A celebrity endorsement

Where do cultural icons get their political fix?

Production on the NS culture desk this week has slowed to a crawl as we explore the riches on offer over at the Archived Music Press blog. Some dedicated soul has scanned in pages from old issues of Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, dating from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.

A niche area, you might think, but this was a time when the UK music press was a more adventurous beast than it is today. Amid the bad puns and profiles of long-forgotten bands such as Menswear or Lush (whose single an interviewer breathlessly describes as "the 'Wake Up Boo!' of 1996 . . .") there is loads of passionate, clever and wilfully subjective writing.

Among the highlights are Caitlin Moran's interview with Courtney Love in 1994; David Stubbs's prescient review of Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, which deconstructed the band's schtick just as everybody else was going crazy for them; and Everett True's review of a Tricky and P J Harvey gig in 1995. You can also see the work of acclaimed photographers such as Kevin Cummins, whose work we've recently featured.

Oh! But what's this? A 1988 interview with the Fall's Mark E Smith where, in between diatribes on Britain's north-south divide and the state of Labour (good reading for anyone in the current, opposition-bound party), he delivers this choice soundbite:

"When I want to read politics, I buy New Statesman, it's as simple as that."

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.