Proms at … Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park – Steve Reich – Multi-Story Orchestra/Christopher Stark, with Hannah Grayson [the midday sitting]

Steve Reich
Vermont Counterpoint
Eight Lines
Music for a Large Ensemble

Hannah Grayson (flute, piccolo & alto flute)

Multi-Story Orchestra
Christopher Stark

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 September, 2016
Venue: Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, 95a Rye Lane, Peckham, London SE15

Christopher Stark conducts the Multi-Story Orchestra at the BBC Proms At…Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham on Saturday 3 September 2016Photograph:  BBC/Mark AllanIn its most daring relocation yet, the Proms once again headed east and south of the river, this time to the ex-car park in Peckham where Bold Tendencies has fashioned a artistic and community space over several floors, presumably a reason why resident orchestra, Multi-Story, is so named. With its spectacular views north to the skyline of the City and railway line immediately to the south – and open to the elements at the side – this is a world away from the hallowed (if immense) intimacy of the Royal Albert Hall.

For many of the audience this was a new venue – that in itself is important, and hopefully many will return to Multi-Story’s annual summer programme in the venue – and this first (of two) performances was packed for an 80th-birthday nod to Steve Reich (his birthday exactly a month hence).

Three works, growing in players between each, started with flautist Hannah Grayson playing against seven previously recorded lines of hers to create Vermont Counterpoint. The interleaving pattern had a curious 2D semblance, the seven parts issuing from loudspeakers being rather flat, compared to the 3D sound so obviously coming from Grayson’s flute, piccolo and alto flute. It left me wondering what a performance with eight live flautists might sound like.

In essence my hypothetical question was answered immediately, in Eight Lines. Two pianos, flutes, clarinets, violins, violas and cellos – all live, but amplified, making the bass clarinet particularly sound like a pumping saxophone – presented with aplomb Reich’s trademark slow progression underpinned by vibrant repetitive rhythmic cells that gradually change metre and harmony to provide the musical impetus. Christopher Stark can make his beat dance – ideal in this repertoire – even where it’s five beats to the bar. Cast in five sections, the fourth and fifth have the cellos enhancing the long lines offering a soothing balm to the other instrument’s continuous and infectious chatter.

The Multi-Story Orchestra at the BBC Proms At…Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham conducted by Christopher Stark on Saturday 3 September 2016Photograph:  BBC/Mark AllanFinally an increase to twenty-six players (unfortunately the ‘car-park ticket’-style, unfolding free programme did not name Multi-Story’s members) for Music for a large ensemble. Now the pianos had two players each, with also a batch of tuned percussion joining winds and strings, as well as four trumpeters who occasionally play unison long notes to add to the activity, specifically written to be just encompassed by a player’s breath. It occurred to me that amidst Reich’s busy figuration there is always a calming tread: somehow this music makes me breathe deeper. Coupled with his use of the piccolo – in all three pieces, which somehow just makes me want to smile – this programme had a cumulative joyous effect.

The performances were excellent. How the broadcast (of the second concert) coped with the car park – and the trains rumbling by outside (perhaps Different Trains would have been an appropriate work to include) – I’ve yet to find out, but sitting close to the Orchestra (and a loudspeaker) the acoustic was immediate and realistic. But spare a thought for the players who have an additional factor to accommodate: the necessity of clothes pegs to hold their parts in place, which means an extra level of co-ordination at page-turns.

I wonder if in future years there may be an exchange programme – Berliner Philharmoniker or Ensemble Intercontemporain performing at Bold Tendencies while Multi-Story tour to the Royal Albert Hall, hopefully taking some of their regular audience north of the river.

Steve Reich message to Bold Tendencies and Multi-Story from Hannah Barry Gallery on Vimeo.

Proms at … Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park – Steve Reich – Multi-Story Orchestra/Christopher Stark, with Hannah Grayson [the 3 p.m. sitting]

Steve Reich
Vermont Counterpoint
Eight Lines
Music for a Large Ensemble

Hannah Grayson (flute, piccolo & alto flute)

Multi-Story Orchestra
Christopher Stark

Reviewed by: Denise Prentice

Reviewed: 3 September, 2016
Venue: Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, 95a Rye Lane, Peckham, London SE15

The latest offering of the Proms at… series was as much about the uniqueness of the venue as the performance. The low, concrete recessed ceilings of the Bold Tendencies Car Park provided an intimate, immersive acoustic, ringing with the anticipatory thrum of the audience in conversation and the periodic clatter of trains passing through the nearby Peckham Rye Station. In the semi-darkness, shafts of rectangular daylight framed a spectacular view of the London City skyline.

Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint complemented the urban cityscape, consisting of pre-recorded tracks playing simultaneously with mechanical precision. Hannah Grayson joined-in emphatically, weaving playful melodies over multi-layered rhythmic patterns, forming a shimmering sonic tapestry.

The Multi-Story Orchestra rendered an intense account of Eight Lines, opening with a measured clockwork quality, then with instruments hammering melodic phrases above the repetitive underlying structure to form a hypnotic web of sound. It was a pleasurable experience to tune into each contrasting element, appreciating the textures and then drifting back into the whole. At one point the metallic shriek of a passing train added a pleasing component to this rich and intricate mix.

Finally Music for a Large Ensemble, pulsing with Gamelan-influenced percussion infused with marimba-induced warmth. This luminous and vibrant piece, built on the human breath, morphed into a sonorous cycle of expansion and contraction. Tightly structured, multifaceted strands blend breathy trumpets, soft voices, throbbing strings and choppy percussion swelling into something expansive.

This colourful and life-affirming event succeeded in bringing contemporary classical music to a receptive audience in an accessible and creative community space.

Steve Reich message to Bold Tendencies and Multi-Story from Hannah Barry Gallery on Vimeo.

Prom 66: Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle (2) – Julian Anderson’s Incantesimi, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Brahms 2

Julian Anderson
Incantesimi [UK premiere]
Slavonic Dances, Op.46
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 3 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Julian Anderson’s music has been heard at the Proms with some regularity since 1995. Harmony (for choir and orchestra) was commissioned to open the 2013 season and his latest work, Incantesimi, goes beyond mere effectiveness, exploiting the particular ability of Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker to spin long slow musical lines.

A nocturnal ‘concerto for orchestra’ in which five musical ideas are kept in perpetual orbit, its dreamlike parade ends disconcertingly in mid-air after eleven gorgeous minutes. The themes are recognisable too, most obviously the cor anglais solo which has English pastoral or Sibelian antecedents. The journey begins pianissimo in the lower depths with some subterranean Mahlerian growling and conductor and orchestra appeared equally unfazed by its other elements which included delicate Sibelian scurrying from the strings and resonant post-spectral harmony.

Being one of the composer’s least flashy inspirations, Incantesimi was well if not ecstatically received. The title intrigued – the Italian for enchantments we were told – while also seeming to promise some kind of magical ‘open sesame’ reveal along with the sonic incandescence to be expected from this source. The former never quite arrived but the opportunity to listen again online should not be missed. Further performances are scheduled in America next year. New music of this quality is fast vanishing from the lists.

The reflective mood was abruptly shattered by Rattle’s next choice, the Opus 46 set of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances performed self-consciously, the slower sections larded with rubato, friskier portions hard-driven. It was as if each one was an encore, and applauded accordingly. There was plenty of spectacular playing, yet with burlesque replacing charm almost throughout, relaxed nostalgia was at a premium – the ironic world of the previous night’s Mahler Seventh kept coming to mind. Dvořák’s second number, “one moment lamenting, the next dancing”, offered perhaps the most extreme and dispiriting instance of this brutalising tendency. But then Rafael Kubelík died twenty years ago and we are living in different times.

After the interval, Brahms’s Second Symphony, though cut from the same revisionist cloth, proved more rewarding as an interpretation. Rattle attempted a difficult trick, working to lighten textures physically while imparting at times a positively Wagnerian sense of shadow. Given his unexpectedly deliberate overall conception, the first-movement exposition repeat was off the agenda. However Rattle did ensure that the violins were placed antiphonally. Purged of emotional overkill and without the expected rhythmic foundation, the music risked seeming merely stodgy.

