My Last Nights and Day at the Proms

I've been back in Boston for a little over a week, so this is sort of old news by now.

On the Monday, the 28th of August (Bank Holiday), the Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall included the first performance of two pieces by Colin Matthews. Commissioned by the BBC, these were added to two already existing ones. They were played by Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips. Although they had very evocative titles which imply lots of character (Luminoso, Oscuro, Scorrevole, Calmo), they in fact seemed rather bland and neutral. It's a little hard to be completely sure that that perception is quite accurate, though, since, those two performers were joined by the other member of the Leopold String Trio (whose violist is Power) and Benjamin Nabarro for a performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet, which also seemed rather bland, neutral, and lacking in character. So who knows....

Later that afternoon (it's being a holiday and all) there was a special matinee Prom in the Albert Hall, persented by the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Charles Hazlewood. It was a sort of pops concert, which was supposed to feature pieces influenced by jazz, but what the Ibert Divertissement had to do with that was a mystery, even though it was explained by Hazlewood, who did lots of talking through the concert. The rest of the program included Weill Songs, Rhapsody in Blue (in what was apparently Grofe's second of three goes at orchestrating it--this one was the, as it were, Mama Bear one, not a small as the original one for a jazz band with a solo violin and a banjo--my favorite, nor as large as the deluxe humongous symphony orchestra version one often hears at orchestra concerts, but a mid-sized version for 'theatre orchestra'--the pianist was Kevin Cole), and Bernstein's Fancy Free (which is a really pretty spiffy piece--maybe even with bits of orginality--, although a little long all by itself without dancing). It also included the first performance of a Proms commission, Crushing Twister by Dai Fujikara. Crushing Twister was inspired by a class for DJs that Fujikara listened to once at a school where he teaches, and is meant to make use of their scatching technique. The piece has a rather complicated set up, with a small ensemble, which plays the source material for piece, accompanied and mediated by two larger orchestras. Fujikara writes that he intended to treat the ensemble as a big turntable. Although he evoked the idea of the DJs' techniques, the music Fujikara wrote is not in anything like the hip-hop style that one might expect. It is basically your more or less standard new music; Fujikara says that there are two contrasting materials, one lyric the other very fast and rhythmic, but it was hard for this listener to perceive or remember the difference. Every piece, though, should have the benefit of the committment of the performers, and/or of the enthusiasm and advocacy of Hazlewood's verbal introduction.

Hans Werner Henze's 80th birthday was celebrated, or commemorated, anyway, by the first UK performance of excerpts from his opera, L'Upupa oder de Triumph der Shonesliebe (The Hoopoe or the Triumph of Filial Love), arraged as a five movement suite and called Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba, for some rather obscure reason. The work was played by the Orchestre National de Fance, conducted by Kurt Masure. Henza is an extremely accomplished composer, with all sorts of chops. I am just about always impressed by the skill with which he deploys the means of his pieces; but I am sometime also struck by the lack of profile of it. (I was once sitting at a concert of music by a famous composer, celebrating his 60th (I think) birthday; the person who I was sitting with turned around in the middle of one of the pieces and said, "You know, this has all the appearances of first class music." My feelings exactly in this case.) I think the performance really was first class. The Henze was followed by a performance of Shostkoich's Leningrad Symphony. I'm not sure I'd ever heard it live before; it's a really long piece, but also pretty engaging and entertaining. The first two movements, in fact, have real substance.

The Pittsburgh Symphony and Leonard Slatkin played on August 30. They played the Ives Second Symphony (the real New World Symphony, I think)(surprisingly, it was the first Proms performance). The piece is really wonderful (I suppose it is univerally admired--if it isn't it certainly should be), and the performance was beautiful and moving. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that an American orchestra and an American conductor would have just about complete understanding of one of the most American of pieces, and would provide an eloquent and compelling performance of it, but I hadn't expected it to be thrilling. It was.

The last concert I heard on this summer's Proms was a late night Prom by the BBC Singers and the Nash Ensemble with soprano Amy Festong and violist Paul Silverthorne.
The concert started with Songs of Despair and Sorrow by Kurtag. Sometimes Kurtag's music seems to be just right and convinces with its intense and dramatic brevity. At other times it seems to me to be annoyingly self-conscious and precious. This was one of those times. Oh, it is also was long (21 minutes). (This was not the case, for me, anyway, earlier on when a Proms Chamber Music concert I heard had on it Kurtag's Hommage to RSch.) After four pieces for double chorus by Schumann, they played Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman. So the last music of the season for me was the Feldman, which was also thrilling, particularly at the end, when the music in octaves has a sort of halo around it.

All told, over the time I was in London I heard about 15 concerts--I lost count. Some things were really striking and memorable; some of the newer pieces, which was what I was there for, were not so much so. But it's...I think the word may be awesome, that an organization like this would have the committment that the Proms has to new music. You certainly wouldn't have got that much on the BSO concerts at Tanglewood--and maybe not at all of the concerts that were done at Tanglewood. It's worth considering that the Albert Hall is enormous (what, 3,000-4,000?) and none of these concerts were exactly underpopulated. That music didn't exactly seem to be box office poison by any means.

Anyway, now back to what I guess might be called real life....