Beating Drums, Dancing Lions
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 25 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Prom began with the “Blue Peter” theme – music that belongs to children and is much jollier than our National Anthem.
“Blue Peter” presenters, Liz Barker and Simon Thomas, were the comperes. The “Blue Peter Prom” was played twice, the first time having been the previous morning.
The printed programme was engagingly set out – well-spaced and with varied print layouts. It shone with jokes and colourful cartoons. There was no talking down, and brevity received pride of place.
The musical programming was pretty much the same. We began with music from “2001” – the opening of Strauss’s Zarathustra, a rather brief if splendid sunrise, giving the ‘new’ organ of just under 10,000 pipes a chance to display the gentle shimmer of emerging dawn.
Lillith Fleur and Phoebe Rose, members of my entourage, acclaimed the dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Stravinsky’s Firebird enthusiastically. The BBC Philharmonic, under Gianandrea Noseda, played them straightforwardly, with a strong beat – an approach that gauged the audience shrewdly.
The jazzy Beatles medley was less successful. The programme gave one snag away: “if you don’t know who the Beatles were, ask a grown-up”. Worse still, Peter Willmott’s arrangement hid rather than displayed the tunes. Moreover, English orchestras do not take idiomatically to jazz. That said, Jamie Prophet took a spectacular trumpet solo, ably backed by Paul Turner’s percussion. Lillith Fleur, with nine months’ experience as a trumpeter, gave her approval!
John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine received perfunctory applause.
Under Shirley Court’s direction, the City of Birmingham Youth Chorus sang two traditional items exquisitely. The Japanese “Sakura” made a telling and serene foil to the Japanese drumming that preceded it. “Soldier, Soldier” was out of place though. It had the porcelain perfection characteristic of many English choral groups, treating the robust original as if it had contracted a form of anaemia.
I have yet to mention the afternoon’s three splendours.
The first half should have ended with “Dancing Lions”. This parade set large, terrifying, beneficent lions on the rampage, while instrumentalists banged drums, clashed cymbals and beat gongs. By this means, according to ancient Chinese lore and practice, evil spirits are driven from auspicious highlights of the year and new business ventures. Thus the “Lion Dance” brings good luck, wealth and long life – and the practitioners of the dance, from the Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu School are highly trained and skilled. Simon Thomas told us that Liz Barker was inside one of the lions, asking the children to guess which lion and whether she was its head or its legs.
Kagemusha Taiko is an English group based in Exeter. The members (Kagemusha – “shadow warriors” who, here, shadow the masters though they are non-Japanese and have devised their own style) play “fat drums” (Taiko) of many shapes and sizes. With great, awing power – and yet also with firm delicacy – the men and women, girls and boys (the youngest is 14) secured sounds from drums of various girths to scare-off enemies approaching a battlefield, signal the imminence of rain, offered prayers to the gods and regaled the Emperor with music of elegance and refinement. We heard all this, magnificently. The stance and muscle of the drummers was an arresting spectacle – less colourful than the lions, maybe, but striking in their robust poise and human hardiness.
Lillith Fleur and Phoebe Rose thought this the most exciting item of the afternoon.
The third great success was Ravel’s Boléro – the longest piece of all. Ravel himself did not consider it of musical interest. So, what about this young audience, ready to be enlivened and enthralled, but also wide-open to boredom?
The captivating, ingenious device was to provide visual entertainment to run in tandem with Boléro’s repeated theme. We were treated to a reverse of the last movement of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.
Here, to a stage dark and almost deserted, instrumentalists appeared from all parts of the auditorium and made their way to the platform – asking junior members of the audience to look after half-eaten bananas or bits of newspaper. One player served the percussionist a tray of drinks; a suction cleaner made sure that a double bass’s neck was clean (several times); a flautist greeted several colleagues before taking her seat; the sweeper with a huge broom swept vigorously around the conductor’s rostrum … and a couple of string players arrived too late to play even their final note. “I enjoyed that. It was funny,” said Lillith Fleur.
Thus the longest piece did not drag. It existed as jaunty accompaniment to the human entertainment the orchestra was so busily and engagingly providing.
Long too was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.1 – especially when played twice, music parents responded to more than their offspring. Perhaps, also, it was introductory training for when the younger members became old enough to attend the Last Night of the Proms. “I liked the tune,” said Phoebe Rose. But it didn’t end the Prom. The “Blue Peter” theme did.
- Concert recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 26 July at 2 p.m.
- BBC Proms 2004