The second movement again sounded refreshed rather than conventionally refreshing, more than usually downcast. Even if Sir Simon’s stiff-gestured interventionism created pockets of unwanted calculation (including his trademark extremes of dynamic) let’s not deny that the Berlin musicians played with unsurpassable virtuosity. The characterful woodwinds in the central movements were particularly impressive and the strings, though rarely allowed to saturate the texture and cushion the ear as might have been expected under Karajan, remain mightily impressive. The Finale, following attacca, overflowed with high spirits.

There was a full house for this oddly constituted programme, conceived not for the Proms but for a tour and already road-tested in Lucerne. While those standing in the Arena listened with rapt attention, much of the house was crammed with celebrity hunters behaving as if at a rock concert, chatting, munching, slurping and unable to sit still. Phones were held aloft even during the music. It was almost impossible to concentrate and I found myself turning into the protagonist of one of Julian Barnes’s short stories when I confiscated my neighbour’s crunchy snacks for the duration of the Brahms.

Prom 64: Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle (1) – Boulez’s Éclat & Mahler 7

Symphony No.7

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 2 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The first of two Proms given by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle.

The placing of two composers with maybe little in common served to emphasise Mahler’s modernity (his use of mandolin and guitar in the Seventh) and his preoccupation with chamber sonorities. The homage to Pierre Boulez was all about razor-sharp concision and fantastical timbres – as good a trailer to the wild, intense and enigmatic Mahler Symphony.

Éclat (1965, given without the added-later /Multiples) is scored for fifteen instruments chosen as much for their sustaining quality as for their colour. Attack (or perhaps touch might be more appropriate) and decay are also an fascination in this kaleidoscopic exploration of sonorities, with sounds designed to resonate, owing much to plucking or striking, from tuned percussion (tubular bells, cimbalom, vibraphone and glockenspiel) with piano, harp, celesta, mandolin and guitar. Woodwind, brass and strings provide additional sonic layers towards the end, the whole directed by Simon Rattle with cool precision.

Mahler is central to Rattle’s repertoire – he conducted the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony whilst still a teenager. A smoothly rendered tenor horn solo at the start of the Seventh suggested, in its poise, the polish and musicianship for which the Berlin players are renowned. From funereal beginnings we were soon swept into Alpine splendour, strings relishing their moments of ardour, with Rattle sustaining the first-movement’s epic sweep and heroic stance right through to a well-shaped climax and a coda that was no less intense.

The two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements (second and fourth) gave ample evidence of his fascination with sonority and with shifting instrumental colours. The opening horn solos of ‘Nachtmusik I’ brought forth further sensitivity from the players in a movement later backlit by rather too distant cowbells. Elsewhere, instrumental groupings were all beautifully refined and included a wonderful trio passage for flute, clarinet and horn near the end. In ‘Nachtmusik II’, the serenading mandolin and guitar came over clearly. The central Scherzo had plenty of quirky humour, its “flickering firelight and grotesque shadows” admirably coaxed from Rattle, timpani and violas snuffing out the ghoulish mockery at its close.

And so to the Finale – a movement of sustained jubilation (almost unique in Mahler) set in motion by an energising timpani salvo and paced superbly throughout. If this jamboree strikes a hollow note, Deryck Cooke thought it a “failure”, then Rattle knitted together its collage of music-drama and operetta with total assurance and brought the Symphony to a ringing climax.

Prom 65: Ensemble Intercontemporain & BBC Singers/Baldur Brönnimann, with Jeanne-Marie Conquer in Anthèmes 2 – Bartók, Boulez, Carter

Three Village Scenes
Anthèmes 2
cummings ist der Dichter

Jeanne-Marie Conquer (violin) with Andrew Gerzso (IRCAM computer music design), Jérémie Henrot (IRCAM sound engineer) and Carlo Laurenzi (IRCAM computer music production)

BBC Singers

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Baldur Brönnimann

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Completing the Proms’ bijou bipartite Boulez bash (the Berliner Philharmoniker only just off the stage after starting its first Prom with Boulez’s Éclat – played with …er… éclat), Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain – which he founded forty years ago this year – returned to the Royal Albert Hall in its own tribute, together with the BBC Singers and Baldur Brönnimann.

It was a typical Boulez programme; Boulez had conducted three of the works at the Proms (the Carter being a world premiere) and the other – Anthèmes 2 – had previously graced the stage in Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven-Boulez series in 2012. Whether the initials of the composers’ surnames – BBC – was an intentional nod to the organisation responsible for the Proms I know not.

