Alex Prior, four young virtuosi and the RPO

The Chairman Dances
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.40 – Presto scherzando
Concert Fantasy on Carmen, Op.25
Pezzo capriccioso, Op.62
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso
Velesslavitsa – an ode to Youth and Music, concerto for piano, two violins and cello [London premiere]
Horizons: an American crescendo for four soloists and relatively large orchestra [world premiere]

Simone Porter (violin)
Michael Province (violin)
Xiao Ming Zhang (piano)
Nathan Chen (cello)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Alex Prior

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 8 April, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

When the musical world was first introduced to this composing/conducting phenomenon, he was known as Alexander Prior. Now he presents himself in a more matey way, as Alex Prior, perhaps preparing the way for a classical music superstar to be known simply as Alex, or even a Prince-like squiggle. Such a gesture towards sublimely confident self-promotion would easily sit secure on the slender shoulders of this 17-year-old, tall, gangly youth, snapped up earlier this year by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for the specially created post of Assistant to the Guest Conductors, having not been taken-up by British orchestras after he distinguished himself in the Leeds Conducting Competition.

So here he was, himself guesting with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert that showcased the individual talents of the four prodigies, all of them younger than Prior, whom he discovered for his Channel 4 series last year, received in some quarters with less than unalloyed rapture, not, I think, born of envy.

The four children were very good, as gifted, musical children encouraged to practise hard often are. Xiao Ming Zhang (11, Chinese) scampered on in a white suit and scampered effortlessly through the glittering torrent of notes of the finale of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto. Hearing it out of context didn’t do the music any favours, but so what, when you’re confronted with such flawless, even playing. Next up was violinist Simone Porter (13, US) in the Carmen Fantasy, a load of engaging virtuosic tat, which started a bit cautiously but was firing on all cylinders for a jaw-dropping finale. I hate the airless, competition-like atmosphere of prodigies – and that’s what these performers are, however much Prior may deplore the word – strutting their stuff in show-stopping lollipops, but at least these four more or less rose above the inevitable circus aspect, especially cellist Nathan Chen (16, US), endearingly geeky in the Tchaikovsky Pezzo capriccioso. His substantial tone in the soulful passages hit the spot, and his dazzling passage work was amazingly well articulated. My favourite, though, was Michael Province (14, US), who played the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with bags of personality, even attitude. The opening had a natural lyrical flow and tonal beauty that suggested a player in love with sound for its own sake, and the Rondo had exactly the right feeling of cheeky nonchalance.

If you like your music unselfconsciously and fearlessly performed, then this showcase event was for you. Meanwhile, as far as these four phenomena are concerned, I shall keep my powder dry for a few years.

Naively, it crossed my mind that this concert’s early start might have been so that the young could get their heads down a bit sooner. Not so. The long first half was only a prelude to the London premiere of Prior’s Velesslavitsa’, a 45-minute, three-movement concerto for the four soloists and orchestra. Prior is inspired by things Slavic and northern; Veles is the Slav god of music, and ‘slavitsa’ means “glory to”. Had I been blessed with a fraction of Prior’s genius, I still think I might have kept this colossus under wraps for a while, to be remembered with fond blushes, but that is not the way in this particular area of the music biz.

Confident, flashy, with a sure grip of some fine woodwind sonorities, the concerto was otherwise a trip through a 19th-century Russian-music theme-park, filtered through Hollywood, full of big Russian chorales, primary-colour orchestration and heart-on-sleeve romantic gestures. The four soloists didn’t have much to do, other than be flashy (especially the piano part) or soulful, in that much overworked trope of humungous noise from the orchestra falling silent to reveal little-me soloists rhubarbing thoughtfully and lyrically. Its biggest problem, however, was the fact that, in true Russian style, the music is very episodic, producing that mounting feeling of panic, even dread, that there is no reason why this music should ever come to an end. I was deceived by a shift in the ultra-soulful slow movement into something a bit more animated that we had segued into a crisp finale. We hadn’t, and there was a lot more unabashed grandiloquence to come. But you had to submit to its boundless energy, even while discreetly looking at your watch.

The final work, Horizons, which AP has dedicated to his composer-guru John Adams, was the climactic firework display – explosively rhythmic, with nods to minimalism, and very effective, and could be reworked successfully without the soloists – and it was short. AP’s conducting style is clear and emphatic, and he is as much of a technician as his music demands.

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