BBC 4

Watch the backstage video from English National Opera. 

Controller Roger Wright on the cutbacks - and what was on in 1991

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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 10:12 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011


Radio 3 logo


I have just been preparing my monthly note about our forthcoming programming and it seemed odd not to make some reference to the announcements that the BBC has just made. So so I thought I’d blog to explain our plans.

Our savings target for content spend is £1.6m, which is 4% of the station's total. We have taken the decision to protect the range and breadth of the station's output, not least its commitment to new work, but inevitably, therefore, we will have to reduce costs in some areas to deliver the required savings.


The bulk of our costs are in the areas of live and specially-recorded music and drama output so that's where we have to achieve our savings.

However we have selected our cost reduction very carefully in order to minimise the impact for our audience in the next few years.

Discovering Music has been reduced in length and will now be in its new shortened form in the future. The volume of output broadcast from the Ulster Orchestra will be reduced, as will the amount of specially recorded material for Hear and Now.

The spend on lunchtime concerts will be reduced and the rate of repeats increased; the cost of some live evening concerts will also be reduced, but with no impact on the station’s commitment to a live performance every weekday evening.

Radio 3 will see a reduction in drama volume, but will still broadcast at least 30 new drama productions every year and remain committed to new writing.

To protect the BBC Proms, no savings are proposed in this area.

Analysis of the BBC’s orchestras and the BBC Singers is underway to explore opportunities for savings, with proposals expected by the end of the year.

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BBC Symphony Orchestra - world premiere in Bonn

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:43 UK time, Thursday, 6 October 2011

Photo: Soloist Carolin Widdmann takes her applause after the premiere of Rebecca Saunders' violin concerto

Applause for soloist Carolin Widmann after the premiere of Rebecca Saunders' violin concerto

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall reports from the band's recent tour to Germany and Belgium

As I pack my tails and shoes into the wardrobe box and my viola into a flight case, I muse on the fact that touring is a very civilised affair with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This is the first of three tours this autumn and newly-minted luggage labels sit alongside tour schedules, hot off the press. All is presided over by our ever-efficient tour manager Kathryn who is on hand to answer awkward questions, such as: 'Why are we flying to Düsseldorf when Bonn has its own airport?' 'Is toothpaste classed as a liquid?' and 'What time does the 9.30 coach leave?'
And why shouldn't touring be civilised? It used to be in the pre-jet age. I'd love to have gone by boat to America - all that legroom and no jet-lag. Then I remember that the London Symphony Orchestra was originally booked on the Titanic ...

Somehow all the civility changes when I wake up at crikey-o'clock to get to Heathrow for a red-eye flight to Düsseldorf. I take my wife a cup of tea. She mumbles something I don't quite understand and I trip over the cat on my way out the door. Maybe she was telling me about the cat... I arrive at Terminal 5 in far too much time. A smooth flight and an uneventful coach journey ensue and we reach the hotel and head out for lunch on the old square.

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Notes from a composer, Part 6 - Venice Once Again

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 15:04 UK time, Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Image of J M W Turner: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1843

J M W Turner: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1843


Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his sixth post explaining the process and his thoughts along the way.

Venice has always obsessed me. A dream city, an impossible city, a city of impossible beauty. Rising out of its waters, sinking back into them, the waters somehow the container of its history.

This, the third movement of my set of seven, is already the fourth piece I've composed connected with Venice - and so by now there is a kind of personal history there too. And I've come to feel all this in terms of different layers, one thing upon another, one thing emerging out of, submerging into, another. And at the heart of this, the image of water, lapping, ebbing, dark yet glinting. At the same time - and this is the danger - I've known that I could end up with a piece that has too many layers, too many twisting tendrils, too rich - where water becomes mud.

As I write this, I'm still wrestling with this central issue, searching to keep the image of rich layeredness intact, but in a way that stays resonant and translucent. And I realise that in a more general way, this is always my problem, whatever the material: how to control my expressive urge, and not let the material I produce overrun and spoil the vision.

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