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Jerry Bowles
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Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Proms 2005

I've moved from the edge of the Berkshires to Berkshire--specifically Reading--for the rest of the month. It easy to get from here to London to hear Proms concerts. Americans who don't know otherwise often think that the Proms concerts are something like the Boston Pops. Nothing could be further from the case. The Proms are billed as the biggest music festival in Europe. There is a concert--sometimes two--every night starting in mid July and going until early September. All the major UK orchestras and a number of guest orchestras from the rest of the world are involved. The Prom(enade) part of the name is accounted for by the fact that the floor of the Albert Hall in Kensington, where they happen, is cleared of seats and tickets for standing are sold at a very nominal fee. The concerts have been going on for 111 years, and have established a long tradition. The programming includes just about everything. Although it seems as though there used to be more new music in the past and more emphasis on living British composers, there's plenty of music from the 20th and 21st century. There are always several pieces commissioned for the Proms. This year there are a lot of interesting things.

I've heard three concerts since I got here about a week ago. On Wednesday night Kent Nagano and The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin with Christiane Oelze gave the European premiere of Unsuk Chin's snagS and Snarls, settings of texts by Lewis Carroll with additions by the composer. There are, of course, no moral imperatives about these sorts of things, but it seems to me that anybody setting Carroll should tread carefully, especially if they're not a native speaker. The word setting in the last movement, Speak softly to your little boy, was supposed to be unnatural and distorted for (presumably comic) effect, but in fact it was no more so than that of the first, a setting of A boat beneath a sunny sky, the dedicatory poem which has Alice Liddell's name embedded in it as the first letter of every line. The Alice acrostic, as the movement was entitled, was lovely and evocative with gentle and 'old fashioned' music, but the voice part was likely to sprout melissmas at any inopportune moment in the text, to no particularly good end. The long and sad tale of the mouse after the caucus race was set to music which was supposed to mimic the graphic character of the text as Carroll printed it, with phrases that started loud and got softer and also got progressively higher and shorter, but I was unable to make the connection aurally. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat, the fourth movement, which had lots of additional text by Chin, was a frenetically crazy patter song with a refrain of nonsense words supplied by the composer. Although all of the music throughout the piece was attractive and all the orchestration skillful, it wasn't every really funny, which seemed to be the point. Any attempt to make it so was not at all aided by the Ms. Oelze, who was obviously working very hard to keep her head above water, singing directly to her music stand and conducting herself practically the whole time. A singer who made contact with the audience and really presented the piece, might have been able to make it charming and amusing. Still, nice as it was in many ways, I would have liked the piece a lot more had it been for saxophone or flute or clarinet and orchestra. The rest of the program contained the Freischutz Overture and the Bruckner Sixth Symphony. The Bruckner got a performance which was not at all heavy or lumbering and was carefully voiced and always had a beautifully transparent sound.

On Thursday Ingo Metzmacher and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played, along with the Brahms Tragic Overture, the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto and the Prelude to the first act of Lohengrin, a performance of the Sixth Symphony of Karl Amadeus Hartmann. I had never heard any of Hartmann's music before, and I was looking forward to it. The first of the two movements is marked Adagio, but really is a sustained accelerando to an intense climax over the course of its ten minutes. The texture is mostly three part, but each part consists of a number of lines, so the effect of the whole is fluid and rich and compelling. The second movement is called Toccata variata and is a fast movement consisting of a fugue for strings, a transition for winds and percussion (which I thought was the most interesting music in the piece--there was a lot of percussion--eleven players--all through the work)to a second fugue for winds and strings, with a third fugue for strings which was probably some sort of recapitulation of the first. There was lots of counterpoint for a long time, going chugging along in a sort of stodgy way, and with no particularly harmonic direction. The sound of it was a little like Henze or Hindemith. All in all it was a lot less satisfying than I had hoped it would be.

