The Prom Concert on August 10, given by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Edward Gardner, included two first performances, both of them commissioned by the BBC for this season of the Proms. These were among the 13 first performances and 7 UK first performances on the Proms this season.
Michael Berkeley’s Slow Dawn is a revision and reorchestration of a work written three years ago for wind band, which had been commissioned by the British conductor and horn player Tim Reynish as a memorial piece for his son William. Berkeley intended it as a depiction of dawn in Wales where he lives, and follows the deliberate and inexorable tread of the sun from the first hints of light through its early appearance with to its full presence with stabbing rays of daylight. This sunrise is a long way from Daphnis and Chloe (or, for that matter, from Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise, which preceded this piece on this program). Here the focus is on the tread of ‘the kind old sun’ (as Berkeley says, quoting Wilfred Owen) in its endless recurrence and its complete disregard for more transient human concerns. Starting with deliberate slow dirge rhythm in the percussion, which recurs periodically over the its course, the tonalish work builds, via lines which are increasingly quicker and more agitated, over a dense, very closely spaced harmonic texture to a violently rhythmic climax; it leaves a dramatic and satisfying impression.
Gaudete by Scottish composer Stuart MacRae is an almost half hour long piece for soprano and large orchestra, setting poems from the book of the same name by Ted Hughes. The piece begins with very arresting ferociously clattering music for the full orchestra which gradually clears to reveal the soprano singing stratospherically high without words. All of this is very effective and it all lands with something of a thud as soon as attention is turned to words, when the voice part, along with everything else, becomes labored and constricted, in terms of both rhythm and tempo.
This actually seemed to me to set the pattern for the piece, with instrumental music in what might be described as a high modernist style, managed in a very dramatically effective and masterly way, is cut short and undercut by vocal writing which is much less skillful, much less effective, and as a result, tends to come off much more as merely dealing in cliches of that same high modernist style, with endless jagged lines covering enormous registral stretches in jerky rhythms. At one point, when the text says “He never stops trying to dance, trying to sing,” when the singer launches into long melissmas of a sort of new music yodelling, one could imagine that the idea was to depict the failed effort described by the words, but the music is so much like all the rest of the voice part that it’s not possible to be completely sure whether that might be the composer’s intentions. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what the subject matter of the Hughes, as represented by the texts used or as discussed at some length in MacRae’s program notes, might be (and further rereading after the fact didn’t make things any clearer).
As the piece progressed I began to wish that MacRae had simply written a completely instrumental piece, somewhat shorter, that evoked whatever it was we were supposed to get out of the texts, and left the words out altogether. Had he done that, and had that meant leaving out the soprano (as opposed to having a wordless voice part, which could have been very effective), on the other hand, it would have been a loss, since it would have meant not having heard the really wonderful singing of Susanne Andersson, who always sang beautifully, and managed to make practically all the words comprehensible, despite all the obstacles MacRae had put in her path. Read the rest of this entry »
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The BBC marked the beginning day of the Beijing Olympics by offering the first performance of Olympic Fire, commissioned for the occasion from Chen Yi. All of Chen’s music uses Western modernist practices to evoke her native culture, but Olympic Fire deals even more directly in Chinese materials, using folksongs both from the predominant Han Chinese and from minority Chinese ethnic groups as well (Chen keeps to the Chinese government party line by considering Tibetans among those Chinese ethnic minorities), and imitating the sounds of Chinese instruments, particularly the lusheng (described by Chen as a “mouth pipe-organ”). Olympic Fire begins with enormous energy and unrelenting febrile motion and considerable instrumental brilliance featuring the brass and the xylophone. The initial ebullient activity continues for quite a while, to be interrupted by a slightly slower high ostinato music with a less thick texture, evoking bird calls and still featuring the xylophone, which turns out to be an accompaniment to longer lyrical tunes in the lower registers.
The opening celebratory activity is eventually regained, with the layering of different musics over a repeated rhythmic figures. The music goes driving headlong into a furiously explosive timpani cadenza which leads to a roaring ending. The performance, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, matched the exuberance of the music. Read the rest of this entry »
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George Benjamin, at age 48, is one of the grand old men of British music. Considering a succession starting with Britten, and continuing with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, and including Benjamin, one might consider that the tradition of rather young grand old men, all of them very fine performers as well as seriously talented and accomplished composers is a grand old British one. Benjamin is a really good conductor, and the BBC Symphony orchestra clearly respected him and worked hard for and with him. On Wednesday night the main event was one of his first big attention-getting pieces, and his first work for orchestra, written when he was 19, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which was being played for the third time at the Proms. Read the rest of this entry »
I have a vague recollection of an article in the Sunday Times sometime in July of one of the last ten or so years which compared the decline of twelve-tone music (or maybe atonality or maybe modernism in general, but I think it was twelve-tone music) to the fall of the Soviet Union. I wonder if anybody remembers it and can possible cite its date and author.
