The Brit Awards matter . . .

. . . for all the wrong reasons. Like Coldplay.

 

In terms of record sales (or, increasingly, download receipts), the Brit Awards still matter. The appropriately named Duffy, for example, who claimed three gongs at the 2009 tedium, saw a substantial hike in profits -- this, when even the NME compared Rockferry, her debut album, to "an X Factor covers record". Its total first-year sales hit the 1.7 million mark; "Mercy", taken from the LP, was the third-bestselling single of 2008. Paul McCartney's lacklustre Memory Almost Full, which received the "Outstanding Contribution" nod in 2008, sold five times as many copies immediately after the ceremony as it had before it.

When the Brits began in 1977, the panel retrospectively awarded three prizes to the long-defunct Beatles. For an institution that claims to "showcase the sheer depth and diversity of British and international music talent", its choices are marked by a distinct lack of daring: Travis, Coldplay and the Darkness (!) are among past winners. This is partly because, to be eligible, artists are required to have had a hit single or album the previous year. It's an unapologetically commercial enterprise, which, I concede, is fair enough in these hard times. Judging from its logo, it isn't even called the Brit Awards. Its full name seems to be "the Brit Awards with Mastercard". Ker-ching.

This year marks the Brits' official 30th anniversary. For all its self-professed "glamour", the event has long had the deathly atmosphere of a musical Slug and Lettuce: smartly dressed people desperately trying to have fun, all the while aware that they're actually at a work do. It'll be a big moment for Lady Gaga, La Roux and the sundry other popstrels on the coveted shortlist. But the Brits, whose first lifetime achievement award was awarded to the EMI chief Leonard G Wood, is an extended TV commercial -- much like the time-fillers on QVC -- and it's made by the music business, for the music business.

What's more, it's unlikely they'll ever top their 1990 showbiz coup: Maggie Thatcher singing "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window". Where do you go from there?

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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.