Features Published 5 August 2014

The Bristol Proms

Purcell and the mighty Moog: Bristol Old Vic presents a festival of live classical music.

Rosemary Waugh

During my second stint at university a few years ago, I became the Arts Editor for the university newspaper, Epigram. Just before the start of term we received a press release and an offer of an interview from the press team of a classical musician. The editor of the paper forwarded this on to both the Music section editors and us proto-arts critics, along with an explanatory note stating that she could not remember whether classical music was going to be dealt with by Music or Arts. The Music Editor quickly replied that he didn’t really see classical music as being a part of the Music section – after all, they wanted to focus on music that was actually ‘popular’ and relevant to students. There could be exceptions, he continued, such as when a contemporary rock group included orchestral music within their mainly modern repertoire or, indeed, on the odd occasion when a classical musician did make it onto a student’s iPod study-time playlist.

The opinion of the Music Editor was perfectly defensible; no one needed telling that more students were listening to London Grammar at the time than the Tallis Scholars. However, the news that classical music, which was after all music, wasn’t deemed musical enough to be included in the actual Music section of the paper unsettled me. Instead it was – perhaps like myself – destined to be shoved sideways into the collective undergrowth of ‘Arts’, the place where all weirdos who were ever called ‘intense’ lurk defensibly.

In Listen to This, Alex Ross explains how fans of classical music have at times deliberately chosen the label ‘art’ for their music of choice because it ostensibly elevated it above the rest of the riffraff rock ‘n’ roll. And yet in practice there is sometimes something a little condescending about being called ‘arty’ by people outside of the arts bubble. It is like they are saying ‘You are something odd I do not quite understand but need a label to describe, so I will chose “arty” and remember it when I quickly walk past, but do not enter, the Barbican or Tate Modern’. Against your will you are being directed off the motorway at the Left Field junction where, people probably hope, you will quietly remain until buried in a wicker coffin in Standish Wood.

I had two feelings towards classical music at the time. One was a festering suspicion that it was not completely true that no one under the age of 68 listened to it. After all, at the university itself there was a fantastic music department full of young people, many of whom played orchestral instruments and performed both contemporary and period pieces on them. There was also the university opera society who had an average age of, I guess, 21 along with countless slender women who, I would bet, had all been driven to ballet classes throughout primary school and beyond. Furthermore, they also resembled the other young women I was surrounded by when watching ballet in Covent Garden. To claim they had no idea of the difference between Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky would probably be a lie.

My second feeling was one of motherly defensiveness towards classical music and its associated art forms of ballet and opera. Watching it being cast out from the Music section saddened me and I had a sudden urge to sweep it all up under my ‘arty’ wing and actually make a point of including it in the Arts section throughout the year.

Unfortunately underlying this maternal musical desire was the pathetic truth that I too knew very little about classical music. In fact, I did not even know whether one was meant to call it classical – because sometimes when you did a smartass would point out that it was actually Baroque. So I switched to using the phrase ‘orchestral music’, but that was obviously wrong too as, lookie lookie, a chamber music quartet just sashayed onto the stage (as much as one can sashay with a hoofing great cello).

So where does one start? The entrance into classical music, for those unfamiliar with it, is pretty daunting. The reasons for this include, as Alex Ross stated, a deliberate desire on the part of some classical music fans and practitioners to make it an elitist and exclusive art form. However, this desire is perhaps not as present now as it has been in the past. Instead over the past few years we have witnessed a concerted attempt on the part of classical music venues and producers to encourage both new and younger audiences and to make the whole experience more ‘accessible’. The now two-years-old Bristol Proms based at the Bristol Old Vic are very much a part of this general movement, as are the writings of Alex Ross himself.

As with the Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival, which has also now been running for two years, Bristol Proms had an element of historical significance to it. For in the same way that jazz and blues musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie once played at the Colston Hall ‘back in the day’, so too the best of classical musicians, including Paganini, once made noise in the Bristol Old Vic.

