Archives for September 2012

Piano season on the BBC

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 17:55 UK time, Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lang Lang

Lang Lang - champion of Piano Season on the BBC

Piano Season on the BBC is a six-week celebration of the piano and its music, on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four.

This updated Blog brings together all the latest news about Piano Season on the BBC - if you'd like to revisit some of last week's highlights, including Peter Donohoe's Fifty Great Pianists and a selection of piano performances on Radio 3, visit the Piano Collection.

We've also added Podcasts of Radio 3's PIano A-Z programmes, which you can download here. You can also hear a podcast of Dame Fanny Waterman talking to Sean Rafferty about the Leeds International Piano Competition, early nights and avoiding television before bed...


In the final full week of Piano Season on the BBC we celebrate things Russian. Essential Classics presents a selection of recordings across the week from some of the greatest names of Russian pianism. Through the Night offers archive recordings on Sunday night from Richter, Lhevinne, Cherkassky, Horowitz, Berman and Scriabin; Composer of the Week focuses on the friendship and musical relationship between Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Medtner

The final Monday recital comes from Edinburgh and features a towering virtuosic set of variations from one of the 20th Century’s musical mavericks, the American Frederic Rzewski’s 'The People United Shall Never Be Defeated'.  New Generation Artist Igor Levit is the pianist in what will be a rare chance to hear this astonishing work live. And on Music Matters tomorrow, Tom Service meets Rzewski to talk about his life and music.

On Monday 22 October a tour de force of a different kind appears on Jazz on 3 - a specially recorded jazz relay in which a team of prominent jazz pianists challenge each other to see what is possible when improvising on a theme.

On Sunday 28 October, Sunday Morning profiles the great pianist, Artur Schnabel.

Then of course there’s the continuing story of In Tune’s A-Z (starting on Monday with V for 'Virtuoso'); and Peter Donohoe’s final Breakfast run-down of his 50 Piano Greats;  and looking ahead to the following Monday – Pudsey at the piano!   


As part of the season, many BBC presenters across national and local programmes who are having a go at learning the piano as part of Piano Season on the BBC. They include:
Jane Garvey from Radio 4 (there's a chance to catch up on her progress in next Friday's In Tune), Dr Mark Porter from BBC Science, Tim Smith from Radio 2, Tommy Sandhu from the Asian Network, and Jez Nelson from Radio 3. Nicky Campbell from 5live plays piano already by ear so his challenge is to have jazz piano lessons. Radio 1's Dev is having lessons…(you can see him introducing himself to his teacher here) - and other learners include Olympic medallist Samantha Murray and weather presenter Carol Kirkwood.

All learners will have the opportunity to participate in a live Piano Gala as part BBC Children in Need on 29th October – this will be broadcast in Live in Concert.

BBC Four's programmes on the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition continue on Friday evenings at 730pm and there's a Jazz Extravaganza coming from Trinity Laban College, Greenwich.

The season will culminate on the 6th of November with a special episode of Imagine on BBC One, focusing on Lang Lang as he turns 30.

And finally, participation: you can email your requests for piano music on Radio3's Breakfast show to, and any other piano-related questions to’ when they will be answered on our ‘Piano Keys’ programmes on Monday nights during the interval of ‘Radio 3 Live in Concert’.



Nixon in Berlin with the BBC Symphony Orchestra

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 15:45 UK time, Thursday, 13 September 2012

Picture of the Berlin Philharmonie

The Berlin Philharmonie

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall and his colleagues have been in Berlin this week. Phil sends this report from Number 1, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße (aka the Philharmonie) ...

The Maritim hotel near the famous Philharmonie is large. I know it's large because my room number is 4129 and it is so far from the lift it's practically in Leipzig... I wonder about hiring a bike to get to breakfast ...

Usually after the Last Night of the Proms, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gets a short break but this year we have to wait a little longer for our post-Proms recuperation.  As I arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5 on Sunday afternoon I meet several bleary-eyed colleagues feeling a bit battered from the night before. We are off to Berlin to give the premiere there of Nixon in China. Unfortunately the legendary German efficiency breaks down upon our arrival: ‘The bus is broken. We will bring another to jump-start.’ Another bus comes but fails to breathe life into ours. ‘We will try a Biggerbus...’ The bigger bus also fails to resuscitate our bus. So we take all the suitcases off and pile on to the working Biggerbus.

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When in Romania ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 14:42 UK time, Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Sala Palatului, Bucharest

The Sala Palatului, Bucharest

The BBC Symphony Orchestra have been visiting Romania. Sub-principal viola Phil Hall suggests that the concert hall experience might just be a bit better for radio listeners than those in the hall ...

Last week the orchestra travelled to Bucharest for two concerts closing their first International festival of Radio Orchestras, 'RadioRo'. The  Sala Palatului (Palace Hall, 1960) is very large (seating over 4000) and was built as a huge conference hall in the Communist era. 

Unfortunately the acoustics are as dry as the Atacama desert but they have tried to improve things electronically by inserting microphones into the ceiling. However the setting is stuck on 'Rock music' and as a result, from where we sit on the stage, a kind of Wah-Wah effect is noticeable, particularly after a loud chord. It is also hotter than Hades in the hall which becomes particularly trying in the long symphonies by Schubert and Shostakovich we have brought with us. But the large audience is so warm and attentive that it is a real pleasure to play for them. German violinist Viviane Hagner wows them with Bruch's beautiful Scottish Fantasy and local legend Dan Grigore is swamped with flowers after Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations.

