On August 16, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martin Brabbins, presented a late-night concert in honor of Sir John Drummond, former director of the Proms, who died last year. The program consisted of three works which he had commissioned for the Proms: Veni, veni, Emmanuel by James MacMillan, Chantefluers et Chantefables by Witold Lutoslawski, and Panic by Harrison Birtwistle. (I was unfortunately late for the concert and missed the MacMillan.) The Lutoslawski work is a set of nine songs for soprano and a small orchestra, setting poems for children by the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos, whose poems he had used earlier in the cycle Les espace du sommeil, which he had written in 1975 for Fischer-Dieskau. In these songs, the setting of the texts is very straightforward and the imagery of each poem is realized in a equally direct, but strong, way in the sparse orchestration. Solveig Kringelborn, for whom the songs were written, and who gave the first performance at the Proms in 1991, was the soloist. For me this piece, although clearly beyond any kind of criticism, was not as striking as the other vocal works of Lutoslawki’s that I know, particularly Paroles tissees.
Panic by Birtwistle was famously commissioned by Drummond for the Last Night of the Proms in 1995. A hoary tradition, Last Night is essentially a pops concert which traditionally ends with a melange of patriotic British music, in conjunction with a good deal of flag waving and other jingoistic whoopla. The Birtwistle does not fit into that mold, and it caused something of a stir at its first performance. Birtwistle describes the piece, which is for alto saxophone and drums with orchestra, as a dithyramb, which in Classical Greece was a hymn celebrating Dionysus. In this case that means that it goes brawling along at high speed and with wild energy for its entire seventeen minutes’ duration, in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Coltrane, maybe. The performance, by Martin Robertson and Peter Erskine, was full of suitable momentum and intensity.
The concert on August 20, by the Philharmonia and Christoph von Doknanyi, ended with a fabulous performance of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok and began with an equally wonderful performance of Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercar from the Musical Offering by Bach. In between was a performance of Overture, Waltz, and Finale from Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades. Powder Her Face, Ades first opera, which is about the scandals associated with the Duchess of Argyll in the 1950’s, is scored for a chamber orchestra of three clarinets, brass trio, piano, harp, accordion, percussion, and string quintet. Earlier this year, Ades arranged this suite for full orchestra, which the Philhamonia performed, with him conducting, at the Aldeburgh Festival. The excerpts that Ades chose for the suite are all concerned with dance music: waltzes, foxtrots, and tangos; and all the music has a certain kind of high style, chicness, and glamor combined with deliberate glitz and tawdriness, all appropriate to its rather sleezy story. This version, with the full panoply of orchestral resources in play, has glamorous sound and a very high class glossy sheen, while maintaining an appropriate touch of the slick and the tawdry . The performance was at the same level as the other two pieces on the concert. Earlier on, there was a ‘composer portrait’ concert which featured Ades in conversation with Andrew McGregor, and excellent performances by members of the Contemporary Consort New Generation Ensemble of the Royal College of Music, directed by Huw Watkins, of arrangements by Ades of Les baricades misterieuses by Francois Couperin and Cardiac Arrest by Madness, along with Court Studies from The Tempest, another arrangement, for clarinet, violin, ‘cello, and piano, this time of music by Ades himself, his second opera.
These concerts can be heard online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.