Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Proms 2011: week three in review

It was quite a week, with the return to the Albert Hall of both Gustavo Dudamel and Nigel Kennedy, and the first time Turntables appeared as a solo instrument. What did you all make of it?

The boys and girls of the Sim�n Bol�var Symphony Orchestra were back in town for Friday night's Prom, playing Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. Or rather the men and women were back in town. The "youth orchestra" is no more. All grown up (the average age is now a wizened 24), their first visit to the Proms since 2007's original, triumphant encounter was awaited with eager anticipation ? many, including myself, sceptical about whether the concert could possibly live up to the hype that has rampaged constantly around the orchestra and, in rather Messianic terms, its conductor.

"Expectations: colossal. Achievement: beyond that", wrote David Fanning in the Daily Telegraph. My own initial scepticism was also blown swiftly away by this emotional rollercoaster of a performance, delivered with extraordinary skill and a clever ear for the opportunities afforded by the Albert Hall's challenging acoustic space. "Tosh", wrote OldFriar, pointing the reader to Geoff Brown's witty dismembering of the event for the ArtsDesk as being "nearer the truth," leading an onslaught of nay-saying, which ranged from the graceful understatement of nick9000 ("I don't think it was a very good performance, actually") to the more vehemently expressed "total disappointment" of Andrewsaunders, for whom "Mahler's powerful yet joyful work was made to sound like army manoeuvres squelching through a Venezualan swamp."

Such strongly divergent views are often interesting less for the individual preferences and prejudices expressed, than for the light shed on wider issues. One of these is that the difference between listening in the actual hall and listening to a broadcast is particularly marked when the atmosphere plays a role in orienting an audience's expectations: no one would trouble about this in a rock concert, but classical listening is governed by different ideas. Another issue here is of course the role of PR hype, which led the aptly named Classical Iconoclast to question whether "good solid musicianship" underpins Dudamel's flamboyant display: "It feels like tragedy, to hear what media frenzy can do to a musician." Gidon Kremer, who also thinks that classical music should keep off the stardust, would probably agree.

Another is the meaning of the "youth" label, the loss of which for the Times's Richard Morrison has meant the Bol�var "story is old hat". Unconvinced by Dudamel's pacing and worried by "how average the orchestra sounded", Morrison argued that "the competition in this repertoire ? from Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam and London ? is in a different league."

Much higher praise was reserved for the younger players of the UK's own National Youth Orchestra, who got together with Vlad Jurowski and DJ Switch for a performance of Gabriel Prokofiev's Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. Worried that the title might entail something rather gimmicky, Erica Jeal found the reality "more rewarding", arguing that what the material lacked in originality ("the second movement sounds like the Rite of Spring squeezed into a slow hip-hop beat") it made up for by Prokofiev's "serious yet just witty enough" handling of it. Commenting on the review, Akka was also pleasantly surprised, disputing the Stravinsky likeness ("Could no one else nowadays have the same idea of a vigorous dance with a strong beat?") and revealing how much he prefers Gabriel Prokoviev's music to that of his (still) more famous grandfather.

Akka, a regular and knowledgeable contributor to the below-the-line life of the Guardian's classical reviews, also turned up on Andrew Clements' review of Donald Runnicles's (mis)handling of Strauss's Four Last Songs, which the reviewer thought "distinctly unradiant" (and Akka "a car crash").

Clements' main focus, however, was on the earlier premiere of Robin Holloway's fifth Concerto for Orchestra, praising the "sumptuous and vividly evocative territory" traversed in the work's passage from "complexity to clarity", and finding some affinity with Schoenberg's early works. Elsewhere, on the Where's Runnicles blog, to whose titular question many tweeted the answer "he's here" during the composer's two consecutive Proms last week, Finn Pollard was reminded of Shostakovich and found himself unsure whether the piece "completely hung together". 5:4, meanwhile, who for some reason reneged on his promise to tweet his reviews using the #gdnproms hashtag, thought the piece verged on the unmemorable: "one is caught up with it while it's happening, but as soon as the last notes die away, nothing remains apart from feelings growing vaguer with each passing second."

There was more than one classical iconoclast in town this week. Nigel Kennedy, always on hand to thumb his nose at the establishment, proceeded to do so at the entire modern tradition of solo Bach playing. That was in the programme note. On stage, his thumbs were more decorously employed in supporting and bowing the 1732 Bergonzi instrument on which he performed the D minor Partita and various other snatches of Bach's timeless oeuvre for unaccompanied solo violin. While impressed by Kennedy's feeling for Bach's "grand harmonic architecture", the Telegraph's Ivan Hewett felt that the dance momentum and subtle ornamentation associated with period-influence could have added much to Kennedy's performance.

Erica Jeal was more swayed by the evident power of Kennedy's interpretation (which "conjured a magical sense of airy stillness in the fastest arpeggios"), as was Richard Morrison, who thought it "superb", and concluded:

"People talk about our dumbed-down culture. But when 5,000 people pay to hear Bach played on a solo violin, there's hope for western civilisation." In a festival that survived the destruction of its original home during the blitz, has endured eight visits from Nigel Kennedy, and whose audiences were undeterred by western civilisation's most recent turmoil, one can assume that hope, and glory, will issue from the Albert Hall for some time yet.

Don't forget you can listen to all the concerts again for up to a week after live broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.

* The first week in review
* Week two roundup © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Thierry Henry Cheryl Cole Simon Cowell David Beckham

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