BBC Radio 3 puts the car stereo through its paces

It’s hard to accept that the Proms season is nearly over, and that this will be the first year in a long time that I haven’t been to a concert at the Albert Hall in person. I’m doubly sad about that because it seems like it’s been an awfully good year at the Proms.

As I made my way slowly, slowly back from rehearsal on Sunday through road closure after road closure, I felt like I was experiencing everything I don’t like about Britain- terrible traffic, white vans and a deeply sadistic approach to the general public from the wise heads who run the nation’s crumbling transit system.

However, as I turned off of the closed M6 Motorway for several hours of detours and re-routing (including the closure of the A 49, the only real alternative to the M6, I was reminded of what I love about this country when I turned on Radio 3, which can still astound and amaze. Within seconds I recognized the first act of Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi, being performed live at the Proms under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher.

What a credit this show was to the Proms- a piece of staggering dimensions on every level, performed at the highest level, presented intelligently. The Netherlands Opera and the Hague Orchestra have recently finished a run of the piece, and you can tell they know the piece backwards and forwards- played with such mastery, Messiaen’s astounding work can be heard for the masterpiece it is.

In the end, Britain was cruel in its kindness- a few more diversions and tractors blocking the road, and I would have heard the whole piece before I got home- three hours late is not enough some days. As it is, I’ve got to download Act III from the R3 website.

Even not getting to the end of the piece, I was pretty sure that Messiaen wouldn’t face a serious challenge for the supreme highlight of the summer. But the last week of a good Prom season as a way of stacking highlights on top of each other in absurd, wonderful abundance. After my HSO rehearsal Monday night, I turned on the radio again to hear the end of the Scherzo of Mahler 6. I haven’t gotten the Proms schedule this year, so I had no idea who I was listening to, which is a refreshing way  to listen.

The stunning clarity and imaginative playing of the winds in the final bars of the Scherzo told me right away this was one of the world’s great orchestras. In the following Andante and Finale (the movement order also told me the conductor was more interested in musical structure than polemics, as he didn’t adapt the trendy Andante-Scherzo order).

Anyway, long story short, the next 45 minutes were a joy- orchestra playing on the highest level. Brass with seemingly limitless power, but never forcing or over playing, beautifully in balance with the strings. Virtuosic, thoughtful woodwinds solos. String playing of warmth, richness and searing intensity. Just as I was sure I was hearing one of the great orchestras in the world, so I was quickly becoming sure of which orchestras and conductors I was not hearing.

The question of the conductor was most interesting because I could think of almost nobody alive with that grasp of structure, balance, color, pacing, and with the ability to make an orchestra play with so many layers of sound. By the midway of the Finale, I was down to one name- Bernard Haitink seemed to me the only musician I knew of alive today who can get a performance of such intense sophistication. However, my last encounter with him on Mahler 6 lacked the kind of fire and direction this performance had in abundance.

I knew Haitink has been working in Chicago, and the CSO were certainly one of the few bands on earth with the ability to play at that level, but I’d seen a lot of weak concerts in Chicago in the 90’s, something heartbreaking after idolizing the band as a teenager.

I found myself hoping I had it right, because I like Haitink and I like the CSO, but it’s a lot to hope for to hear a great conductor in his 80’s conducting with the energy of a 40 year old and the wisdom of a centenarian., and an orchestra playing the very best they ever had in their long history. I wanted it to be the CSO brass playing so beautifully and balanced. I wanted the CSO to have a conductor worthy of their abilities. If it turned out to be one of those guys, I was going to be deeply embarassed and a little sad. Let it be Bernie.

And it was.

So, hat’s off to Big Bad Bernie, world’s greatest living conductor by quite a bit, and the CSO, who just, as we say in the sporting world, made a statement to the whole league.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “BBC Radio 3 puts the car stereo through its paces”

  1. Composerbastard

    I live by BBC3. I just can’t get enough of it. Here in the west coast – THROUGH THE NIGHT- and if I am lucky to be patient and at rest during the day – the lucky proms. There is nothing in the states I have heard that can match it. Not even University Radio. NYC radio used to be somewhat good but is the pits.

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