There was another sense in which this concert celebrated Boulez’s contribution to the Proms: it was a late-night that garnered only a small though committed audience, especially given the earlier sell-out for Rattle, and a trend-bucker to the other ‘lates’ this season. It didn’t affect the quality of the performances, starting with Bartók’s spiky reaction to Stravinsky’s Les noces. Indeed, the first of his Three Village Songs from 1926 is about a wedding, contrasted with the subtler ‘Lullaby’ before the rumbustious ‘Lads’ Dance’. It was an ideal palette-cleanser after Rattle’s sumptuous Mahler 7, with the Ladies of the BBC Singers rising to the challenge to the Scenes’ guttural Slovak. Boulez had conducted two of the work’s three previous Proms performances, introducing it in 1974.

Boulez’s latter interest in electronics was next on the bill, with every sound created by violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer and fed back by IRCAM’s computer wizardry to create a web of accompaniment that resounded across the vast interior, while our focus was on the single player. In six sections – opened, linked internally and closed by a passage entitled Libre – Anthèmes 2 dazzled and amazed until Conquer’s final pizzicato acted like a switch for the stage to be plunged into darkness. To be honest I was unaware of the passing of sections and indeed of the passage of time (it certainly doesn’t feel like twenty minutes), so mesmerised was I by Boulez’s freedom of imagination in a work dating from 1997.

A major stage re-set was required to create the five stations each for four instruments, beginning on Brönnimann’s far left with the unusual combination of viola, bassoon, piano and percussion, required for Elliott Carter’s Penthode (1985). Starting with an extended viola solo, before expertly intertwining thematic ideas between and across the five groups, Carter’s piece here may have benefitted visually by a greater differentiation between the separate ensembles (they were rather cheek-by-jowl). Aurally I wasn’t sure I could detect the inner workings, which I may have picked up on if the stations had been more distinct.

A further stage rearrangement (pushing the concert to a twenty-minute overrun) set the scene for the largest ensemble of this Prom – twenty-seven players and thirty-two choir (two to a part) – for Boulez’s 1986 revision of his cummings ist der Dichter, which gained its title over a misunderstanding. For the Stuttgart premiere Boulez had written to the organisers that “cummings is the poet” which they mistook for the title and translated into German. The name stuck. Boulez’s response to the arch anti-capital letter poet’s single sentence (though elegantly spaced over a number of lines in the programme) is both witty and deadly serious, here presented, with éclat, as a glittering jewel to bring this tribute to Boulez to a close.

Prom 63: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor – Les Arts Florissants/William Christie

Mass in B minor, BWV232

Katherine Watson (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor) & André Morsch (baritone)

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 1 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the grand seigneurs of Baroque ‘period’ performance, William Christie has opened out the music of Rameau, Lully and Charpentier, has been unfailingly true to the spirit of Handel’s operas, and conducted one of the most revelatory accounts of Monteverdi’s Vespers of recent memory.

This Prom marked just the second time that Christie has conducted Bach’s B-minor Mass – the north German composer doesn’t loom large in his repertory – here with Les Arts Florissants, the French group he has been moulding over nearly forty years.

As you would expect, the music-making was full of subtlety and eloquence, but it only fitfully leapt off the page. Perhaps the Radio 3 broadcast will reveal more in terms of attack, but the Albert Hall didn’t sell Christie’s intimate, deeply serious approach, even if his choir (of twenty-five members including the four soloists) and the twenty-nine-strong orchestra was hardly austere numbers-wise.

If some readings of this musical Everest have strained to sound as though set in stone, Christie’s was markedly fluid on the back of some non-risk-taking, lightly animated tempos, to the extent that the contrast between Bach’s contrapuntal rigour, his huge architectural gestures and the many long passages of limpid melody lost a lot of definition and played down the potential for drama that can make the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ in particular such involving experiences.

You can blame the Albert Hall acoustic for much of this, but the disciplined orchestral playing, with its self-conscious striving for high-Baroque intensity, seemed to turn in on itself. The strings moved between a generic, rather passive softness, then rallying for a more engaging wiriness, the self-effacing sound of the German flutes was easily overwhelmed (even in the obbligato roles with solo singers), the oboe and trumpet contributions added welcome dashes of astringency, and Anneke Scott’s magnificently played, hunting-style horn in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” section, with baritone, along with two lovely buzzy bassoons, reminded us of the Mass’s inherent dramatic possibilities.