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The biggest shock of the day was reading in the NYTimes Book Review a review by Pankaj Mishra of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff, the following sentence: “Jazz’s turn to the avant-garde and exoticisms of the 1960s now seems as inevitable as the rise of atonal music after the breakup of the stable societies of 19th century Europe.” These days you’re likely to get stoned if you so much as hint that there was any kind of inevitability in the rise of atonal music (whatever that might be). Fancy not knowing that “we” all now regard “atonal music” (whatever that might be) not only as not being inevitable, but as being a downright aberration or perversion (if they’re different things). How did Pankaj Mishra fail to find that out?
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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/.
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In England the last Monday in August is a Bank Holiday, and is more or less equivalent to Labor Day in the U.S. in being the last holiday of the summer. The Proms for August Bank Holiday Monday usually has a matinee, and the whole day usually has a more populist, is not popular- music, slant (the evening concert this year was devoted to the singer Michael Ball and was a concert of Broadway-type songs). The afternoon concert, billed as a family concert and presumably intended to be especially appealing to children, was the occasion of the first performance of The Water Diviners Tale, a sort of opera, (sorry, “a dramatic musical piece for people of all ages”), by Rachel Portman, with a libretto by poet Owen Sheers. Portman is a successful composer for movies who has provided music for, among others, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Emma, The Cider House Rules, Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, Miss Pottter, The Manchurian Candidate, Marvin’s Room, Benny & Joon, and Chocolat; her opera on Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and has been taken up by a number of other companies, including the New York City Opera.
The Water Diviner’s Tale came about as the result of Portman’s work with BBC television producer Fiona Morris on a broadcast of The Little Prince. Wanting to do another large work which would involve a lot of children and have “some relevance to their lives;” they decided to focus it on the environment, specifically on climate change. The work became the focus for an American Idol-like process (undocumented or, at least, broadcast, at least as yet), called BBC New Talent Search which led to the selection of the group of 40 children, ages 11-16, from all over the UK, who constituted the ensemble of “lost children,” performing with professional adult singers, six youth choirs, and the BBC Concert Orchestra., conducted by David Charles Abell. This is one of several educational outreach programs associated with the Proms, one of the others being a series of BBC Proms Composer Labs and “Inspire”, a BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composers Competition, that led to a concert featuring ten high school composers on August 17 at Cadogan Hall.
In The Water Diviner’s Tale, a large number of children, lost as a result of a cataclysmic storm which has separated them from their homes and parents, encounter a man wearing a sort of bathrobe and turban and carrying a staff (in this case the sonorous actor Nonso Anozie), who tells them that their individual cries for help will never be heard (the fact that they are already en masse and singing as a chorus seems not to matter) and encourages them to join together as a group so that their parents can find them. They begin to ask the Water Diviner how this catastrophe has occurred, and he, surprisingly, assumes personal responsibility for it. This has something to do with his inability to alter the world’s habits of energy consumption, which he has tried to effect by following and telling stories of water. The children tell the Diviner that they will listen to his stories, at which point he puts them in a deep sleep and summons up a Weather Forecaster, who cheerfully, in her chipper “Elegy for All that Shall be Lost,” predicts the worst for the world and tells the Diviner that he is too late to change any thing about it by telling his stories; she also adds that if nothing changes (something that she’s already said is impossible), the children with him will also be lost (presumably in some larger sense than that they are already separated from their homes and parents). The Water Diviner, newly aware of the importance of his task, brings the children out of their trance and tells his story, which is about a young boy who was seduced by the siren song of oil, coal, and gas (represented by the adult singers) concerning their amazing benefits. The boy’s ability to hear this song attracts unsavory scientists and businessmen who sing their own siren songs about how they can put these fuels to use. These songs overpower the “Song of Natural Harmony,” with which the section began. Eventually the boy begins to hear reports of the ill effects of his cooperation with coal, oil, and gas, and he travels the globe to hear the stories of drought, flood, and disaster. It turns out that the Water Diviner is that boy. The children ask him if he thinks it is too late to change the future, and he says it isn’t (even though he’s already be assured by the Weather Forecaster that it is). He then summons up the Weather Forecaster again, but she is unable to detail all that will be lost this time, somehow as a result of the promises of the children to do better than the Diviner has done. They all promise to change things and everybody leaves, happy and unlifted. The fact that they still are separated from their homes and families has somehow ceased to be a problem; it certainly isn’t mentioned any more. (To quote Anna Russell: “I’m not just making this up, you know.”)