As the always-rather-charming, and frequently present, Tom Morris explained, the rules of the Bristol Proms were as follows: 1. The audience could applaud at any time (as was the case back in 18th through the first movement, if it so pleased). 2. Audience members could bring drinks into the auditorium (After all, beer and music are ageless companions). 3. Audience members could take flashless photos, as long as they tweeted them (For those who don’t think social media and classical music go together, see Classic FM’s collection of tweeted composer memes). 4. Audience members were invited not to ssshhh each other (or rather, just accept that guy farting loudly as part of the great quilt of audience experience). Additionally, ticket prices for lots of the events started off at only £5.00 which was fantastically cheap given the renown of many of the performers on the bill, especially if you did not mind standing up in the ‘pit’ area in front of the stage (another re-imagining of past classical concerts staged at the BOV).

Similar projects to the Bristol Proms have also included the Royal Opera House and the Theatre Royal doing live feedbacks of shows into Odeon cinemas, one idea behind which is an attempt at lowering prices. However, it is slightly a myth that one of the things that keeps classical music elitist is high ticket prices because lots of venues, outside and inside London, actually offer very cheap seats for a lot of performances. Specific projects such as the Royal Opera House’s Student Standby programme have widened this further. Even on a student budget I managed to go to see the Royal Ballet Company, but I could only dream of affording to see Chelsea FC play at Stamford Bridge. On September 17th the Royal Opera House will also be doing a live and free broadcast of Verdi’s Rigoletto on big outside screens in 18 UK towns and cities, including in Bristol’s Millennium Square.

One of the aims of the Bristol Proms was to make the experience of entering the classical music world a little bit less abrasive. This is certainly a very worthwhile intention and one based on the assumption that entrance into the Radio 3 Club is hard to gain. However, it is worth noting that whilst classical music has the actual reputation of being a brutish, Bullingdon-esque circle to get into, I can fully attest that attempting, for instance, at age 16 to infiltrate the ‘cool club’ of NME-sponsored Indie Rock was just, if not more, intimidating. It too had specific rules about what one wore to concerts and how one acted at them. You were also required to possess infinite knowledge about not just the music you liked there and then, but also the predecessors that bred it, the ‘greats’ of New York punk who our generation owed their very existence to. I don’t think I ever really succeeded at being a member of this gang, I was always too fat, frumpy and geeky to fit comfortably in, and whilst I wasn’t worried about clapping at the right time, I was certainly petrified about doing pretty much everything else wrong.

There are other tribes which are also notoriously hard to gain entrance to, and this include fitness freaks and those in the Arts World. My recent experience of a gym-based yoga class was as far from relaxing as having Malcolm Tucker shout at you, and I have regularly felt like an utter toad when clumsily walking through a gallery opening, trying not to let the wine glass slip through my perspiring palm.

On the contrary, and despite their reputation, the new tribe of Clemency Burton-Hill admirers I have interacted with these past few years and most notably at the Bristol Proms have been almost comically sweet, sincere, humorous and very welcoming. Classical music fans and musicians have gone the opposite way from Millwall fans – they also know no one likes them, but instead of beating people up, they’ve done their best to extend a solid hand and do that rarest of things: be nice to people.

The atmosphere at the Bristol Proms was particularly cordial, some of which could definitely be attributed to Tom Morris’s very friendly introductions to each performance. The rest was down to the shows themselves, many of which made deliberate attempts to re-formulate the classical concert environment. The Bristol Proms, which had a Bach theme running throughout, ended their opening night on Monday 28th July with Will Gregory (he of Goldfrapp fame) and his Moog Ensemble. The Ensemble included 12 musicians, all of whom had other things going on in their lives apart from Moogs, for instance The Paper Cinema’s superb synth-player Hazel Mills.

Will Gregory's Moog Ensemble.

Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble.