The choral sound was devout and homogenous, and while these singers’ retreats into a hushed pianissimo for “Qui tollis” (‘Magnificat’) and “Et incarnates est” (‘Credo’) were beautifully controlled, they didn’t suggest the mystery made perfectly clear in the liturgy. You couldn’t fault the reverence of Christie’s overview of the work, but it was hard to imagine it as anything else but secular. There is a hard angularity to the ‘Kyrie’ that was smoothed down by suavely unfolding choral entries over an easy, moderato tempo.

Katherine Watson and Tim Mead injected their “Christe eleison” duet with a more volatile sense of supplication and some neatly turned decorations, but the movement danced rather than put down roots. Watson turned up the radiance in “Laudamus te”, egged on by Hiro Kurosaki’s glorious, astutely judged violin. Mead made the most of the huge space in his incisively sung contributions. Once you’d got your ear in on his countertenor’s unearthly timbre, you could also hear him as first among equals in the altos’ choral line, and in his ravishingly sung ‘Agnus Dei’ solo you suddenly got the full substance of spiritual uplift. Reinoud Van Mechelen showed off the exceptional beauty of his haute-contre tenor in an über-expressive ‘Benedictus’, and André Morsch’s two solos, revealed a similar degree of engagement, the second heightened no end by the oboes.

The ‘perfect’ realisation of Bach’s B-minor Mass can only be an aspiration, but there are those that stick in the memory, that seemed right at the time. Always elegant against mighty odds, with an awesome sense of ensemble and superb musicianship, in the end Christie lacked that sense of ownership that defines a great performance.

Prom 62: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Simone Young – Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra and, with Siobhan Stagg & Christopher Maltman, Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony – Baiba Skride plays Mozart K219

Bayan Northcott
Concerto for Orchestra [BBC commission: world premiere]
Violin Concerto in A, K219
Lyric Symphony, Op.18 [[sung in German; text and translation included in programme]

Baiba Skride (violin)

Siobhan Stagg (soprano) & Christopher Maltman (baritone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Simone Young

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom opened with an impressive premiere, Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra, finished this year. Northcott (born 1940 in London) – critic, author and composer – has written a concise piece full of appealing incident lasting about seventeen minutes that can be considered as a ‘symphony in one movement’ (and as such on a par in quality if not language with the respective No.3s of Lennox Berkeley, Roy Harris and Oliver Knussen). Furthermore, musical substance and compositional rigour far outweigh extraneous or obvious display.

There is plenty of demonstration to connect with and the scoring is for a full if not extravagant orchestra that includes harp, celesta and plentiful but not over-used percussion. The first movement, Allegro con brio, opening with a summons from trumpets, is rhythmic and precise, colourful and expressive, lyricism seeping through, building to a resounding climax. As an English counterpart to Northcott’s style Humphrey Searle (1915-82) came to mind as did the American Roger Sessions (1896-1985). The central Adagio is deeply expressive, becoming impassioned, and the Finale, Allegro molto, enjoys dry wit and finishing-post exuberance.

Northcott’s is music that makes an immediate mark in its invention and underlying thought while also leaving something to return to when further aspects will be discovered. This engaging score received an excellent first outing.

It was then good to hear Mozart given with romance and esprit rather than as a quickstep lock-in. Sprightly yes, but not breathless or inflexible, and Baiba Skride was in elegant and exacting form in a reading that interacted nicely with a reduced and considerate BBC Symphony Orchestra. The slow movement was particularly touching in its heartfelt shapeliness, while the midpoint excursion to darker turns of phrase was especially poignant. The Finale danced along gaily if at some expense to its courtliness, and the ‘Turkish’ section has been more ‘percussive’ and tempestuous than this.

One might question the use of Joseph Joachim’s nineteenth-century cadenzas, a mite anachronistic to our enlightened ears, and while one can admire Skride’s poised playing of repeated notes in her encore – a movement from a Sonata by violinist-composer Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705), a citizen of Dresden who worked in Weimar – it rather detracted, for Skride had already provided plenty of enjoyment in the Mozart.