The music for The Water Diviner’s Tale is efficient and skillful and, in a way, effective, but it is the sort of generalized effectiveness of movie music, it’s all background. There is never any musical portrayal of any character (despite the fact that there’s a sort of chirpy xylophone figure associated with the Weather Forecaster and a sort of menacing, dinosaur-like, low sort of awkward galumphing motive associated with the siren song of oil, coal, and gas), never any sort of specific or individualized emotion, and never any particularly clear way in which the action, such as it is, could be thought to be either effected or realized by its relationship to the music.
Writing music aimed at children is a tricky undertaking. I found myself comparing The Water Diviner’s Tale to other works intended to have a special interest to children and involving young performers: works such as The Little Sweep, the 150th Psalm, and Noye’s Fludde by Britten (Noye’s Fludde is one of my favorite pieces of Britten’s, and seems to me to be his most successful stage work), or Cinderella, The Two Fiddlers, Kirkwall Shopping Songs, and a whole raft of other small stage pieces (the only one of that group I’ve seen is Dinosaur At Large) by Peter Maxwell Davies, or, even Amahl and the Night Visitors. All of those pieces have a much stronger and clearer dramatic effect, which is manifested IN THE MUSIC. The part of the “message” of The Water Diviner’s Tale that has something to do with collective responsibility and the importance of individuals working together is, in a way, closer to that of The Second Hurricane by Copland, which has nicer music, but is also impeded by the less than completely sure stage sense of its librettist and composer. The piece which Portman’s is closest to, maybe, is the Ballad of Americans by Earl Robinson and John LaTouche, although that piece isn’t staged and even it isn’t quite as hamfisted with making it’s point. The performers in the Portman, especially the lost children and the youth choirs, were absolutely first rate and sounded great. The end of the piece seemed to have been extremely uplifting. The audience when it was over went wild. Like all Proms concerts, this can be heard online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
The Arcola Theatre in Hackney has become a major fringe venue in London; this summer they have been presenting a series of operatic performances, curated by Andrew Steggall and Mehmet Ergen and produced by Michael Harris, called Arcola Opera: Grimeborn. On August 22 they staged the first act of Pierre, a work in progress based on Melville, by Richard Beaudoin, The production was directed by Steggal and the “orchestra,” in this case the very excellent pianist Constantine Finehouse, was conducted by Christopher Ward. Although this might be said to be a workshopping of the piece, the simple, effective, and completely polished production did not seem in any way unfinished or tentative, and the singing, by Joseph Kaiser, Annete Dasch, Rachael Nicholls, and Abby Fischer, was uniformly fantastically wonderful. The music for Pierre is carefully considered and masterly in its composition. The vocal writing was effective, and the word setting just about perfect; one could always understand just about all of the words. The weaknesses are that it takes a while into the act before one can quite figure out what might be going on and that there is a certain sameness of quality and tempo. Since voices can’t be that much different in speed and quality if the composer seriously wants them to present the words clearly, differences in tempo and character need to be very clearly articulated in the accompaniment. Still, it would be hard to imagine a more sympathetic or polished realization of Beaudoin’s work on the project up to now; it made me eager to see and hear the whole opera when it’s finished.
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The Prom concert on Tuesday night was given by the BBC Symphony and John Adams, with pianist Olli Mustonen. The big event of the evening was the first performance of Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, a big instrumental piece based on scenes from his opera of the same name. In this project he was consciously following the example of Hindemith with Mathis der Mahler in not merely assembling a sort of suite from the opera, but recomposing the material into a related but nonetheless independent symphonic composition. In a pre-concert talk Adams said that the task had been much more difficult and time consuming than he had at first envisioned: what he had assumed he could do in a month actually took seven. His main problem was with the reworking of the original music, containing vocal lines, as a completely instrumental texture including those lines as instrumental parts in a completely convincing way.
