At BBC Prom 28 2014, Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. No surprises there: he's their popular Chief Conductor, well respected for his years in Birmingham with the CBSO. The BBCSO are the best of the BBC's stable of orchestras, and with Oramo they have a fine conductor, They're so reliable that anything they do will be worthwhile.
Thanks to the BBC's infatuation with Brett Dean, he probably gets more high-profile gigs than any other living composer. There's logic to this, since the Australian media picks up on his Proms, which is fair enough. Dean is a genial personality, and builds his work around programmatic images and ideas which most people can connect to, even, or especially, if they do not like music.
Dean's Electric Preludes, written for Richard Tognetti and played by Francesco D'Orazio, illustrates the point. There aren't many pieces for electric violin, so it scores high on novelty value. The very idea catches attention. Judith Weir's The Singing (Prom 20) proves how unusual instruments can inspire serious music. But Electric Preludes is little more than the kind of extended riff rock musicians indulge in when they show off at festivals . Clever technical display, but with little substance. Electric guitars and electric violins.: therein lies the populist appeal. At least rock stars improvise creatively. Electric Preludes is noise, with far more self-regard than is good for art.
Most of the new music this Proms season (excepting Simon Holt's excellent Morpheus Wakes Prom 14) has been very banal, but the BBC needs to please its political masters. Almost by definition, mass market popularity must cater to the widest possible audience. But should the BBC sacrifice its artistic ideals?
In a 2007 Prom, Dean's Vexations and Devotions was paired with Beethoven's Symphony no 7. Comparisons were made connecting Beethoven's glorious concepts with Dean's embarrassingly trite piece about mechanical telephone queues. Seven years later, we heard Dean and Beethoven together again. Even in a fairly bland performance, Beethoven's Overture to Egmont left Dean far behind.
Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex deliberately avoids direct emotional appeal, even though the subject is lurid. Imagine how the tabloid press would seize on this story of murder and incest in high places! Stravinsky chose Latin for the text because it distanced the words from conventional music drama, capturing instead the stylised formality of ancient Greek tragedy. This emphasizes the inexorable nature of Fate, from which human beings have no escape. Hence the huge dramatic blocks of sound, the chiaroscuro colouring and the absence of decorative detail. It’s The Rite of Spring minus nature and folklore.
For this Prom, Oramo used a different translation of Cocteau's original text. Roy Kinnear delivered it without the exaggerated RADA declamation other translations invite, responding with ordinary human feelings.. This worked well with Oramo's approach, which played down the theatrical extremes. Seven years ago Gergiev conducted Oedipus Rex at the Barbican with Russian soloists: a devastating, emotionally draining experience, but magnificent. Oramo lets us hear the elegance and clear phrasing, reminding us of Stravinsky's ballets, and of the carefully poised formalism of The Rake's Progress. Both interpretations have their strengths. Oramo's soloists are also less austere. Allan Clayton sang a bright-toned Oedipus while Hilary Summers sang Jocasta with dark timbre suggesting queenly maturity. Brindley Sherratt (Tiresias) and Juha Uusitalo (Creon) added rock-like gravity. The BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus provided excellent support, representing the people of the kingdom as well as an extended Greek Chorus.