Friday, 13 July 2018

Light and illusion - First Night of the Proms 2018

The Proms at the Royal Albert Hall - brilliant photo by Daniel Curtis
An astonishing First Night of the Proms 2018 with 59 Productions, indubitably the stars of the second half of the evening, transforming the Royal Albert Hall into a pulsating blaze of coloured lights.  Fantastic theatre! As a community event,  it would be hard to beat, and it was great fun. The  young singers behind the orchestra will never forget the experience, and good for them, and neither will most of the audience. This is the sort of audacious flair that used to mark the BBC Proms in the Roger Wright era. This was a welcome change from the formulaic mindlessness that BBC Radio 3 increasingly descends to, where music is pushed aside in favour of everything else.  Has someone finally twigged that music is the goose that lays the golden egg ?  Starve it and you might as well succumb to Murdoch and Classic FM.
Anna Meredith's Five Telegrams was full of incident, the lights round the hall pulsating to big flashing chords and loud noises.  Sakari Oramo, with his customary good nature, gave the piece a good show, and the BBC SO seemed to be in party mode, so the performance was hugely enjoyable though I'm not convinced that it would have the same impact without the special effects it was created for.   Read more about it here.  Nonetheless, maybe at last there's someone behind the Proms who cares about music, as opposed to the tickboxes and targets management drones connect to.  The premise behind Meredith's Five Telegrams was the First World War which formulaic bots need to reference, willy nilly.  But the mind behind the programme was also musical.  
Before Five Telegrams, Ralph Vaughan Williams Towards the Unknown Region and Gustav Holst's  The Planets.  They're not connected just because they're part of the First World War theme show.  It's pure coincidence that they were written at that time. What they do represent is a change in musical thinking. "Darest thou, O Soul, Walk out with me towards the Unknown Region ?".  Quiet pizzicato footsteps  suggest tentative awakenings. Very quickly, though, the piece enters new territory. The boundaries of tonality start to stretch : Ravel and even Debussy seem to beckon Vaughan Williams forward. Though Charles Villiers Stanford is inevitably mentioned , RVW's true mentor would appear to be Hubert Parry, whose horizons were wider and more sophisticated.  Thus the music wells up with heartfelt new energy. "We float in Time and Space"   In the words of Walt Whitman, RVW seems to have found inspiration to head forth towards the future.
Holst's The Planets is good First Night material but, since it's ubiquitous, we might forget just how experimental it may have seemed when new.  Although the programmatic titles are so embedded in our reception, Holst initially planned to use non-descriptive titles. As has been said many times, Holst knew Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, which Sir Henry Wood conducted at the Proms in 1912.  The Planets, while conceived on an opulent scale, isn't symphonic but composite, each section with distinctive character.  It's "modern" on its own terms.  Everyone loves Jupiter, but in many ways, Neptune is the most eclectic, gradually dissolving and disintegrating.  Oramo paced Neptune carefully, drawing out its exquisite textures so it seemed to hover in the air . "We float in Time and Space" all over again, without words.  A very refined, intelligent performance.  Familiar as the suite may be, Oramo wasn't doing routine  but seemed inspired.
Pulling this whole First Night together, Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks, in tribute to Knussen, whose death this week is a loss to British  and modern music on many levels. Ollie was a monumental figure in every way. As Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who knew him well, said, he  "was driven by the same need for artistic authenticity and never conceded to the easier world of ego and glitter. His astounding ear and acute understanding of works allowed him a control ranging from the smallest details to the main structure; his gesture was of exemplary thrift; his interpretations were models of clarity, deeply dramatic with warm concentration. His colossal erudition led him to make programming choices dependent on an original and very personal musical vision, nourished by an insatiable curiosity and never based on personal career goals, which he overlooked. A great servant of the music of his time, he influenced generations of young talents through his teaching, whether as composer or conductor. His humility and self-effacement in favour of others were a manifestation of his selflessness and generosity."  Knussen didn't write down all the music in his head, but he gave so much to others that his legacy will live on. He packed more into 66 years than some people would in several lifetimes.  Flourish with Fireworks is typical Knussen - lively and concise. It opens up possibilities. Therefore, a very appropriate complement to Vaughan Williams and Holst .

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