The symphony is in four movements, The first, The Laboratory, from the beginning of the opera is set in Robert Oppenheimer’s laboratory, and includes what in the opera was a choral setting of text from a book about the military uses of atomic weapons; the second, The Bedroom, is based primarily on music setting a poem by Baudelaire which is a set piece in a scene in the opera for Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty; Panic, the third movement, the most extended, uses music from the second act having to do anxiety about whether or not the bomb will actually work (and other kinds of panic, Adams said); the concluding movement, Trinity, is an intensely sorrowful song based on the opera’s climactic music, sung by Oppenheim, setting the Donne sonnet, Batter My Heart Three Personed God. The symphony is a wonderful piece, serious in its intent and imposing in its execution, and always compelling and engaging. It is gorgeously orchestrated, full of beautiful lines, beautifully written for the instruments and completely sure in its dramatic trajectory and timing. (Adams should write a tuba concerto immediately; the writing for tuba was especially imaginative and effective.) It was exciting to hear it, and it makes me want to hear the whole opera as soon as possible. If there’s any quibble about it, it might be that so many of the tunes are in the horn, the trombone, and the bassoons. Adams spoke about this in his talk. Most of the music he used in the symphony involves men’s singing parts, and he put them in instruments which have the same range. The exception to this is the last movement, based on the Donne setting, which he moved up in register and turned into a wonderful trumpet megasolo. One might wish that he had spread the other voice parts over the entire register and timbre of the orchestra as well.
Adams the opera composer has a pretty near perfect sense of how long things should go on and when something different should happen. Century Rolls, a big piano concerto, suggests that Adams the instrumental composer doesn’t. It seemed to me that each of the three movements went on too long, the first movement most egregiously, being, to my mind, about twice too long.
(I presume there was some kind of process going on which caused this to happen.) The instrumental writing, although engaging and interesting, also lacked anything like the specificity of the beautifully shaped former vocal lines in the Doctor Atomic Symphony, and although the piano part seemed plenty hard, it also most of the time was just part of the general texture, rather than standing out in any way. The exception to this was the second movement, which was very beautiful. It’s title is Manny’s Gym, Manny being Emmanuel Ax, for whom it was written, and the Gym in this case being a Gymnopedie; the quality of the piece as a Gymnopedie is not immediately apparent, but is gradually revealed, presumably also systematically somehow. The third movement, Hail Bop, was intended, apparently, as a sort of tribute both to bebop lines and to Nancarrow, but didn’t actually seem much different in character or method from the first movement. The performances of both the Adams pieces seemed to be near perfect.
The concert began with an excellent performance of the suite from Billy the Kid by Copland. For my money, this is the best of the Copland ballets; it’s always interesting and inventive and always, however pompous it may be to put it like this, music of substance, which, it seems to me, can’t be said for the other two. In his pre-concert talk, Adams said that he thought that the ‘populist’ Copland pieces were better than his other pieces. With all due respects to Mr. Adams, this seems to me to be quite foolish. Not that I want to make the opposite case, but rather I’d like to do away with the distinction. The manner of Billy the Kid, the way it’s put together and the way it works, is really not different from the manner of the Sextet/Short Symphony, for instance, and, for that matter, even with the cowboy tunes, it doesn’t sound all that different; nor does Music for the Theater, say, sound all that different, really, from even the Lincoln Portrait. Arthur Berger, when he wrote a review of the Piano Sonata in the 1940′s (hailing it as evidence of Copland’s return to his ‘asbsract’ style) got a rebuke from Copland for making the distinction between his ‘popular’ and ‘abstract’ (I think those were Berger’s terms) works; to Copland it all just seemed to be just his music. (Nowadays, I think people would probably list the Piano Sonata among the populist pieces, anyway, which says something about the validity of the distinction.) Generally, when somebody tries to make a lot of the difference, as Mr. Adams did, they’re not really trying to say anything much about the music so much as they’re just trying to take an opportunity to bash modernism, as Mr. Adams went on to do, and I’m not sure how much anybody gains from that.
