Prom 1: 20th July 2001 (The First Night)

Colin Matthews
Fanfare (BBC commission: world premiere)
Britten, orchestrated Colin Matthews
Overture – Paul Bunyan
Vaughan Williams
Serenade to Music
Cello Concerto in E minor
John Adams

Emma Bell, Sarah Fox, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers & Sally Matthews (sopranos)
Anna Burford, Sarah Connolly, Emma Curtis & Louise Mott (mezzo-sopranos)
Alfred Boe, Wynne Evans, Gwyn Hughes Jones & Rhys Meirion (tenors)
Leigh Melrose & Hakan Vramsmo (baritones)
Jonathan Lemalu & James Rutherford (basses)

Guy Johnston (cello)
BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 20 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

These days it seems that every music festival must have at least one, preferably several, themes – none more than the Proms under Nicholas Kenyon’s directorship. In earlier Proms’ regimes – Robert Ponsonby’s for example – the topic was often a nationality; if, say, Poland (as in the 1983 season), you would get a statistically higher-than-normal amount of Szymanowski and Lutoslawski. The Drummond-era expanded the focus generically to embrace dance and other artistic forms. Kenyon has refined this further to take in conceptual themes – this year we have ’exile’ and ’nature’. At this point we might reasonably conclude that a two-month festival could yield an infinite number of subjects – on the premise that there is no set of points so random that a connection cannot be traced between them. It is by now a Kenyon tradition that each season’s thematic colours are nailed firmly to the mast of the First Night.

So it was that we had exile in the shape of Britten’s overture to his operetta, Paul Bunyan, written while he was domiciled in the USA, and the pastoral represented symbolically by the presence of Vaughan Williams, its greatest and best-known English practitioner (the English pastoral tradition being a thematic sub-category). The concert also acted as a mission statement from Leonard Slatkin in his first Proms season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in its yoking together of British and American components. John Adams was there as a featured composer. Finally, youth (a hardy perennial for every season) was represented by Guy Johnston, last year’s winning BBC Young Musician, in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and by sixteen up-and-coming singers in VW’s Serenade to Music. Phew! Fortunately, this is the Proms, where content nimbly side-steps agenda – this was a hugely enjoyable concert. (The only jarring note was the contribution of George W Bush to the programme book.)

A novelty of this season’s First Night was the commissioning of an opening fanfare from Colin Matthews. Entitled, plainly, Fanfare for the 2001 Proms, this took the form of groups of brass and drums calling to each other antiphonally from points around the Gallery. Opening with drums, unmistakably linking with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the brass writing has a Ruggles-like craggy grandeur, mellowing at the end into triadic harmonies and a melodic contour which morphs into the fanfare motif of Paul Bunyan as a seamless segue. The light and breezy style of the Britten (idiomatically orchestrated by Matthews from Britten’s two-piano draft) sat rather uncomfortably with the apocalyptic tone of Matthews’s own piece, rather recalling Saki’s image of the divine announcer of the Day of Judgement being sent away as the timing clashed with Ascot. Taken on its own, however, the Matthews proved a highly dramatic and effective curtain-raiser.

Serenade to Music, in its sixteen-voice version, had voices belonging to sixteen rising stars, all but one of them making their Proms debuts. Given the intimate interweaving of the solo parts, it is perhaps not only invidious but also impossible to single out any one voice – but the final solo note belonged to Sally Matthews (in Isobel Baillie’s original part) and she hit it perfectly. Slatkin properly treated the work as a moonlit nocturne, not a summer idyll, the vocal parts supported by a diaphanous blanket of orchestral sound. A curious result of juxtaposing this work with Harmonium was the realisation that they shared a stylistic trait – namely the dramatic use of modulation to keys a third away as a portal into new territory. VW as a proto-minimalist, anybody?

The collective will of the audience for Guy Johnston to succeed in Elgar’s concerto was palpable, which must have been encouraging and daunting in equal degrees. This was a far from conventional performance, right from the cello’s opening gesture, played as I’ve never heard before. The predominant tone was a gentle reticence, which found its true voice in the slow third movement where Johnston’s rapt introspection was most affecting, as it was also in the recurrence of this material toward the end of the finale. Adrian Jack’s programme note suggested the work as being ultimately a comedy, but the bluff humour of the fast movements never sounded so vulnerable as in this performance. I thought the performance underpowered to start with, particularly as Slatkin had obviously scaled down orchestral dynamics to match Johnston’s reserve, but as it emerged as the strategy the reading began to work. The downside I suspect was that although a ’chamber’ treatment was successful from my vantage-point, listeners in the RAH’s upper reaches may have struggled to engage with it.

John Adams, along with Christopher Rouse (Prom 6), is the sort of contemporary composer who Leonard Slatkin is most associated with – bold, direct, adventurous but accessible; although Slatkin’s stated intention to explore the thornier side of the British compositional spectrum is perhaps already apparent in the Alexander Goehr premiere later in the season (Prom 67). Adams’s choral epic, Harmonium, contributed to the hands-across-the-water spirit of the programme in its setting of poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. The first movement, a setting of Donne’s ’Negative Love’, is a single ’vector’ as Adams calls it, racing inexorably to the poem’s final line, ’Though I speed not, I cannot miss’, achieved through an incremental accumulation of detail from the single tone of the opening to the overwhelming torrent of energy that is the climax. The gathering impetus is finally cut off; the certainty of the poem’s final line reflected in final passage’s measured tone.

The slow second movement sets Dickinson’s ’Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ as a becalmed sea with barely perceptible movement, measured out in paragraphs by modulations that sound both tentative and purposeful. As the movement floats away into the poet’s ’eternity’, there is a gentle pealing of cowbells, an unforgettable effect. A steady crescendo leads to the eruption of the third movement, a setting of Dickinson’s ’Wild Nights’, where orgiastic choral unisons give way to quiet ecstasy and a post-coital sinking into oblivion.

Harmonium was receiving its second Proms performance, following Rattle’s powerful account with the CBSO in the 1990 season (which Proms veterans will also remember as the night of the Great Falling Lightbulb Incident!). The unbridled energy was overwhelming. Slatkin’s account was a more measured affair. The pulsing choral parts in the first movement were carefully meshed together and the slow passages were beautifully controlled. The performance was undeniably powerful, especially the contribution of the fearless BBC Symphony Chorus, even if one could have wished for the last degree of abandon in the wildest passages. The term ’modern classic’ is a hackneyed one, but it seems appropriate to so-describe a work that kept a capacity audience spellbound for its full duration. The 2001 Proms are well and truly launched.

  • This concert is repeated on BBC Radio 3 on Monday, 23 July, at 2 o’clock. Click on the link at the top of the page to listen on-line.

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