The music of Viennese-born Alexander (von) Zemlinsky (1871-1942) – better-known as a conductor during his lifetime and who ended his days in New York – tends to lose out considerably to Mahler’s oeuvre in terms of scheduling (and Alma Schindler rejected Zemlinsky for his rival), and he said himself that his Lyric Symphony, completed in 1923, was indebted to Das Lied von der Erde. Yet musically it owes less to Mahler and much more to Schoenberg, Gurrelieder specifically.

The poems Zemlinsky set are by Rabindranath Tagore and deal with love in all its differing emotions. Lyric Symphony has seven movements, playing continuously, the baritone and soprano alternating, and opens with a dramatic timpani crescendo cueing music that is exotic and full of Eastern Promise. The large orchestra is used luxuriantly and complexly, something that Sydney-born Simone Young (until recently involved heavily with Hamburg’s operatic and orchestral life) relished and clarified in revelatory terms.

Whether cinematic in scope, or deft and glittering, or rapturous, or edgy, Zemlinsky’s conducting experience pays dividends in his assured and imaginative orchestration, and his sympathetic arranging of Tagore’s words is everywhere to be heard, aided here by two notable soloists, Christopher Maltman, warm and powerful and with the intimacy of a Lieder singer, and Siobhan Stagg, a vivid story-teller with a potent stage presence; and not forgetting excellence from Stephen Bryant (violin), Graham Bradshaw (cello) and Nicholas Korth (horn).

Particularly compelling was the fourth section (the second half of the slow movement), given to the soprano – “Speak to me, my love! Tell me in words what you sang” – which was total wonderment, spellbinding, and whether expressional or expressionist, the whole of Lyric Symphony here made a huge impression, ending with a glorious orchestral epilogue that is closely related to the twilight zone that concludes Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (written just a few years before), and which the BBC Symphony Orchestra had played three evenings before, wonderfully for Semyon Bychkov’s searching interpretation.

Quite a few concert-performances and recordings of Lyric Symphony have come my way over the years without fully establishing it into my consciousness. But with this conductor, these singers and this orchestra, it has finally and fully arrived, recognisable as the journey of a soul and now a grateful part of my awareness.

Prom 60 – Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Philippe Jordan – Bruckner 9 – Christian Gerhaher sings Bach, Ich habe genug

Cantata, Ich habe genug, BWV82
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Christian Gerhaher (bass-baritone) & Bernhard Heinrichs (oboe) [Bach]

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Philippe Jordan

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 30 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

While both works in this Gustav Mahler Jungendorchester’s Prom are profound reflections on the end of life, when a hundred or more youthful musicians turn their thoughts to death there’s a fear that adolescent angst will triumph over sombre contemplation. In the end it didn’t, of course, and such disappointments as the concert contained originated as much from other sources as from the players themselves.

With regard to the string-sections alone, Philippe Jordan faced a daunting challenge in marshalling such a vast contingent through the choppy seas of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (presumably given in Leopold Nowak’s 1951 edition). The Swiss maestro’s solution was to be a disciplined pedagogue. He employed scrupulous eye contact and a baton devoted to phrasing while the left hand looked after the dynamics. This managerial approach kept things tidy and was possibly the only practical solution in the circumstances, but it came at a cost. Drilled excellence was impressive, but there are times in Bruckner’s symphonic farewell when the indefinable is required. Where were the bold sweeps, the unearthly awe, and the moments of heart-stopping effulgence? Granted, the ten double basses quaked the foundations like a chorus of timpani; but the uppers strings sounded angelic even when they ought to be digging deep and probing the score’s inner meaning.

At least Jordan scotched any sense of the Ninth seeming like the bleeding stump of a longer work. Unfinished it may be; incomplete it is not – to the ear at least. The absence of Bruckner’s intended Finale leaves us with a satisfying three-movement palindrome, its central Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo a second palindrome within that. The third movement, Adagio, is a mosaic of musical arguments and self-quotation that goes through myriad colours until the mood stills into a conclusion of Mahlerian finality.

Internal balance was surprisingly good considering the crowded platform, and the contributions of Julia Bojarinaité (flute) and Martin Danek (oboe) were captivating. If the quartet of Wagner tubas didn’t always integrate happily into the texture it’s because Bruckner set these youthful players (not to mention plenty of older ones!) a challenge too far.