The main point of the Moog Ensemble’s performance was to demonstrate how classical music can gain a new half-life by being performed on electronic equipment and to showcase the Moog itself. And indeed how it had already been employed in an attempt to revive period pieces in the past, as it was Wendy Carlos in 1968 with Switched on Bach, who first thought it a good idea to play Bach on a Moog. The Moog Ensemble themselves chose to play Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto and the whole thing was both surprisingly identifiable and quite sweet to listen to. With Will Gregory’s obvious love of the Moog synthesiser and the fact that the music is nowhere near as odd to listen to as I had imagined –meaning that the Moog Ensemble has not just been put together as a humorous side-project based on a shared nerdish-love, but as a group that actually produces some satisfying and enjoyable music – the Moog Ensemble’s closing of the first night promised much for the week ahead.

On Thursday 31st July, a slightly different event took place with the workshop ‘Synfonia Cymru and Tom Morris: Towards a Staged Concert’. For this event the participants all went around the back of the stage and through the Paintshop before ending up sitting on the stage itself. Aside from anything else, this gave a wonderful new perspective on the Bristol Old Vic theatre itself. After all those times sitting in the audience forming thoughts on the performers on stage, I could finally see what it was like to be on stage looking out onto the audience. And that, reader, made me feel like a bit of a child. Nine members of Synfonia Cymru helped Tom Morris to demonstrate, discuss and explore the differences between an actor and a musician on stage and the elements of the staged concert itself. His main focus was on the distinction between ‘descriptive’ playing (wherein the musician aims to simply describe or play in a very straightforward manner the notes on the page in front of her) and ‘active’ playing (wherein the musician imbues the music with deliberate feeling, perhaps also a narrative, and attempts to communicate this to the audience). The second distinction, ‘active’, was essentially closer to acting or performing and could be said to demonstrate the power of a staged concert, although presumably since we were listening to the music a recording of an ‘active’ piece should still be able to convey this difference.

The workshop included audience interaction, questions asked by Tom Morris to the guests. Near the beginning we were asked to compare listening to the music with eyes closed or open. The consensus amongst those who volunteered answers said that the experience was better with eyes open as more information was presented, essentially the experience was ‘multi-sensory’ and these people would find a lot of modern teaching in Primary and Secondary schools very enjoyable.

However here I must differ. Listening to music, either live or recorded is infinitely better when with eyes closed. Music is, in the end, an auditory experience and the additional information of, say, the pretty blouse the violinist is wearing essentially distracts from hearing the notes played. Put on some music and open and close your eyes a few times. The music often, I believe, gets noticeably louder when your eyes are closed. Blocking out a sense increases the other and can allow you to drop into a semi-meditative state. Morris also asked us what we saw then hearing the music with eyes closed. I think I see colours, just moving colours floating into each other and even when these are temporarily interrupted with a reminder to empty the washing machine when I get home, they tend to come back again after the other thought has ended.

I think I sound like a great big hippy, with a head full of colours and my eyes shut tightly in almost all of the performances I…and now I cannot use the verb ‘see’, because mostly I ‘heard’ them. So if the performance is best with eyes closed and ‘active’ playing could be detected on a recording, then what is the argument for a staged concert? Again it is the sound. Even if I close my eyes on the green and gold of the Bristol Old Vic walls, the sound of the live performance is like nothing a recording could ever quite get. The acoustics of the Bristol Old Vic created a sense of ‘nearness’ to the performance. Unlike in the Colston Hall where the acoustics are almost too perfect to be true, the theatre space of the BOV was in itself more homely – and therefore fitting for the next day’s performance – and added a tiny rawness to the music.

On Friday night all audience members were invited to Valentina Lisitsa’s ‘Music Party’. The aim, Valentina Lisitsa explained, was to create the sense that you were just popping round to her house for a party where she would play the piano to requests and the partygoers would drink champagne or beer and, of course, clap whenever they wanted to. The request system happened by the audience voting beforehand for their top 4 pieces out of a small selection of 8. The chosen pieces were Michael Nyman 8 Pieces from The Piano; Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D Minor; Beethoven Sonata Pathetique and a mixture of Chopin’s Etudes op 10 and 25.