Both concerts are sold out and are also being televised. As a gesture 
to our hosts we open them with Georges Enescu's colourful Romanian 
. Each one features viola solos and Norbert Blume adds so 
much character to them that the president of Romanian TV (no less) 
asks him at the post-concert reception if he is a gypsy!

We celebrate Norbert's inner gypsy in the oldest beer hall, the Caru 
cu Bere (1879), a huge, vaulted traditional Romanian restaurant that 
seats 750 people. With hundreds queuing to get in, we are lucky to get 
a table outside in a balmy 30 degrees centigrade (not bad for late 
September). The menu is vast, like a broadsheet newspaper, and we feast 
on wonderful local delicacies of tripe soup, and Moldavian Stew. The 
waitresses wear colourful costumes and bands and dancers are in full 
swing inside. We think about joining in... Well, when in Romania...

Proms on TV - it's all about the rights ...

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Jan Younghusband Jan Younghusband | 16:16 UK time, Thursday, 6 September 2012

Prom 59 - Cast of The Broadway Sound

Prom 59 - Cast of The Broadway Sound

Jan Younghusband, BBC Commissioning Editor, Music & Events, sums up the 2012 Proms TV coverage and explains why the John Wilson Broadway Prom was broadcast incomplete ...


The television team all agreed the other day that we can’t believe it’s already the last week of the Proms.  It has flown by this year. I just received the usual 'How have we done so far?' email about the viewing figures which I confess I opened with trepidation as I assumed no-one would have time to watch because of the amazing Olympics coverage and now the utterly inspiring Paralympics. But actually I was wrong. You have been watching, so many thanks to our audiences for being so faithful and appreciative this year, despite having many other calls on your TV viewing time.

We’ve had another interesting week with rights issues. We could not include the West Side Story balcony scene in the John Wilson Broadway Musicals TV Prom last Saturday night on BBC Two because we didn’t have the dialogue rights. We were then granted the dialogue rights at the last moment after the programme was delivered, and tried to put the clip up on line, but then realised that for this special selection of music and lyrics, the TV rights didn’t cover online rights! So it was a mess frankly and we apologise for this. We appreciate it was really disappointing for our audience, and we were really upset about it too. We did everything we could and just couldn’t make it work.

We’ve had a few rights problems this year, usually around musicals, and actually they are very interesting things, because they come in lots of rights segments: the music, the words to the songs, the dialogue, the book, the stage rights, the film rights - these are not necessarily owned by one person, but many different parties, and naturally the rights holders want to protect the exposure of these treasured works. It’s a complicated business. It has always been, and probably always will be, very difficult to get permission to televise musicals but we will continue to try because we do understand you want to see them.

Its a terrific final week, with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra last Sunday, and the Desert Island Discs 75th anniversary concert last night, both available on the BBC iPlayer. The St Louis Symphony performed on Tuesday and on Wednesday, John Adams conducted his Nixon in China.  We have a new documentary about him coming out in the New Year on BBC Four.  Oh whoops, not sure I meant to tell you that yet! Don’t tell everyone!

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Nixon in Maida Vale (with tight pants)

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 10:02 UK time, Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Photo of John Adams conducting at the Proms

John Adams conducts at the Proms

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall reports from John Adams's rehearsals for the opera Nixon in China at the Proms.   


John Adams is in his happy place. I can always tell; he starts swinging his hips to the beat, eyes closed and smiling as if lost in the groove he has created. Indeed a lot of the time his opera Nixon in China is more groovy than a '60s LP and John clearly enjoys conducting his 25 year-old masterpiece. The style of music may seem a bit incongruous given the serious political subject matter but the opera operates on different levels simultaneously and incorporates humorous moments alongside the sad, and dance routines in with Maoist ideology. Similarly one hears influences of Wagner and Stravinsky next to Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller clothed in 1980s' Minimalism. It's infectious too as I see smiles on many players' faces. 'I gave up Minimalism after this,' ohn admits sheepishly. 'I had wrung all I could out of an E flat major chord...'


It's always a pleasure collaborating with John. He brings so much enthusiasm and energy to rehearsals and concerts but is also insistent on getting things exactly how he wants and that includes making changes to his composition as he goes along: 'After 25 years I have decided I don't like this bit ... can I try it without the bass clarinet? Nothing personal you understand...' He makes other small changes to the orchestration and also to what he is beating. At one point, half way through rehearsals, John stops, shakes his head and says the words every orchestra likes to hear: 'You know, I've done this piece a lot, even with the wonderful Met Opera orchestra, but you guys are just incredible, you have the steepest learning curve.' But then he continues: 'This is like a New York Times review - having said all that, I'd like to run the second Act again...'


When composing this unusual opera in the 1980s, John considered that the music nearest to the soul of the Nixons would be Glenn Miller. As a consequence the orchestra is more of a big band with a string section (we are particularly enjoying that rare orchestral beast, the baritone sax, which adds real punch to the proceedings). But being a late 20th-century opera, the scoring also contains two grand pianos, a synthesizer and a lone, overworked percussionist, Alex Neal, who is surrounded by about a thousand (give or take) instruments. John addresses him: 'Alex, can you give me the horse rhythm please?' (Alex duly beats out a galloping da-da-dum da-da-dum, à la Lone Ranger on his legs with his hands, giving a passable impression). But John isn't convinced - 'Hmm, the pitch is too low...can you wear tighter pants?'


That's something I never thought I'd hear in a rehearsal!


John Adam's Nixon in China is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm on Wednesday 5 September, and is available for seven days on the BBC iPlayer.


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