The concert had opened with a reading by Christian Gerhaher of J. S. Bach’s Ich habe genug. This extraordinary call for death’s release can be shattering, but in the German baritone’s account it felt more like a meditation and as such was something of a disappointment.

Jordan recruited seventeen of his best young players to give a pristine account of the accompaniment, their aural vellum illuminated by an exquisitely phrased obbligato contribution from Bernhard Heinrichs (one of the GMJO’s tutors); but Gerhaher’s mellifluous delivery was insufficiently projected for it to feel like a shared performance. He made little attempt to fill the Royal Albert Hall; instead he invited listeners to come and get it if they wanted to. A quiet performance then, one that rendered the Cantata’s mood of faith and finality, but as a musical cry from the heart it was bland.

Prom 61: Kamasi Washington

“Thrilling California-based saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington has been described as the biggest thing to hit jazz for years. Having toured for over a decade with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Lauryn Hill and Snoop Dogg, he now brings his own band to the Proms, combining with the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, along with choral backing, to perform tracks from his groundbreaking recent three-disc album The Epic.” [BBC Proms website]

Kamasi Washington (saxophone), Rickey Washington (flute & saxophone), Patrice Quinn (vocals), Ryan Porter (trombone), Ronald Bruner Jr & Antonio ‘Tony’ Adams, (drums), Brandon Coleman (keyboards) and Abraham ‘Miles’ Mosley (double bass)
T. O. P. Gospel Choir
Strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Jules Buckley

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Kamasi Washington might not have been the most obvious artist for the Proms, yet the success of the triple album The Epic certainly propelled him to the forefront of the current jazz scene, making him a shoe-in for the Royal Albert Hall following high-profile gigs at last year’s London Jazz Festival and Glastonbury this year. With his seven-piece band of virtuosos, things were set for a late-night Prom such as threatened to burn-up a venue by no means unaccustomed to roof-raising sets from non-classical performers.

With nearly three hours of tracks to choose from, possible sets-lists to be drawn from The Epic are endless, though launching with ‘Change of the Guard’ set the tone for what was to follow – thus high-octane if rarely showy soloing from Washington and his band, backed by mantric vocalise from the T. O. P. Gospel Choir and lush string textures courtesy of the CBSO.

Epic it assuredly was, but also unrelieved in its textural density to an extent that the interplay between band members became submerged in a wash of sound as swirled around the auditorium with precious little sense of aural definition. Maybe rather fuzzy amplification was partly or even largely to blame, yet some of this was due to the overreaching ambition of this music less in terms of its content than its conception.

Moving on to ‘The Next Step’ with keening solos from Washington and the trombonist Ryan Porter, underpinned by the scorching pianism of Brandon Coleman (itself a constant highlight), though its impact was once again lessened in the context of voices and strings that enfolded without really intensifying their contributions. Hers was frequently merely a gestural presence, but vocalist Patrice Quinn brought warmth as well as elegance to the blandishments of ‘Henrietta Our Hero’; a sincere eulogy to Washington’s grandmother equally graced by the understated flute of his father Rickey. If the next piece had a more restrained ambience, there was no lack of incident as the solos came thick and fast – goaded on by the dextrous bass of Miles Mosley and heady rhythmic interplay of drummers Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin.

A further vocal number followed in ‘The Rhythm Changes’, Quinn’s imploring singing rather overawed by choral chanting that skirted monotony (Washington has spoken of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as an influence that could have been more resourcefully deployed). There followed a premiere – ‘The Space Traveller’s Lullaby’, in which the band was heard to often hypnotic effect as its playing infused the RAH ambience. Energy levels were duly upped with a flood of blistering solos on ‘The Magnificent 7’ which rounded off the night.

Make no mistake, Kamasi Washington and his band are a force to reckon with – musical, and for many of the capacity audience, spiritual. Nor was there any doubting the commitment of choir and strings in their response to Jules Buckley (seemingly on course for setting a new record of Proms appearances). Doubts remain as to the intrinsic substance and individuality of what was heard, but a sense of occasion carried this set through to its conclusion with an encore of ‘Re Run Home’ as saw those present locked into a groove of surging propulsion.

