Seven O’Clock Shout
Four Noveletten for String Orchestra, Op. 52
Trumpet Concerto in E flat major
Sinfonietta No. 1 – Rondo
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major
Aaron Azunda Akugbo (trumpet)
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 1 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
At least three proms’ premieres (though one was curiously not indicated as such in the programme) and two cornerstone pieces of the classical repertoire staples: there was so much to enjoy – and enjoy we did in the packed Royal Albert Hall!
The concert opened with the first proms performance of a work by American composer Valerie Coleman that drew its inspiration from the public percussive weekly tributes to health and care workers selflessly helping others during the Covid-19 Pandemic worldwide. A time when eerily silent streets suddenly became alive with noise of shouts and striking of pans in the early evening. One might have thought this could become rather sombre and indeed the opening theme as it developed had a gentle and affecting melancholy about it. However, the piece is generally playful as the interplay of the wind instruments over a regularly pulsating underlay suddenly erupts into the ebullient celebration of improvisatory instruments and human voices making a din with abandon in an amazing aural recreation of those times. This is followed by an orchestral chorale-like section that brings the work to an positive close. At about 6 minutes duration this is a perfect opener and, one suspects, could become a popular encore.
No less entertaining was the Proms premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Noveletten. These are short orchestral vignettes – each with a whimsical dance-like quality, although the third of them, the only one with a name of a dance in its title (Valse), actually proves to be the emotional core of the four; it has an intensity about it that seems to be addressing something more deeply and overtly emotional. The first Allegro moderato is characterised by a lilting dance that is taken over by the lower strings with an attractive theme that is developed and repeated with the tambourine and triangle – the only two non-string instruments in the ensemble – making their characterful presence felt. The Larghetto second Novelette is even more delicate, and at its core is a solo cello theme, here given a luxuriant and silky performance by Desmond Naysmith. The final dance is one of rhythmic strength delivered with brio by the Chineke! Players.
This same vitality informed the Rondo of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No.1. The work is characterised by a seemingly jaunty and angular melody that is ‘argued’ by the strings becoming bolder and forceful, but never angry, as this occurs. Reminiscent of some of the music of Michael Tippett, albeit form a very different tradition, it is a work that belongs unmistakably to its period of composition (1953) and should be better known.
And so, to the staples. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major is an understandably popular work – gently showy and fun. Aaron Azunda Akugbo’s performance was just that. Although standing front-of-stage the initial sounds he produced seemed to come from within the ensemble such was his control of dynamic. His legato playing is impressively fluid and his careful yet sparing use of a vibrato-like quality to the sound most beguiling. The performance and his cadenza were all about the instrument; his rather self-effacing performance bringing huge dividends in that demanding final rondo. The enthusiastic audience response demanded an encore – duly rewarded by a mellow rendition of Florence Price’s Adoration (another proms premiere?) with unconducted, gently undulating accompaniment from his orchestral colleagues.
The final work was a roller-coaster ride of a performance of Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. Conductor Anthony Parnther led a performance notable for its crispness, light and shade. The brooding opening had a tinge of menace to it and then sunshine burst through. The pace was excitingly fast and frenetic; the wind soloists challenged to give of their virtuosic best and responding triumphantly – well-played that bassoon! Yet despite the dangerously fast tempi throughout, the whole avoided raucousness and orchestral felicities registered owing to the precision of the players and overall control of volume. The effervescence was all there too. Terrific!