Proms 2005 – Week 1

Written by: Colin Anderson

Proms 2005 begins on 15 July – Paul McCreesh talks about Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” and Michael Berkeley introduces his new Concerto for Orchestra; both have a word about Gilbert & Sullivan…

The Proms begins this Friday, the 15th. Sir Roger Norrington includes Elgar and Tippett in the opening night and there is more British fare on the weekend, a Gilbert & Sullivan evening on Saturday and then Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”.

Paul McCreesh directs the latter, based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but not as we know Shakespeare’s play today. “It’s music to a seventeenth century version. It was the great show of the end of that century, designed to allow for as much music as could be put in, dancing, and the most lavish scenery. The music is incredibly tuneful and also incredibly erotic – some of the most sensuous music that Purcell ever wrote. There’s a tremendous masque in Act IV in honour of the sun, there’s some exquisite love music in Act II, the funniest drag act in Act III: plenty of life. The whole of the last act is set in a Chinese Garden; we know China, Chinese gardens, and the Chinese takeaway, but can you imagine what it would have been in the seventeenth century: so exotic, another world – people would never have seen Chinese hieroglyphics, pagodas or willow patterns.”

Does the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall present any problems for the music’s intimacy? “It adapts remarkably well. The danger is not to inflate the music to fit the room; it is much, much easier for the ear to adjust to hearing things in a slightly finer way, even if it’s slightly distant. Once you inflate things you make the solo items weaker.” Is this a warning against amplification? “I couldn’t really imagine it; how would you get that subtle balance between the accompanists and the singers?”

I ask Paul about G & S. “I think the English have always done theatre music well. There’s something very English in Purcell’s music, something very English about the humour; it’s the same humour as Gilbert & Sullivan. The Prom is being conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, who’s one of my heroes – quite an act to follow.”

Prom 5, 19 July, includes the premiere of Michael Berkeley’s Concerto for Orchestra, music in which virtuosity is secondary to structure and humanism; the middle, slow movement was being composed when the Christmas-time tsunami struck. “The outer movements are very energetic and quite wave-like, in a funny sort of way. I always knew the slow movement should be still, something of an oasis. I had started but the tsunami came and darkened the movement and gave me the confidence to make it a substantial in memoriam. It’s a piece that has evolved from working closely with the orchestra.” The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has been recording the music of Michael and his father Lennox for Chandos. “There’s a sort of dialogue that begins at that point. We’ve worked together for many hours and you get to know the players; and there have been several days where we have work-shopped students’ pieces. The players give their responses; I learn from that.”

This Prom includes a rare opportunity to hear the original, hour-long version of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony (recorded on Chandos) and some exquisite Britten songs. I also ask Michael his thoughts on G & S. “I admire the craft. Lennox always pointed out to me that people made fun of them at their peril. There are wonderful tunes and a lot of skill.” Does Purcell figure? “His influence has been astonishing. I’m always interested in composers that set words and who have a visionary element in their harmony. The Purcell influence that threads through to Britten and Tippett has come through to us. It’s interesting how many composers look back to music of that period more than any other.” Or as Paul McCreesh says of “The Fairy Queen”: “It’s a great show, tremendous fun and the music is staggering from top to bottom. It’s a terrific night out!”

  • Gilbert & Sullivan on 16 July, The Fairy Queen on 17th, and Berkeley premiere on 19th
  • BBC Proms 2005
  • Box Office 020 7589 8212
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 13 July 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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