Prom 6: Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard School – Edward Gardner conducts Metacosmos & The Rite of Spring – James Ehnes plays Britten’s Violin Concerto

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Metacosmos [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto, Op.15
The Rite of Spring [1965 score]

James Ehnes (violin)

Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard School
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 22 July, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

James EhnesBBC Proms 2019's Prom 6: Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard SchoolPhotograph: Chris ChristodoulouAn ensemble of gifted students from London’s Royal Academy of Music and New York’s Julliard School. From the hot summer’s day outside – there were deck-chairs in Hyde Park – we were transported to the ice-cold of outer space. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music has characteristic Nordic signposts – the vast frozen landscapes of her Icelandic homeland are never far from the surface of Metacosmos, 2017; layers of texture build and collapse as the music progresses and moulds a unified whole from chaotic and disparate elements. The composer writes that “the idea and inspiration … is the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole.” The piece doesn’t try, nor intends, to be descriptive, but gives a sense of being drawn into a force beyond our control. Minimalistic in design, Metacosmos’s ethereal and static opening develops through changes of instrumentation; brass-players blowing into their instruments (without the mouthpiece) was eerily effective. Occasionally hinting at its diatonic ending (unity from chaos) this string-centric work made a fitting start to the evening.

Then to Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto. James Ehnes graduated from The Juilliard School in 1997 and now serves as a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy. The Concerto was first written in 1938-39, and then heavily revised up until 1965. It’s a continuous three-movement score (no room for interrupting applause here). The powerful and richly balanced sound of the strings belied the young age of the players, and the second movement was fiery, displaying technical adeptness from orchestra and soloist alike. The Passacaglia final movement, as full-bodied and as diaphanous as required, ended a memorable performance. As an encore Ehnes offered the Andante from J. S. Bach’s A-minor Sonata (BWV1003), which cleansed the pallet nicely.

Following the break, a nervous start to The Rite of Spring quickly gave way to a confident rendition, including relentless and driving strings in ‘Dances of the young girls’, and super pianissimo muted trumpets in ‘Procession of the Sage’. There was very little to dislike here, and while there was nothing marking it as something for the desert-island, this was a commendable account.

As an encore, Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks (1988, revised), the Fireworks being Stravinsky’s, written for the LSO and MTT, and a suitably colourful conclusion to this Prom celebrating musicians from the UK and the US.

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