The glory of the known and the unknown
The First Night of the Proms, 13 July 2018
The Proms season 2018 that has a programme that will satisfy classical music lovers of all tastes and inclinations opened on Friday 13th July 2018 with a flourish. It had an all-British focus (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Meredith) and aimed to mark the centennary of the end of the First World War. Interestingly, for those who had time on 12th July 2018, the Proms started with the opening (the BBC organizers called it a Curtain Raiser, and completely free with tickets booked in advance) that went slightly ahead of the actual evening of the First Night. In the welcoming coolness which followed a hot (we quickly got used to a heat wave with its yellow grass in parks and warm nights for romantic walks in the city) summer day the assembled audience could see the installation made by ’59 productions’ to the music of Anne Meredith displayed on the walls of Royal Albert Hall itself. For those who did not have a chance to see it on that evening, another opportunity dutifully presented itself on the actual First Night of the Proms the day afterwards.
The Royal Albert Hall was sold out, and it was so rewarding to see the place in its glory, being full with expectant prommers and other members of the audience. It actually rained briefly, but fervently, 20 minutes before its start, so some people were wearing traces of a welcomed rain in a very summery, very English sort of way. And indeed, the evening was specifically designed to celebrate Britishness and the connection of the country to the history of the First World War. However, it started with a brief, but sparkling hommage to the recently deceased British composer Oliver Knussen who had associations with BBCSO both as a composer and a conductor – his ‘Flourish with Fireworks’ was performed by Sakari Oramo and his orchestra.
Then came Vaughan Williams’ ‘Toward the Unknown Region’, a very langorous piece involving BBC Symphony Chorus resembling a modern kind of service to the deceased, and based on the text by Walt Whitman from his collection ‘Leaves of Grass’. The singers of Chorus seemed to be poised as though they were aiming to leap towards the sky, as this is where the unknown region is to be found, and with the high ceilings of the RAH the audiences also tuned in for the discovery of the unknown, spiritual and mystical. For which purposes Gustav Holst’s (by coincidence or by design, a friend and colleague of Williams) ‘The Planets’ were indeed a remarkably suitable piece of grandiose orchestral music. Sakari Oramo managed to highlight each planet’s unique character through slightly exaggerating Holst’s ideas of characterisation for each of the 7 pieces. Somehow, on that evening it was not only the Jupiter or Mercury that stood out, but each ‘planet’ brought us to a new musical universe and brought different instruments of the orchestra to the forefront. They all sounded so refreshingly different that one could say there were seven BBCSO orchestras substituting each other on this journey to the Neptune, where the voices from ‘the Gods’ (performed by the female members of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain) added to the feeling of relocation to the sky, space, unknown, mystic heights of human existence - you could name the feeling of exaltation differently, but it definitely was there.
Sakari Oramo conducting BBCSO in Holst's 'The Planets'. Credits: Justin Sutcliffe
The second half of the evening continued building up connections on a vertical line of the Royal Albert Hall, as though exploring its architectural design as one of the messengers of musical content. The work of a 40-year old British composer Anna Meredith co-commissioned by BBC specifically for this occasion, presented different ways of textual communication that were available for citizens and soldiers during the First World War. In writing this piece, Meredith collaborated with visual designers from ’59 productions’, and, interestingly, her own process of composition involves drawing graphic shapes of a future piece. It was a breath-taking example of ‘son et lumière’ piece in the spirit of Alexander Scriabin who envisioned his orchestral works to be ‘transcribed’ into feasts of light where each colour corresponded to a particular note.
Projection of '59 productions' to Anna Meredith's 'Five Telegrams'. Credits: Justin Sutcliffe
’59 productions’ and Meredith had a different baseline idea for their collaboration. They wanted the audiences to form their own associations about failures of communication during the WWI, and to do this the visual designers filled the hall with both the images and the spaces between them in order to let our imaginations rise or spread themselves along the movements of lines and geometrical figures. Correspondingly, the music was exploring a particular theme of each of the ‘telegrams’ – ‘Spin’ is chaotic, weary of itself, intrusive and foreboding at once, ‘Field postcard’ brings in members of National Youth Choir of Great Britain to sing the only lines allowed on field postcards that make people sound like automatons. ‘Redaction’ and ‘Code’ explore the mecanic qualities of music and analyse the possibilities of complex construction and de-construction of musical patterns within a piece, as though they were lines to get rid of or codes to break, while the final ‘Armistice’ allows us to imagine the uncertainty of the final moments of the War where the triumph of the victory was not easy to assess and to internalize. A very interesting, mesmerizing exploration of human communication that invited the audiences to intensely communicate with the orchestra and with the walls of the Royal Albert Hall at once.
Prom 3, BBC Young Musician 40th Anniversary, 15 July 2018
As if a continuation to the theme of British heritage, Prom 3 was the exploration of modern musical talent on British soil (performers and composers alike), bringing to the stage 22 past winner of BBC Young Musician competition which in itself is quite a unique opportunity for emerging young musicians to showcase their talents amond mass TV audiences. A flavour of a televised event was indeed brought to that evening’s concert, as the presenter of BBC Young Musician (since 2010) Clemency Burton-Hill was announcing each new piece on the programme and doing small interviews with musicians afterwards. Those who had time before the concert could also immerse themselves in the history of the competition by watching a documentary about it.
Alexander Gourlay conducting with fervour. Credits: Chris Christodoulou
The ensuing programme was very varied and rich, albeit slightly indiscriminate, whereby the programming was justified by presentation of various groups of performers rather than by a particular theme that ran through the evening. Almost all works in the first half featured world premieres, while the second half had arrangements of well-known works by Mussorgsky and Saint-Saëns. Andrey Gourlay was conducting BBC Concert Ochestra throughout the evening. It started with BBC Young Musician Theme and Variations (2018) by Ben Foster, and featured 7 finalists of BBC Young Musician 2018 scattered among members of the orchestra, with four percussion players (Alexander Pullen, Tom Hall, Meadow Brooks and Toril Azzalini-Machecler) perched high above in the RAH orchestral amphitheatre attracting the most attention. It then proceeded by showcasing groups of former winners (usually 4 or 5 of them) in pieces commissioned by BBC for the occasion. Sidechaining (2018) by David Bruce featured two of the earliest winners of the competition – clarinettist Michael Collins and oboist Nicholas Daniel, while violinist Jennifer Pike and hornist Ben Goldscheider represented two other generations of the competition, with Goldscheider having been in the final of BBC Young Musician 2016. The piece required constant attention of all four players of the unusual quartett to each other, as they were influencing and capturing each other’s parts in their playing. With clarinet and oboe having the most intricate and virtuosic parts, the violin and horn intermittently added their own characteristic musical hues to the harmonies of this quick piece where instruments interlocked and affected each other constantly, as would music in the actual digital process of audio sidechaining do.
Nicola Benedetti. Credits: Chris Christodoulou
Then four drummers (Colin Currie, Own Gunnell, Adrian Spillett – the only percussionist to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, and Sam Walton) came on stage to perform Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming – Part 1’ (1970-1971). The whole piece is intended to last for about an hour and includes marimbas, glockenspiels and voices, but in the evening only the first part for tuned bongos was played. The piece reminded one of the very essense of Steve Reich’s works – minimalism in the musical decision (one idea dominating the whole piece) and interest in ritualistic, non-Western qualities of music that could lead the listener into a sort of trance. Colin Currie, a faithful and experience Reich performer, was a spiritual leader of the group that gathered in a close assembly near the bongos that seemed too small for all four players to find their place and time to play them. The piece was transparent in its revelation of a build up of complex rhythms from simple three or four-beat ones. One felt that one could unweave the complex rhythmic pattern produced by four players who were extremely focused, always physically aware and attuned to each other. However, Reich proved to us once more that there was no need to do this as long as the resulting texture grew bigger than its constituent elements and developed into an experience of listening to a web of rhythms.
‘Violoncelles, vibrez!’ (1993) by a Sicilian composer Giovanni Sollima who had collaborated with the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road ensemble, brought forth the specifically tender and humane cello sounds and showcased four cellists who had been in the limelight of the musical world since winning their respective prises – Natalie Clein, Laura van der Heijden, Guy Johnson and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whom the audiences remembered from one very recent Royal event. Somehow the piece echoed both the minimalism of Reich and the mutual instrumental borrowings introduced by ‘Sidechaining’, with four cellos picking up certain themes (the beginning and the end were rounded up by one, and several sneaked in the middle) in their own tempo and locking up their different pieces of melodies into one puzzle of a piece.
'The Carnival of the Animals' arranged for four pianists. Credits: Chris Christodoulou
‘The Gershwinicity’ (2018) – a world premiere by Ian Farrington and the arrangement of ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ by Saint-Saëns (also by Farrington) that followed after the interval were even more approachable to the mass public and transparent in their design, but, however, very pleasing to the audiences’ ears. The first piece was a fantasia on five Gershwin songs that showcased five young musicians – Emma Johnson playing the clarinet, Jess Gillam on soprano saxophone (her musicality and sense of rhythm was particularly striking), Alexander Bone on alto saxophone, Alexandra Ridout on trumpet and David Childs extracting tender and booming notes from his euphonium. ‘The Carnival of Animals’ had extracts from the original work arranged for, as the program said, for four pianists, but it seemed, it was done more for theatrical effect, than out of any necessity to increase the number of performers, as two musicians constantly changed places with another pair. Martin James Bartlett, Freddy Kempf , Lara Melda and Lauren Zhang together with the conductor Alexander Gourlay did their best to entertain the public through their tricks with place-changing and especially in the ‘Pianists’ part, while the ‘Aquarium’ sounded especially haunting and beautiful under Kempf’s elaborate fingers.
22 former winners and finalists of BBC Young Musician of the Year. Credits: Chris Christodoulou
The rest of the evening features Nicola Benedetti in Ravel’s ‘Tsigane’ and the whole orchestra and finalists of the 2018 competition in James MacMillan’s ‘Britannia’ where different national music themes were explored and in Mussorgsky’s ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ (from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’) in an arrangement by BBC Proms founder Henry Wood. It was quite heart-warming to see all former winner appear on stage in the end of the evening, as one felt it was a sign that the British history of music making takes source in the tradition of nurturing talents by commissioning new works, investing in their education and giving them opportunities to shine at competitions like BBC Young Musician of the Year. On the very Sunday when two weeks of Wimbledon also came to an end, it was another reminder of the strengh of Britain in maintaining its old traditions and establishing the new ones – all done for the steady development talents who could make it move along the new paths of future. Much to learn for other countries here, indeed.