Saturday 21 July 2012

Week 1 at the BBC Proms

Another Proms season judders into life, like a massive classical music Olympiad. Of course, this year, there’s another festival of remarkable human achievement going on up the road, promising to make London a no-go area for a chunk of the summer. But Prommers are hardy folk, and they’ll continue to fill the Royal Albert Hall somehow.

The First Night was a curiously programmed celebration of British music. Despite good intentions, I never did hear the whole thing, sampling only Mark Anthony Turnage’s Canon Fever. It caused a lot of ire over at The Guardian but seemed a fairly innocuous example of the contemporary music that gets some people so het up. The first Prom that I really got stuck into was Prom 4, in which John Adams conducted the combined orchestras of the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard school. It culminated in a performance of Adams’s City Noir, his 2009 symphonic canvas that explores the sultry atmosphere of the Californian film noir genre. Adams presented it with the LSO a few years back and then, as now, I found it a slightly rambling and insufficiently varied romp through the very post-minimalist style into which the composer has settled. It still has a cracking ending, though.

I made it to the arena for Prom 5, to hear the BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena bringing refined lyricism to Struass’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. It featured the British premiere of Leterna magica, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, but her fifteen minute tribute to Ingmar Bergman paled in comparison to the masterpieces of orchestral writing with which it sat. I fear, though, that the concert will be remembered for Anne Schwanewilms’s performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Her poor form was pretty astonishing and it later emerged that she was feeling ill. Certainly, there’s little point sticking the boot into her already much discussed problems, but if she knew she was ill, why not withdraw and save it for another day?

Sakari Oramo took to the podium for Prom 6 (replacing Jiri Belohlavek) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The programme concluded with an outing for Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, one of the composer’s most significant works and a piece that seems to grow and grow in stature each time I hear it. Oramo’s view was brighter than some, making less of the sombre tone that got Prokofiev into trouble with the Soviet authorities. But Prokofiev’s balletic colours shone brilliantly and the sting in the tail cast a long shadow over what had gone before.

Devil’s Trill will be away for week 2, which continues Daniel Barenboim’s cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra. So you’ll have to let me know if you enjoyed all of the Boulez with which they’re coupled, or whether the whole things feels like a series of barbed wire sandwiches. Enjoy.

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