Prom 58: CBeebies II

“Join the BBC Concert Orchestra and some of CBeebies’ best-loved presenters and characters in a special musical journey.Aimed at 0- to 5-year-olds and their families, this Prom takes the audience on a journey through time and space, from dinosaur adventures with Andy to swashbuckling treasure-hunts with Gemma and stargazing with Chris. The magical world of CBeebies is brought to life by orchestral classics.” [BBC Proms website]

Andy Day (from Andy’s Wild Adventures), Ben Faulks (Mr Bloom), Gemma Hunt (from Swashbuckle), Chris Jarvis (from Show Me, Show Me, and Stargazing), Steven Kynman, Cat Sandion, Justin Fletcher (Mr Tumble)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Jessica Cottis

Reviewed by: Martin Anderson with son Alex (aged 6), together with Holly (aged 4) and her mum Zizi

Reviewed: 29 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Alex began his Promming career two years ago, at the age of four – seventeen years younger than I was when I began mine, in 1977. In the four decades since then, the Proms have lost most of the maverick glee that informed the front rows of the Arena. Some of the traditions remain: when the piano lid is raised, there’s still a “Heave!” from the Arena and a “Ho!” from the Gallery, and orchestral leaders still get a burst of applause when they play that A. But the days when each foreign ensemble was greeted by a shout in its own language (to the visible astonishment of the players) and other co-ordinated chants commented on the music are long gone. So it does my aging heart good to step into that vast space and feel it crackling with the energy it used to know all those years ago – no matter that it emanates from thousands of little people.

It’s also good to know that – for all that a CBeebies Prom bears little relation to those that take place in the evening – the little people in question will eventually be big people and will already feel an affinity with big people’s Proms, even if they feel they are classical outsiders. That’s one of the directions in which our future lies.

But children’s classical concerts are a difficult thing to bring off, and I’ve not yet encountered one which succeeded – though my attendance record is poor, I admit. This CBeebies Prom illustrated the point perfectly. And it’s all to do with focus, or lack thereof.

The concert began with the actors on the stage and starting to engage the audience. We need an orchestra, they said, and it duly trooped on, section by section, stood up and played. There’s a good idea, I thought, until I realised that no one could hear them or was paying attention in the first place. But a film presentation of the music and characters from favourite TV shows brought loud yells of recognition (not from me: I was out of my depth here).

The basic format was a kind of rondo, with Mr Tumble (on film) alternating with (parts of) some classical favourites: the third movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’, Korngold’s The Sea Hawk, the ‘Dance of the Knights’ from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Max’s Orkney Wedding and Sunrise (well, the Sunrise bit, and they loved the bagpipes), the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra and Arturo Márquez’s Conga del fuego (I think) to round it off.

Now, when the kids were asked to shout at Mr Tumble or stand up and stamp or swing their arms and other familiar routines, they were all there, volcanic in their excitement. But they switched off as soon as the music re-started – because the programme had no central choreography. There were two screens above the stage, one of them duplicating the image of another to the left of the organ. Sometimes the action was on the stage, and then some of the actors would disappear into the audience, to be picked out on one of the monitors. Alex didn’t know where to look and so it soon lost his attention; three-year-old Holly took it all in her stride, perhaps because she wasn’t looking for continuity.

The presence on the platform of William Shakespeare in his 400th-anniversary year was just so much clutter, as was most of the rest of the script. It needed to be much simpler, the messages clear and engaging. And all sorts of opportunities were missed. No one asked the audience to sing along with any of music’s big tunes, for example. When I was about fifteen, in my home town of Crieff, I went to hear one of Joseph Cooper’s lecture-recitals; his subject was Beethoven. He played the beginning of the slow movement of the ‘Appassionata’ and then asked us, the audience, to hum it, unaccompanied. I was probably the youngest person in the hall; it seemed everyone else was an old lady in her sixties or seventies. But hum it we did, and half a century later it remains one of the most moving musical experiences of my life.

Something like that would have engaged our young Prommers to a degree that was lacking here – never mind the fact that in another half-century they could have told their own grandchildren: “I sang in the Albert Hall, you know.” Not only that – after this morning I can say: “I have conducted at the Proms.” It doesn’t matter that my beat might have been lost in a forest of shorter arms – and no one told me off.

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