The concert (and possibly the pre-concert talk) can be heard online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
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On Aug 9 The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by David Atherton, presented the first performance of …onyt agoraf y drws…(…unless I open the door…) by Welsh composer Guto Puw. The title of the piece refers to a Welsh saga in which, after suffering heavy losses in a battle with the Irish, and the death and beheading of Bedndigeidfran, his men, having been enchanted, return to Harlech and feast happily for seven years entertained by the singing of Rhiannon’s birds and cheerfully conversing with Bendigeidfran’s severed head, without any recollection of their past troubles. Eventually they move on to a hall in Pembrokeshire, where they continue partying happily for another 80 years, never in any of this time either aging nor remembering the past. The hall has three doors at its end, and they are told that they should not open the third door. When they eventually and inevitably succumb to temptation and open the door, they are flooded with all the tragic memories which their enchantment has spared them, except with even greater intensity and greater sorrow.
The strength of Puw’s piece, which depicts the partying and the aftermath of the opening of the third door, is in its orchestration and its writing for instruments, which is masterly and colorful. The beginning music is bustling and cheerful, featuring the piccolo alluding to Rhiannon’s birds and the gradual emergence of a Welsh foksong (‘Machynlleth’); Puw uses sustained chords trading off between various sections of the orchestra in the midst of the general bustle to suggest time’s standing still. Although this first section is involved with the opening of the first two doors, it doesn’t actually depict those two openings, only the general party atmosphere during that time. There is a moment depicting the opening of the third door, but the sense of any change in the emotional atmosphere in its aftermath is almost completely lacking. Puw’s program note claims greater chromaticism at this point, but it is only slightly more so than formerly, and doesn’t read as any kind of real change. An Irish reel thrown into the texture may be supposed to allude to the enemy that defeated the Welsh in the battle, but the whole tenor of things is just as jolly as ever, so one misses a sense of any dire consequences from the opening of the third door. It may be that Puw was worried about being too vulgarly pictorial, but, in fact, for this listener vulgar pictorialism, especially at that point, was just what the piece could have used more of.
The Puw was followed by the Walton Viola Concerto in a very fine performance, with Lawrence Power as the soloist, and the Rakhmaninov Symphonic Dances, played about as well as one could ever hope to hear them played. Although both of those pieces are quite high grade stuff, they both leave me a little cold. In the case of the Walton this makes me a little sad, since I generally like his music and I’ve often tried to like it, but it always seems to me to be a little aimless and featureless, lacking in color and nice tunes. The concert on August 16th with the Bergen Philaharmonic, conducted by Andrew Litton, presented Walton’s First Symphony, one of his very best pieces, which is full of color of all sorts, tuneful, and tightly and impressively made, particularly in its incessantly abrasive scherzo and its intensely sad slow movement. In a performance as good as this one was, it’s completely thrilling.
The Prom concert on August 7 began with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, the intensely dramatic and mostly pessimistic piece, with each of its movements referring to a section of the requiem mass, which, bizarrely enough, Britten had thought, in 1939, was just thing to satisfy a commission from the Japanese government to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire. (In the event, the Japanese rejected the piece on religious grounds, and added that it didn’t sufficiently ‘express felicitations’ for the event.) Although in three movements, the work is really in one very tightly constructed span, starting with a slow lamenting march, moving through a relentless and ferocious ‘Dance of Death’ scherzo, and ending with a serene peaceful apotheosis of the material of the first two movements. The completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, by Derek Cooke and others, which followed, is, of course, not exactly the piece, but rather a very fully fleshed out version of Mahler’s sketches for the work as he left them when he died (described by David Mattews, who was one the people responsible for the realization, as having been in ‘a complex state of incompleteness’), suggesting what the piece might have been like had he finished it. Mahler’s sketches included a full score of the first movement, a ‘full score sketch’ of the second, a full score for the beginning of the third movement, followed by a short score, and an indication of ‘da capo’ for the first section, and short scores for the fourth and fifth movements. Although in many places the texture is very thin (one line) there are no gaps in its continuity, so the length and scope of the piece is fairly clear, even if many of the details are not worked out, so the realization consists of filling out textures and, in certain places, of making decisions about orchestrations. The Mahler is probably a little less complete in its realization of what the piece might have been like than is the Mozart Requiem, and a little more so than the Bartok Viola Concerto. The performances of both of these two works, by BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, were somewhat understated, if not downright bland. It would have been good in each case to have had a more urgent sense of the drama of the work, since both have plenty of drama. I found particularly bothersome in the Mahler, the modern almost complete avoidance of portimento in the strings, even when it was indicated in the score and the music cried out for it.