During the performance, several guests were invited to sit on the stage itself on sofas arranged around the piano in an attempt to literally decrease the space between the performer and the audience. The standing pit at the front of the stage where I was placed also became a pretty casual sitting space, a comfy little area for one to lean on the sides or sit on the floor with a gin and tonic. The essential idea of the Bristol Proms was to take classical music out of its plastic display case so that it could be played with properly. However, the Bristol Proms went further than this because it didn’t just re-imagine the classical concert, it also reimagined the theatre space itself. Because by this point I had stomped gleefully through the Paint Room, sat on the stage looking out on the empty auditorium and just really made my closed-eyed self at home on the bloody floor of the theatre.

The last time I was invited to sit in a similar situation was during Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field at the Arnolfini, but even with that the situation was in many ways still more formal or prescribed. I probably couldn’t literally have sprawled on the floor with a pint and cuddled the cat. Bristol Old Vic itself became a much more friendly environment during the Proms, the whole tight atmosphere of the theatre was gone. People shouted out to the stage, Morris chatted to the packed auditorium as though they was just five mates sitting at his dinner table and I got to feel far less afraid of doing something idiotic whilst in the crowd and receiving that shrink-wrapping ‘Sshhh!’

Classical music concerts may well be known for being intimidating, but in many ways so are a lot of theatre productions. I don’t think that the atmosphere in the Theatre Royal in Bath, for instance, is any less constricting during a performance of an Alan Bennett play than it is in the Royal Opera House during Tosca. The Bristol Proms demonstrated a much nicer way of using the theatre space full stop, classical music concert or otherwise.

Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas

And so to the last night of a genuinely five-star festival. Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was preceded in the studio with Mimic, a Tobacco Factory presentation. Ray Scannell used the piano to tell a long story of life in Ireland and Manchester in the age of Morrissey and Dolly the Sheep. The contrast between this performance and the next demonstrated how varied Bristol Proms’ programme had been with as, for instance, had been the case on Wednesday when ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air with Danceroom Spectroscopy, Charles Hazelwood’s All Star Collective’ followed on from the Sacconi Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15 in A minor, op 132.

Since the modus operandi of the festival was to get more people interested in attending classical music performances, it wouldn’t have been surprising if, on only its second year running, ticket sales were a little low. However, as it happened the complete opposite was true, and never more so than on the last night for Dido and Aeneas, when the Bristol Old Vic theatre –thanks to including standing room – registered its biggest crowd in its modern history. The Bristol Old Vic, like all arts venues, is always looking for extra funds and I hope that the incredible ticket sales, if nothing else, encourage them to include far more classical concerts and operas in the near future. I would like to dwell on thisfact for a moment longer: the Bristol Old Vic registered its biggest ever crowd in 2014 with a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. And they say classical music is dead.

The performance itself was once again a very jolly affair, with the first half given over to individual pieces by Henry Purcell with a commentary by the conductor Robert Howath. The composer, it appeared, had tried his hand at many a different genre of music, from the romantic love song to the dirty pub ditty. The latter went down well with my section of the audience (the standing pit) who found the word ‘hymen’ rather hysterical. It’s amazing how catching laughter can be…

Pumeza Matshikiza playing Dido both looked and sung beautifully. Her voice had a resonant depth to it not usually found in female voices, which was suitable for a character that for a time goes against what is expected of her sex and follows her desires instead.

Even the standing ovation for Kate Tempest at Mayfest 2013 did not compare to the continuous and roaring applause at the end of the show and the end of the Bristol Proms. With this festival Morris has really succeeded at bringing to the Bristol Old Vic a yearly programme of events without parallel elsewhere.


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.



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