Prom 10 – Ruby

Francesca da Rimini – Fantasy, Op.32
Ruby [BBC commission: world premiere]
Concerto for Orchestra

Colin Currie (percussion)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The organ loft was bathed in blue for part one, then mauve. Here we go again. Pointless! Nothing to do with listening to music. Could not the gold lighting be made standard for the TV bods? That’s not a bad gloss, actually; it’s quite distinctive in its neutrality. Not sure, though, about the cameraman’s close proximity to the brass section. Distracting.

Yes, there was a concert. The final elements of communication were missing from the Bartók and Tchaikovsky. One could admire the preparation (although Francesca needed a little more work), the commitment and the musicianship. The Albert Hall’s acoustic had not been entirely allowed for; some details didn’t quite make it through. Neither work took wing; the Tchaikovsky lacked theatricality, the Bartók dynamism.

That both were so well controlled by Marin Alsop ultimately restricted their dimension. It’s one thing to precisely articulate Francesca’s storminess, some of it rather stolid here, it’s another to let it fly unhinged. One can point to nimble woodwind, powerful yet integrated brass and a beautiful-sounding cello section, yet dotting Is and crossing Ts took precedence.

Just a year into her Bournemouth appointment, and this was her Proms debut, Marin Alsop clearly has the orchestra on her side. What doesn’t seem present yet is room for the unexpected, for the musicians to do something impromptu outside that pre-ordained. Although Alsop has her entire focus on the music, it seems solely on the notes and at the expense of developing the orchestra’s character and, not least, a requirement for players to listen more to each other. Textures are, for the most part, scrupulously balanced, but the measure of podium dictate seems stifling. There is, as yet, some unevenness across the BSO’s spectrum; inconsistencies in tone production and attack. Kevin Banks’s clarinet solos stood out (especially in Francesca’s languorous middle section, which otherwise rather sagged), and the orchestra has a splendid bassoon section that enlivened an under-tempo ’Game of the Couples’ in the Bartók. Three bassoons, that is! Alsop was excessively pedantic with the side-drum solo flanking this movement, and with the horns’ introduction to the finale.

The Bartók was that well organised … and also dull. It lacked human spirit and endeavour – Bartók, seriously ill and transplanted to the States, certainly retained his meticulous craft but also put himself into the piece. This performance reflected his construction albeit with some unconvincing tempo relationships and muffled effects: the harp’s striking interjection in the first movement sounded here like a miscalculation by the composer. While one registered conductor and orchestra working well together, the lace-work of the performance stayed resolutely on the platform.

Aficionados of “Only Fools and Horses” can work out the title of Joe Duddell’s commission. Here’s a rarity, a percussion concerto built on a musical premise; the genre now has many examples, some very dubious. Duddell scores on several fronts: he knows when to stop; he doesn’t get bogged down in repetitiveness; he doesn’t just do crash, bang, wallop. Actually, there isn’t much of the latter; when it occurs it seems a natural outlet. Duddell beholds to abstract formulation and melodic instruments; drum kit and various gongs are also in attendance. His invention might be termed Transatlantic. Michael Tippett is a clear (and wonderful) influence in the ’cool’ strands and affecting lyricism; there are nods to John Adams and Philip Glass.

Alsop’s ear for balance and feel for rhythm came into its own here; this was a very confident premiere. Colin Currie noted the subtlety of Duddell’s writing, the buoyancy of the flow, that there is a relationship with the orchestra. Duddell has written an entertaining and thoughtful piece, with some arresting beauty – these are the Tippettian moments – and imaginative colours and dialogue. A success, not least because Duddell doesn’t do the obvious – not even a showy ending – and although some templates have an initial heart-sinking familiarity, he avoids the traps through well-timed variation; indeed, he teases out some surprises from a medium one might have supposed had run its course.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 30 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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