Prom 32 – Old Brass

Sinfonietta for strings
Violin Concerto No.6 (Old Brass) [world premiere]

Mark O’Connor (violin)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Kenneth Sillito (director)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 11 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Even at 10 in the evening, the RAH was stifling.

Penderecki’s Sinfonietta was enjoyable as long as you didn’t demand much. Some bits were routinely discordant – angry, abrasive and ’modern’. The remainder was less grating, harmonies were robust – poised to break into melody. Hence, when Penderecki’s right hand (traditional) met his left hand (modern), the horses were not frightened.

That said, the Sinfonietta sounded technically exacting in places. The playing was worth staying for. The Academy’s house style is clear, clean-cut and highly professional. There were powerful solos from Robert Smissen (viola), Kenneth Sillito and Stephen Orton (cello) and some brightly incisive fugal playing during the short second movement.

The Proms brochure lists Mark O’Connor as a “star funk-folk fiddler”. He played the world premiere of ’Old Brass’, his 6th violin concerto. (How may I distinguish it from the previous five?) O’Connor’s programme note defines ’Old Brass’ as a southern phrase for “a person of both African and Native American heritage” and a corrupted version of ’Auldbrass’, Frank Lloyd Wright’s plantation. To my mind came the notion of ’Cobblers’!

Apparently, we were listening to mood evocations of locations in South Carolina – a hexagonal plantation (’Auldbrass’ itself), a ’black water’ lake and a fugal mixture of the two – “… once a person impacts their creativity with the natural circumstances which surround them, then there is potential for that art to interface more naturally into the world”. Of course.

The three movements sounded more as if O’Connor were scraping away to his heart’s content in a country style he knows all too well – unremittingly and self-indulgently, for some 35 unbelievably lengthy minutes.

Whiling away the time in case an arresting sound appeared, I recalled Irish fiddlers, Stéphane Grappelli – and, in one grateful moment, Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending!

O’Connor was at home in the spontaneous ramblings of the third movement cadenza. Elsewhere his writing was perky and his inspiration monotonous. Flutes and strings repeatedly made exactly the same class of sounds as last time and the time before. By comparison, Penderecki’s Sinfonietta now seemed a work of towering genius – glittering with sonic versatility and experiment.

After ’Old Brass’, the unremitting, uningratiating harshness of Bartók’s Divertimento came as vigorous relief. It was terse, thank the Lord! It took no hostages, thank the Lord! In the second movement came beguiling respite: the electrical storms abated, replaced by magical whispering in the night’s stillness. That moment past, the Academy’s strings tore-in, full rasping pelt, to the sudden, abrupt, grinding finish – without even a screech of brakes.

“The poor, peaceful Swiss are being compelled to burn with war-fever,” wrote Bartók at the time, August 1939.

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