Although completely recognizable, there are differences in this year’s Proms concerts, most of them what one would expect. One has to show proof of vaccination to get into the Albert Hall, and then most of the audience is masked. There are still Promenaders, but fewer of them, and the audiences are in general less populated. This decline in numbers doesn’t seem to have in any way reduced the general enthusiasm for the concerts, though.
The Prom on August 15 was centered around the South African ‘cellist Abel Selaocoe and included along with him his trio Chesaba (in which he is joined by Sidiki Dembélé. who plays several instruments, and bass player Alan Keary), Moroccan Gnawa master Simo Lagnawi and his group Gnawa London, in which he was joined by Djina Jones, Amine el Manony, and Driss Yarndah (at least that’s what the program said; there were in fact only three people in that group on stage), the choral group Bantu Voices, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Clark Rundell. It was an evening of what Michael Denning, in his book Noise Uprising, would have described as vernacular (as opposed to folk) music since it was professional (very very professional) rather than amateur musical making. The program consisted of pieces by Selaocoe (Qhawe, Zawose, As You Are, Lerato, and Ka bohaleng), Dembélé (Shaka), and Lagnawi (Bambara and Counia lafou), arranged for the whole of the gathered musicians by Ian Gardiner and/or Peter Riley, depending on the piece, along with the ‘cello concerto, L. B. Files by Italian composer Giovanni Sollima, and two short pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose presence there seemed to have something to do with the similarity of Baroque ground bass and a “culture of repetition” in African music.
The centering work on this program was the concerto by Sollima, L. B. Files. L. B. in this case is Luigi Boccherini, the composer and ‘cellist who in his day bridged divergent musical cultures. The four movements of the work provide a “micro-dramatization” of Boccherini’s life story, starting with his childhood in Italy through his service for Infante Luis Antonio of Spain. The third movement is based on a bass line of Boccherini’s, and incorporates a text from Casanova’s (yes, that Casanova) diary about the nature of the Spanish fandango. The fourth imagines Boccherini’s “returning from some hundred years in Senegal” and quotes a melody by the late Senegalese musician Gilbert Abdourahmane Diop. (The part about his being in Senegal at all, seems to be a fantasy of Sollima’s, rather than a fact.) The concerto, which was played with high style and brilliance, was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the audience, as was everything on the concert. It was immediately preceded by a lovely and loving performance of Rameau’s Entrée d’Abaris from his opera Les Boréédes by Rundell and the orchestra. Rameau’s music also appeared later in the program in a very brief excerpt from Les Indes galantes, which lasted a minute and was almost missable, separating music by Selaocoe and Lagnawi.
Selaocoe is a fabulous player and singer and a completely charming and compelling personality, and it was wonderful to hear him. He joyfully and powerfully moves in the two musical worlds–western classical and African–he is a citizen and practitioner of, and he unites them for his audience in a meaningful way. His playing and singing was the focus and purpose of the concert, but it was also the most satisfying aspect of it. For this listener it was too often lost in the profusion of other elements. I was at a loss to understand exactly why Lagnawi and his cohorts were there at all, or what they added or were supposed to have added to the proceedings. This is not in anyway a judgement of their work or abilities; They just got lost in the crowd. I was reminded in reverse of Stravinsky’s comment about his first reaction to hearing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire: he wished the singer would shut up so he could hear the music. The absolutely most beautiful moments in the whole concert were the encore, which began with only Selaocoe and Keary by playing by themselves, and the beginning of the concert, with Selaocoe, very lightly accompanied, playing and singing alone, presenting the African side of his musical personality. Often his beautiful performance was simply swamped by the profusion of other things going on. After a while all the elements came together in a way that negated the individuality and specialness of each one of them, producing a wash which seemed over-scored and over-amplified. This listener’s sense of that was clearly a minority opinion; the audience was continually wildly enthusiastic and loving every second of it. All in all, though, it was a very satisfying and meaningful experience. It leaves me, though, wanting to hear a whole evening of only Selaocoe and Chesaba, without anybody else.