Friday's concert, by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, was one of the best I've ever heard. There was a performance of the Grieg piano concerto with Lars Vogt which was astounding, mainly because they took the piece seriously and played it beautifully and thoughtfully. There was nothing about it that was crude or rabble rousing (in the worst way)or big and bangy or in any way cheap. The experience was a little like turning on the TV and finding there an episode of Three's Company, but watching it and finding somehow that it's like The Tempest. There was also a grand (in every way)performance of the Nielsen Fifth Symphony. (The second movement of the Nielsen was in some ways similar to the second movement of the Hartmann, except Nielsen knew that with fugal music the important thing is knowing when to stop it--and that that point happens pretty soon.) The concert also included the first performance of The Little Mermaid by Bent Sorensen. I had never heard any of Sorensen's music before (in fact I'd never heard of him), but I intend to track more or it down. The piece is for three girl's choruses (the Danish National Dirls Choir), high soprano (Inger Dam-Jensen), and tenor (Gert Henning-Jensen), with orchestra. Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid soon after the wedding of a friend with whom he had an unreciprocated passionate attachment, and the story's unrequited love and renunciation is thought to reflect his own feelings at the time. In Sorensen's piece, one strand is the choruses (placed in different parts of the room)telling the story (or at least suggesting it), another is the soprano as the mermaid, and the third is the tenor singing excerpts from Andersen's diaries. At the climax of the work, the tenor and the soprano sing the same words, joining the mermaid's story with Andersen's. The music is extremely quiet practically all the time, the pitch language fairly simple. The music for the choruses is intricate, mellifluous, and delicate, accompanied with shimmering music in the orchestra. Around the climactic part the orchestral music gets lower and much more agitated but hardly louder. The vocal writing is always effective. Since it was in Danish, I have no way of knowing if the word setting was good or not, but I could always follow the text. The whole piece was beautiful and moving in a quiet understated kind of way, and the playing and singing was about as good as anybody could have imagined.

More later...


12/19/2004 - 12/25/2004 12/26/2004 - 01/01/2005 01/02/2005 - 01/08/2005 01/09/2005 - 01/15/2005 01/16/2005 - 01/22/2005 01/23/2005 - 01/29/2005 01/30/2005 - 02/05/2005 02/06/2005 - 02/12/2005 02/13/2005 - 02/19/2005 02/20/2005 - 02/26/2005 02/27/2005 - 03/05/2005 03/06/2005 - 03/12/2005 03/13/2005 - 03/19/2005 03/20/2005 - 03/26/2005 03/27/2005 - 04/02/2005 04/03/2005 - 04/09/2005 04/10/2005 - 04/16/2005 04/17/2005 - 04/23/2005 04/24/2005 - 04/30/2005 05/01/2005 - 05/07/2005 05/08/2005 - 05/14/2005 05/15/2005 - 05/21/2005 05/22/2005 - 05/28/2005 05/29/2005 - 06/04/2005 06/05/2005 - 06/11/2005 06/12/2005 - 06/18/2005 06/19/2005 - 06/25/2005 06/26/2005 - 07/02/2005 07/03/2005 - 07/09/2005 07/10/2005 - 07/16/2005 07/17/2005 - 07/23/2005 07/24/2005 - 07/30/2005 07/31/2005 - 08/06/2005 08/07/2005 - 08/13/2005 08/14/2005 - 08/20/2005 08/21/2005 - 08/27/2005 08/28/2005 - 09/03/2005 09/04/2005 - 09/10/2005 09/11/2005 - 09/17/2005 09/18/2005 - 09/24/2005 09/25/2005 - 10/01/2005 10/02/2005 - 10/08/2005 10/09/2005 - 10/15/2005 10/16/2005 - 10/22/2005 10/23/2005 - 10/29/2005 10/30/2005 - 11/05/2005 11/06/2005 - 11/12/2005 11/13/2005 - 11/19/2005 11/20/2005 - 11/26/2005 11/27/2005 - 12/03/2005 12/04/2005 - 12/10/2005 12/11/2005 - 12/17/2005 12/18/2005 - 12/24/2005 12/25/2005 - 12/31/2005 01/01/2006 - 01/07/2006 01/08/2006 - 01/14/2006 01/15/2006 - 01/21/2006 01/22/2006 - 01/28/2006 01/29/2006 - 02/04/2006 02/05/2006 - 02/11/2006 02/12/2006 - 02/18/2006 02/19/2006 - 02/25/2006 02/26/2006 - 03/04/2006 03/05/2006 - 03/11/2006 03/12/2006 - 03/18/2006 03/19/2006 - 03/25/2006 03/26/2006 - 04/01/2006 04/02/2006 - 04/08/2006 04/09/2006 - 04/15/2006 04/16/2006 - 04/22/2006 04/23/2006 - 04/29/2006 04/30/2006 - 05/06/2006 05/07/2006 - 05/13/2006 05/14/2006 - 05/20/2006 05/21/2006 - 05/27/2006 05/28/2006 - 06/03/2006 06/04/2006 - 06/10/2006 06/11/2006 - 06/17/2006 06/18/2006 - 06/24/2006 06/25/2006 - 07/01/2006 07/02/2006 - 07/08/2006 07/09/2006 - 07/15/2006 07/16/2006 - 07/22/2006 07/23/2006 - 07/29/2006 07/30/2006 - 08/05/2006 08/06/2006 - 08/12/2006 08/13/2006 - 08/19/2006 08/20/2006 - 08/26/2006 08/27/2006 - 09/02/2006 09/03/2006 - 09/09/2006 09/10/2006 - 09/16/2006

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