Proms concerts are available on line for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
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The Prom concert on Saturday night, August 11, featured the music of Nitin Sawhney exclusively. I have to confess that I did not know who Sawhney was, which is an big oversight obviously, since his website says that he is “widely regarded as one of the most influential and versatile creative talents alive today.” Had I been more observant, however, I would have realized that I had heard some of his work previously, though, since he is the composer of the music for the recent movie, The Namesake. Although he apparently does not like for his music to be described as fusion, in fact the two or three people I asked about him all used exactly that term in telling me about it.
Although his description of the Proms in his program notes (“…a slightly antiquarian and jingoistic institution…exuberant flag-waving [which] seemed unnervingly imperious and superfluous to the enjoyment of some breathtaking music…”) strictly speaking only applies to the Last Night (all the rest of the time one sees not a single flag of any kind, let alone seeing it waved), the fact of the program on the Proms once again raises (however tacitly) the question of how ‘universal’ (for lack of a better word) western classical music is: whether it speaks, or can speak, to the conditions of all people of all conditions, or is only the artifact of a specific society and can only be meaningful to those who are members of that one group (i.e. “dead white men”), and whether people of non-European origin are not only simply, as it were, locked out of an undertaking like the Proms, but are, in fact, discriminated against by not being by not having their own particular music included. In any case, the fact that one entire evening of the Proms was devoted to the music of a (native-born) British composer of south Asian origin was a significant event, and it was certainly seen as such by the many more than usual people of south Asian origin who were there. There were, in fact, plenty of people there–the place was completely packed–, reflecting, apparently (judging by sight), all kinds of other ethnic origins as well. Sawhney himself is certainly trained in western classical music and values it (“I liked playing Bach for control, Debussy for the emotion, Mozart for melodic ideas, and Chopin for the pyrotechnics,” he is quoted as saying in the program notes.), but he also casts a wide net of other interests and influences, including flamenco guitar, Punjabi folk music, tabla rhythms, and jazz. Each of these various interests was amply represented at some point in the thirty pieces on the program, performed by Mr. Sawhney, along with seventeen of his closest friends and the sixty-strong London Undersound Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Hussey.
The program included selections from his seven studio albums, along with music from a number of theatrical productions and movie soundtracks, and two works in progress. For this listener the most appealing music was found in the second half of the program, which included music from The Namesake, flowing seamlessly into The Boatman, both ‘inspired’ in ways not specified by Tagore, Nadia (meaning ‘the river’), all of those featuring the singing of Reena Bhardwaj, and Charukeshi Rain, a collaboration with Anoushka Shankar. The Conference, in which a considerable number of the performers participated vocally, is a fiercely difficult bit of “tabla pyrotechnics,” and was perhaps the most impressive number of the evening. Perhaps the least personal music was contained in the two battle scenes from ‘the forthcoming and highly anticipated’ video game Heavenly Sword. A long stretch of the second part of the first half, comprising Noches en vela, Part I, Sandesa, Journey, Breathing Light, A Throw of the Dice, and Koyal seemed to have been produced in reference to the same polling which produced Dave Soldier’s Most Wanted Song, since they shared a certain mid-tempo blandness and easy listening scoring with it and with each other. Excerpts from Zero Degrees, a theatrical work written by Sawhney with choreographers Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley about a trip from Bangladesh to Calcutta, in which a man harassed by border guards finds himself sharing a carriage with a corpse, were threaded through the whole evening; they were performed in a lazer speed unison speech by Khan and Cherkaoui with passion and humor, and they were mesmerizing.
Throughout the concert it was very hard to make out words. The acoustics in the Albert Hall can be difficult, but the high degree of amplification not only didn’t help things, it seemed to be a positive hindrance. In Dead Man, at the end of the first half, which traces two parallel lives in India and America, and in which it is apparently important that there is ‘a sardonic English refrain and fateful Bengali verse’, it was simply impossible to tell that the performers were singing in any language at all. There is also some irony in the fact that each of the members of the London Undersound Symphony Orchestra, ‘painstakingly selected’ by Sawhney himself, was closely miked and mixed into a homogenous whole where it was impossible to hear how good any of them might be or what any of them might be doing, the goal seeming to be to produce a sound exactly like a highly produced recording with no perceptible qualities of a live performance at all.
Whatever reservations I might have had, though, it was manifestly clear that all of the performers involved were wonderful musicians playing with great intelligence and absolute dedication, and their performances were being received with great enthusiasm by a packed out Albert Hall, none of whose members had any reservations at all.
This concert, along with all the others, is available for listening online for one week after the actual performance at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/.
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