Rimbaud’s Right

Another year, another Proms season gone.

Again I’m chuffed that the British Broadcasting Corporation exists. No other broadcaster on the Planet would have the will or the capabilities to pull off such stupendous live-broadcast. 74 concerts over 58 consecutive nights. Every day the logistical waltz of one international orchestra moving into the Royal Albert Hall while another packs up to leave and another prepares to perform. Ten cameras cut together and broadcast simultaneously from a scanner truck, where a director and vision mixer pick shots according to the score, the bar numbers of which are being called out by an assistant. Bearing in mind that the director has to be familiar with each score (there were more than 200 pieces played in the season) and some scores (Wagner’s Valkyrie) last 4 hours and others (Tom Ades’ Violin Concerto) were only completed a few days before their performance.

As I sat in the box each night sucking in the music, peering avidly over the shoulder of the cameraman next to me, following the cue-calls I knew he was hearing in his headphones, I was sometimes more impressed by the technical chuzpah of the whole thing than the beauty of the music.

Appreciation of music is always a subjective thing. Luckily I was never called upon to speak objectively about a piece I disliked or a conductor I didn’t rate. That’s what prevents me calling myself a critic… I just read a wonderful book by Craig Seligman portraiting the American critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. In it he points out that Sontag rather gave up the true critic’s mantel after the 1970s because she only chose to write about what she loved and revered. Kael stayed true to the idea that judging was an important faculty, especially in the late Capitalist mush we swim through.

I don’t recall reading what my heroine, Sontag, has to say about classical music. She tended to keep her lapidary comments for visual and literary arts. But I find judging so hard as to be almost pernicious. There are artists I revere in a rather cerebral way (Bach) and there are artists I love and the “love” category is very fluid. It can vary from year to year and even month to month.

I love Mahler and have since I discovered him in 2000. There’ve been moments when I thought I’d had enough Gustav and the ‘Mahler sound’ was starting to cloy on the ear, but then along comes a performance like von Dohnanyi’s Mahler 5 this season and I’m won over all over again. All my vertebrae tingling with electricity.

I remember dutifully listening to Beethoven as a teenager (shades of Clockwork Orange) and as a college student sitting in a red-wine fug, playing his late quartets over and over. But I can’t say I “love” Beethoven. I find his voice too confident, too martially optimistic, too grand. (Even as I welled up at the sentiments of the Ode to Joy this year, I wondered if it were quite “right” to be so swayed, so manipulated. I guess that particularly piece of music has been scarred by propagandist use…) But, for me, that Masur Prom belonged to the brilliant new piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, The Light at the End, which was mysterious and magical…

Because my biggest passion has always been for the new and the different. I remember as a child taking books out of the library on modern composers and poring over their totemic names – Britten, Boulez, Bartok, Berg, Berio – and marvelling at the snippets from fiendishly difficult looking scores. I fetishized the names of their works and their photos and their opus lists long before I ever heard them. There was something about the modern and the new that always swept me away.

And people I’ve taken to the Proms this season – all non-musicians – have unanimously preferred the new commissions, the prickly, the challenging pieces rather than the Beethovens, the Tchaikovskys, the Vaughan Williams. Because the new is important and the act of being shocked and challenged is also important. Il faut etre absoluement modern.

Tom Ades’ new violin concerto Concentric Paths was perhaps the most anticipated and most excitedly received. Ades is constantly cast as the new Britten, as the young British composer most often described as a genius. I think many of his pieces (America: A Prophecy, Asyla, his string quartet Arcadiana, much of the opera The Tempest) are genuinely touched with genius. He himself cultivates (unconsciously or not) this aura by refusing almost all interviews, composing up to the last second with pages being faxed into the orchestra daily and by cutting a very splendid dash when conducting his works. (I’ve noticed that his conducting style has become much more dance-like… he was positively Fred Astaire at the Albert Hall this week…)

I’m not so sure about this piece. It was wonderfully played by Anthony Marwood, who was raised above the orchestra on a rostrum and sported a fabulously white suite on his long Paganini-esque form, and the first and second movements were spell-binding – especially the endless, hung-from-star-to-star melody at the end of the slow movement. The last movement was, however, disconcertingly abrupt and without the show-stopper that Ades usually pulls out at such moments. I’ll have to listen to it again…

Much more solidly appealing but no less modern was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s brand-new trumpet concerto From the Wreckage, which saw Hakan Hardenberger moving from flugelhorn to standard trumpet to piccolo trumpet through a very jazz-inflected but unflichingly challenging 15 minutes. I love those great swags of string-sound that both Turnage and Ades create and I relished this piece immensely – which is not the case with most of Turnage’s work.

Of course, Rimbaud was talking about making the very fabric of one’s life absolutely modern – but if I ever need to remind myself of that duty then it’s a blast of Boulez I chose not Beethoven.


  1. Milady de Winter

    September 12, 2005 at 1:27 am

    Such wonderful writing. I missed the last night of the Proms this year (too budy moving house).

    Infact, I missed *all* of the Proms.

    I love your Blog. Such interesting writings. I’ll keep checking back.

  2. Georgia

    September 12, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    Beautifully expressed Alistair, Im always impressed by the way you seem to love all the beautiful things in life. You’ve got a great appreciation of culture and Its refreshing in this day and age, keep writing so we can share in your enthusiasm.

  3. StaceySimGirl

    September 12, 2005 at 10:46 pm

    You are precious.

  4. StaceySimGirl

    September 12, 2005 at 10:47 pm

    Not in a Lord of the Rings way….

  5. khairul

    September 13, 2005 at 3:57 pm


    It’s me again…Love your blog so much..Found it really interesting
    and my day isn’t complete if i don’t spend a few minutes browsing it through!!
    Keep up the good works …


  6. Paul

    October 4, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Alistar (come on ive read all your blogs, do i have to call you Mr Appleton?)

    Thankyou for sharing your so personal and insightful spiritual, emotional and physical journeys. One of the most shocking things for me was to read you describing yorself as disconnected and sad. I dont think anyone would think that the comical Alistar we see on television would ever think of himself as this, but why we;d expect to see a true represenation i dont know. Anyway, im waffling… Thankyou again for sharing and of course thankyou for making our television even more pleasant to watch.


  7. GiacoPucci

    January 2, 2007 at 2:51 am

    Alistair: The “kc” in my E-mail address stands for Kansas City. Yes, I’m an American, one who had never heard of you before I began watching BBC America. My intrigue with who you are led me to Google, which in turn delivered me to this site.

    I admit, my interest in you originally sprang from your on-screen personality and good looks; but then I discovered your writing and interests. I’m pleased to learn of your ties with Brasil. My partner and I are have become Brasil-enthusiasts. Jeff accompanied me on a documentary film shoot. I wrote and directed a film on the Manaus opera house. We spent almost 12 months in the country.

    Was in your country last summer. Again, it was a film shoot on location in Milton Abbas–an historical boys school ala Tom Brown’s environs.

    I p[lan to print out your pages here. I want to relish your writing style, as well as what you have to say. Tell me, Allistair, is there any other way I can write to you–someway less public? Would like to talk with you about Eastern thought, theatre (my career), and my need to come out, but afraid to do so.

    Later, I hope

    GiacoPucci (as in Giacomo Puccini)

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