Icarus [London premiere]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [selections]
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 27 July, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
There may be economic reasons behind the appearance of more and more youth orchestras at the Proms but it’s pure gain to hear an ensemble big enough to fill the venue with unamplified sound, however inauthentic the doublings. Relatives and supporters seemed to outnumber tourists at this packed National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain Prom, long an annual event. While there was applause after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, this did not seem inappropriate given the character of the music and its realisation. Expectant silence reigned elsewhere, even at the close of the Prokofiev where Mark Wigglesworth, on superb form throughout, managed to hold the silence. Anyone expecting youthful exuberance to exclude the nth degree of professional polish had reckoned without the perspicacity of this underrated maestro. There were said to be 164 youngsters in the NYO (157 listed in the booklet) and the playing was tremendous, both corporately and in lonelier, more exposed passages. The extreme string pianissimos rivalled those achieved by Simon Rattle or Osmo Vänskä and the woodwind solos – shrewd, affecting, even profound – were rightly singled out by Nicola Benedetti in a brief speech before her encore. All in all a major improvement on last year’s display, stymied as it was by a disappointing soloist and a conductor with a less singular focus.
The more or less Russian programme began with a London premiere. Not that a musical treatment of the Icarus legend was the most obvious candidate for inclusion in a season inspired by the 1969 Apollo Moon Landing and, by implication, that make-believe directive “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (preferably, no doubt, in its gender-neutral version. Christopher Rouse’s Phaethon, an implacable treatment of a parallel myth, is dedicated to the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger which broke apart in January 1986 with the loss of all seven crew members. But that would be a darker way to remember the American space programme!) Whether Lera Auerbach knows that score I cannot say but hers is a less monolithic (more insipid?) vision, albeit a subtler one in terms of orchestral colour. She includes various kinds of percussive tinkling and a theremin in the mix and there are plentiful, tonal reference points. Émigré or not her music here still sounds Soviet Russian in the chimerical manner of a Schnittke film score. The biggest climax and the passage that follows could be Shostakovich, just about. The obsessive repetitions may also reflect her decision to make a life in New York while still in her teens. Auerbach embraces both unadorned unison statement and textures busier and friskier. It isn’t clear why one section succeeds another but there’s no doubting the skill with which each has been assembled.
Oddly her own contribution to the BBC’s programme booklet, while giving plenty of biographical information, tells us rather little about her intentions. “Feel free to daydream while listening or to remember your own past. It’s fine also not to imagine any images at all, but simply experience the sound. This programme note is a door to your imagination. The music is your guide. But it is up to you to take the step and cross the threshold.” The composer is also a visual artist and a poet but there’s something disingenuous about omitting to mention that Icarus is in fact a recycled chunk, formed by the last two movements of her Symphony No.1, ‘Chimera’ of 2006. “I gave the title Icarus to this work after it was written” is all she admits to! No matter. This is an impressively assured composition for someone in their early-thirties, at once mysterious and frankly communicative, always colourful. The quiet closing section, not best calculated to ride coughs or engender applause, was listened to in attentive silence, its extreme highs and lows small beer now that we are used to the excesses of Thomas Adès. The rather wild claims made for Auerbach in the US may or may not turn out to be justified.
Next up was Nicola Benedetti who created quite a stir even before she had played a note – whether thanks to her high public profile, profound commitment to music education or an impactful off-the-shoulder frock of fiery red. Although she has regularly confounded critics with her devotion to non-standard musical fare she must have a special relationship with the Tchaikovsky: it was one of the first mainstream Concertos she committed to disc. The outer movements were brisk with an avoidance of rhetorical histrionics that will have appealed to some. The slow movement certainly struck deep. There is a naturalness about Benedetti’s interpretation which for me at least outweighs the scrawnier skittering. She does not have the sweetest, fattest tone but her silver thread was given an extraordinarily sympathetic setting by Wigglesworth and the NYO, never once drowned out despite the vast body of string-players remaining. The encore, a lullaby blending ragtime, spiritual and Scottish ballad elements, was ‘As the Wind Goes’, the second of the five movements comprising the Fiddle Dance Suite written for her by Wynton Marsalis. She withdrew from the stage while still playing, an evocative touch.
The enormous popularity of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the Proms the sea-change can be dated to 1982 when Riccardo Muti presented some of its most familiar numbers with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Subsequent conductors have mostly followed suit in making their own choices, some taking the music directly from the complete ballet score, others preferring the doctored highlights Prokofiev topped, tailed and re-ordered for concert use. In this case (for those purchasing a printed programme) the precise identification of each portion was deemed secondary to conveying the narrative thrust, each selection being graced by some appropriate lines from the play.
The ‘Introduction: Montagues and Capulets’ with which we began was indeed the first number from the composer’s Second Suite, comprising ‘The Prince Gives His Order’ and a version of the ‘Dance of the Knights’. Thereafter all the pieces were as heard in the ballet itself: Morning Dance (4), The Quarrel (5), The Fight (6), The Young Juliet (10), Balcony Scene (19), Romeo’s Variation (20), Love Dance (21), Tybalt and Mercutio Fight (33), Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio’s Death (35), Act Two Finale (36 – here billed as ‘The Death of Tybalt’ but not the recomposed movement of that name in Suite No.1, rather a re-titling of the ballet number that comes only after the death); then Juliet’s Bedroom (46), Juliet’s Funeral (51), and Death of Juliet (52). Forty minutes of music.
The selection was typical of Mark Wigglesworth, telling a grand, tragic tale with high seriousness, visceral attack and impressive continuity, underplaying the ballet’s lighter comedic elements by the simple expedient of cutting them out. Hence four harps but no mandolins (and no Friar Laurence either). Pretty glorious all the same.
The encore began even before the conductor had reached the podium. In the tradition of Gustavo Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra this was the ‘Mambo’ from West Side Story, thrillingly fast and tight, if too much so for relaxed swing. Some musicians nevertheless found time to rise for a boogie or twirl as they played, capping a genuinely memorable night.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms