I’ve been asked to review some of the Proms for other websites, which is nice, but they don’t allow me to publish the same material anywhere else, including here. So, opening paragraphs and then links to the rest, which I believe is not infringing anything.

PROM 8: Vaughan Williams, Wigglesworth, Stanford, Harvey, Weir, Saint-Saëns

The University of Cambridge turns 800 this year. Believed to have awarded the first Bachelor of Music degree (in 1464), the university is also the connection between all the composers, conductors, soloists and choirs in this concert. The Cambridge connection is stronger in some cases than others: of the composers, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Harvey and Weir are alumni, Wigglesworth is a lecturer, and Saint-Saëns once conducted a concert there (although he was awarded an honorary degree for his efforts). Davis, Keenlyside and Trotter also all studied at Cambridge, and the chorus was conflated from the choirs of various colleges. Some critics have questioned the BBC’s decision to centre a concert around one single university – will all universities in the UK be offered a Prom concert for significant anniversaries? – but in truth, for many of us in the audience, this was irrelevant, and the draw was simply an interesting programme combining the new (Wigglesworth, 2009) with an old favourite (Saint-Saëns).

Vaughan Williams wrote the score to Aristophanes’ The Wasps for a 1909 college production. The overture mixes the modal patterns of English folk music with contemporary French influences, and requires quite a firm hand from the conductor and superb ensemble playing from the orchestra to maintain structure and avoid dissolving into mush. Fortunately, these were both present, Davis conducting with a steady tempo but a light touch, so the piece moved along well; the strings perfectly together during the pizzicato and spiccato passages. The woodwind blended seamlessly, with individual parts unobtrusively emerging for solos, such as Daniel Pailthorpe’s gentle woody-toned flute… [read more here]

PROM 20: Stravinsky, Schumann, Mendelssohn

Pulcinella was the hero of many comic episodes from the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition. The ballet Pulcinella was originally the idea of Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev and his protégé, the dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, who became fascinated by the half-comic, half-tragic character after encountering him in Neapolitan puppet theatres. For the music to this ballet, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to arrange and orchestrate a recently-discovered trove of music by 18th century composer Pergolesi (although it later transpired that a substantial proportion of this had been misattributed). Stravinsky read the music and “fell in love” with it, and so his neo-Classical period began. Diaghilev may not have been altogether pleased with Stravinsky’s melding of 18th century melodies with his own subtly distorted harmonies and distinctive irregular rhythmic patterns, but to a contemporary ear it is this blend which is of such interest and appeal – a blend of styles brought out well by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This was the young Nézet-Séguin’s first appearance at the Proms, and in his enthusiasm for the occasion he quite made up for the lack of ballet dancers by positively dancing on the podium, spending much of the time on tip-toes, sometimes crouching almost below his stand or, on expansive sweeping gestures, with his feet leaving the ground entirely. This supremely high level of energy was infectious, judging by the lively and full-bodied playing of the orchestra throughout the performance… [read more here]

PROM 37: Glass (Violin Concerto No.1, Symphony No.7)

There is always a special atmosphere at Late Night Proms. Starting after 10pm, they tend to have a relaxed, laid-back feel, and although generally less well-attended than those occurring at a more conventional hour, attract the devoted fans of the non-mainstream composers featured. Of course, in this case, it would be a stretch to describe Philip Glass as non-mainstream, as, particularly thanks to his film scores, he is probably one of the most famous and instantly identifiable of contemporary composers – a fact reflected in the high turnout to hear this performance. However, minimalism has not been featured heavily at The Proms, and this is the first time they have devoted a concert to Glass’s works. In a special bonus for fans, the 72 year old composer himself attended the concert, and appeared on stage at the start. Welcomed warmly, Glass spoke for a few minutes about the Violin Concerto, historically one of his most popular works (and which should now properly be called the Violin Concerto No. 1, as a second has recently been composed, and will receive its UK premiere next year). Telling of how the piece was dedicated to his deceased father, who had a particular affection for violin concertos, he added “When I was asked to write a violin concerto I decided to do a piece that I thought he would like, and I hope I succeeded; there seem to be a lot of fathers who like it, so..!” [read more here]

PROM 50: Beethoven (Fidelio)

This concert performance of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of conductor Daniel Barenboim and writer Edward Saïd’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Although Fidelio is generally a well-loved work, its choice for performance by this particular group of musicians has a special resonance and symbolism: not only was it the result of a long and bitter struggle by the composer himself – in his own words, “Of all my children . . . this is the one that causes me the most powerful birth-pangs and the most sorrows” – but the subject matter is the fight against tyranny and political injustice, and the human spirit’s capacity for love and passion for freedom. Ten years ago, at a time when Israel had severed diplomatic links with Syria and Lebanon, and tensions were growing in the Middle East, Barenboim invited music students from these regions to a workshop combining orchestral playing with intercultural exchange, complemented by lectures and discussions. There are currently musicians from Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Spain (the current host nation for the workshops), and where possible, on each desk an Arab player is paired with an Israeli. It cannot be easy for the young players to put aside political and cultural differences, but Barenboim insists that a symphony orchestra is the perfect template for democracy, involving expressing oneself while simultaneously listening intently to the voices of others, adding that he does not see his creation as an “orchestra for peace” but an “orchestra against ignorance”… [read more here]

PROM 65: Ligeti, Mahler, Schoenberg, R Strauss

Although this concert was not billed as a ‘themed’ Prom, it did not go unnoticed that the first and last pieces achieved a great deal of their widespread fame through inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the programme pieces are also linked by Mahler, who supported Schoenberg in his early career (as well as giving this orchestra its name), Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, which influenced Mahler and Strauss, and the compositional emphasis in all these works on timbre and tonal colour. There can be few composers more fascinated with the timbre than Ligeti, and Atmosphères is a showcase for the huge range of timbral combinations possible from a symphony orchestra. Although the piece is nearly fifty years old, and instantly recognisable, the close tone clusters of the opening, and shimmering micropolyphonic textures in the strings still sound truly unearthly. Complete continuity of sound, poise and serene intensity are vital for its successful performance, and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were quite capable of providing these. The different instrumental groups shifted in and out of focus seamlessly – including the one singularity in the structure, where a rising piccolo cluster gives the illusion of asymptotically ‘going off the top of the scale’, only to re-emerge as a growl in the double basses – until the last brushed piano-strings whisper… [read more here]

Image borrowed from www.musicweb.uk.net

Image borrowed from http://www.musicweb.uk.net

I believe strongly in recycling one’s rubbish, so when the curtain went up for Bluebeard, I was pleased to see the ROH were re-using the pile of rubble from Götterdämmerung earlier in the year. Or maybe it was left over from some building work? Anyway, it was spread all over the stage (along with a huge broken chandelier – from Phantom of the Opera?), and I was initially concerned that Albert Dohmen (Duke Bluebeard) and Christine Rice (Judit) would trip over a plank and skewer themselves on a rusty nail or something, but happily they were sure of foot.

This may sound like I’m being rude about the visual aspect of the performance. I’m not; it was actually really effective. The castle walls and doors were fairly plain and sombre, but the way different coloured lights were used could change the character each time a door was opened, and there was a real sense that the castle itself was alive, and malignant, almost another character, conspiring in the ill doings of its master. If you’ve read the novel House of Leaves, you may have an idea of what I’m getting at. There was a stunning visual moment at the opening of the 5th door, when the walls slid apart to reveal a huge moon, and it was very effective (if not very subtle) that the 7th door seemed to appear from nowhere to loom hugely over a tiny Judit. (Dead psychological, innit.)

The orchestra were on good form as usual, and while I always find myself involuntarily listening out for the woodwind, in this performance I also particularly noticed the percussion section, who had plenty of interesting stuff to do.

The singing, to me, seemed of very high quality, and while I probably wouldn’t rush out to see anything purely on the strength of Dohmen or Rice, I’d be pleased to hear them again. I don’t know this opera well enough to really comment on their portrayal of the characters, but I did rather like the way Dohmen seemed to add just a slight touch of wry humour to Bluebeard, in his deadpan delivery of lines like ‘My castle does NOT sparkle’ and ‘Yes, that is my torture chamber’. I wish they hadn’t dressed him in a dreary office worker’s suit and tie, though.

A while back I was discussing the Bluebeard concept with a friend, and he said he thought of it as very much ‘a bloke’s opera’, pointing out that it’s a resonant (even archetypal) story – a man starts a relationship with a woman, and it’s going well until she starts digging in his past. She keeps hassling him to know more and more, even though it makes her jealous and eventually ruins it all. A man needs his privacy. However, although I can understand that interpretation, I think the gender of the characters is incidental, and could equally well apply the other way around. After all, it wouldn’t be such an unusual story if a woman started a relationship with a man, and at first he thinks she’s perfect, but then he is irrationally horrified when he finds out that she has a past, and loved other men before him (some probably with bigger knobs than him, too) and maybe done other stuff that he doesn’t approve of… People’s histories. Jealousy. Total inability to just let things lie. And a castle that drips blood. Excellent stuff.


And then, in the second half, Erwartung. This was using the same set as Bluebeard ended with, which is slightly cheeky, as Schoenberg was apparently particularly insistent that the forest should be represented naturalistically (i.e. a forest, not a pile of rubble, a chandelier and a big door). It did work, though, and to be honest, not knowing the work whatsoever, I wasn’t sure if The Woman (Angela Denoke) was literally wandering round a forest at night being scared by stuff, whether she was dreaming, semi-dreaming, hallucinating or just barking mad. Having read up on it afterwards, I now know that she was literally supposed to be in a forest, but that the bloke in black who was wandering round with her and occasionally grabbing at her isn’t actually doing so in the original. Now I understand why people were talking about there being ‘a twist’: The Woman happens to find a sword lying around (one of Bluebeard’s) and carries it around, occasionally stabbing at dark shapes in the forest that scare her, one of which happens to be Bloke in Black, which is a quite valid explanation of why she should later discover his corpse on the ground. The fact that the two characters were dressed like Judit and Bluebeard was probably not necessary for the drawing of parallels, but worked.

I really liked the sound of Denoke’s voice, especially in the lower register. The music, although pleasant, I have to say really didn’t grab me hugely, so I’d be very interested to hear her sing something else, quite different, in the future.