My First Slice of This Year’s Proms
The BBC Proms is massive and rich festival with lots of moving parts. What one makes of any one season largely depends on which slice of it one happens to experience. My slice this year, of which this is the first installment, is pretty rich with recent music.
I haven’t heard much of James MacMillan’s music before now, and what I have heard I haven’t cared much for, so I was curious about his Credo, which was on the August 7 Prom presented by the BBC Philharmonic, along with the Manchester Chamber Choir, the Northern Sinfonia Chorus, and the Rashly Singers, conducted by Gang Men. Credo turns out to be a specific rather than a general title, since the piece is a setting of the creed oUf the mass, for chorus with a large orchestra. Nowadays, since the liturgical practice is for the congregation to sing (or say) the creed, a composer writing mass settings for liturgical use, as MacMillan has done several times, would not have dealt with setting the creed, as MacMillan hasn’t, until with this piece, whose length and scope, as well as its forces, by intention, make it unsuitable for liturgical use.
Virgil Thomson used to say that unlike the other parts of the mass, which are all hymns of one kind or another, the creed is a contract, with lots of fine print; that quality of the text, along with its length, often set it apart from the other parts in most mass settings both in terms of its character and of the style of text setting . MacMillan’s division of the text into three sections highlighting the way that the Trinitarian aspect of Christian belief are reflected in the structure of the text of the creed is unusual and insightful.
Credo itself is somewhat frustrating and disappointing. In many ways it reflects MacMillan’s impressive compositional mastery: its writing for the chorus is idiomatic and effective, and it’s orchestration is brilliant. On the other hand it doesn’t go beyond the initial insight into the text to get, as Thomson would say, right into it, to make the structure and movement of the music on either the local of global level, reflect the movement and meaning of the words and meld them into an indivisible whole. The individual moments, all of which are skillfully wrought, somehow, at least for me, remain a series of disconnected events, rather than related parts of a organic argument. Although MacMillan’s notes describe the piece as being festive, it all seemed a little grim and uncelebratory. I should add that, given that the concert started with the most curiously static, however beautifully played, performance of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde I’d ever experienced, it is certainly possible that another conductor might have given Credo a greater sense of motion and connection.
The Prom on August 8, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, featured the pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque in Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto, which written for them in 2011, and which was receiving its UK premiere. It’s hard to know where to start with the Dubugnon, maybe by saying that it’s the worst and most incompetent piece I’ve heard in a long time, including in high school student composer concerts. The piece, the composer writes, “follows the various hypothetical stages of a 15th-century battle.” The program listed nine movements which are supposed to depict these stages, including along the way funeral and triumphant marches and ending in peace, reconciliation, and feasts. The problem is that none of these movements seemed to have beginnings, middles, or ends; since there was no kind of structural articulation, it was impossible to tell where any one of the movements began or ended, making it impossible to follow the progress of the alleged narrative; this difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that the actual character of the music never changed, so all of it sounded alike. I would offer a small prize to anyone who could actually during the course of the piece, unaided, identify the music of the funeral march. The piece was supposed to present the two soloists as opponents, each with her own orchestra, but the dramatic possibilities were undercut by the fact that, here too, the music given to them did not actually have any differentiated character. It was all just a twenty-seven minute long mess. I suppose it might be superfluous to point out that the Carter Double Concerto does exactly the kind of thing that Dubugnon was attempting, and, in what is often said to be a more “abstract” and “difficult” musical language, deals with all the problems of differentiation of character and structure on which Dubugnon foundered, and does it in a way which is clear and relatively easy to follow, not to mention more distinctive, distinguished, and satisfying musically.
The Prom given by the BBC Philharmonic with baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Steven Osborne, conducted by John Storgårds, on August 9, was a mostly Nordic affair, including two Sibelius symphonies (6 and 3), the Grieg Piano Concerto, a short piece by Delius, and the first UK performance of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony. The Nørgård was written in between 2004 and 2006 on commission from the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra for the opening on their new concert hall in 2009. It is an imposing piece in three movements. The first movement begins with a burst of enormous energy and profusion of lines, including unpitched ones in the percussion, most notably on 14 tom toms. The texture gradually thins out and unwinds by the end of the first movement. The second movement, which is more chordal, is one of a sort of woosey stasis, punctuated by several statements of a loud, somewhat incongruous C major chord played by strings and brass. The third movement seems to begin with an attempt to recapture the rhythmic energy of the first, but none of its beginnings start at the level of activity and speed as the first movement, and each unwinds quicker. Each of the beginnings also leads to a different place, every one of which is equally beguiling, but none has the energy of the beginning, and the movement ultimately ends quietly. The work is serious and engaging. In England, Nørgård’s music is played fairly frequently, so everybody I talked to about him had heard several of his pieces; I hadn’t heard any of it before, but would be happy to encounter it again. The performance of the Sibelius Third Symphony, which ended the concert, was heart-stoppingly
beautiful and wonderful.
On August 12, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Crouch End Fesitval Chorus, the New London Chamber Choir, and a raft of soloists, including the marvelous Angela Denoke, as Tove, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, presented Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurreleider. The performance was pretty spectacular, so, of course, is the piece.
All of the Proms concerts are recorded and are available for listening for a week after the concert at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer. I think after that you can listen to rebroadcasts.