Tag Archive: BBC Proms

Prom 54: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Frederick Delius and Shostakovich

Resistance movements. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, the boyish thirtysomething conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He debuted with them in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. One of a star’s perks is a roaring welcome at the Proms. You’d have thought at the end of their concert two nights ago that the orchestra had just played Crown Imperial rather than the angst-ridden Shostakovich Tenth.

Prom 13: Verdi’s Requiem

Temporary immortality. The Verdi Requiem is an event, a masterpiece, an emotional catharsis, but also an old shoe. Well worn by dozens of recordings since two great ones, by Toscanini and De Sabata, started the grooves turning, it hasn’t been saved from familiarity by being magnificent, any more than the Grand Canyon has. What do you do to breathe life back into music that has been worn down by so many feet? (I apologize to readers who feel that I’m asking the equivalent of “Caviar again? Didn’t we have that yesterday?”)

The French Orchestra at the Proms: Myung-Whun Chung Conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

Whee! Paree. A general moaning arose from music reviewers, starting around forty years ago, about French orchestras. They no longer sounded French. No more pinched oboes being played through the nose. No more horns sounding as if they were warbling underwater or inbred with the saxophone clan. No more lean, on-the-dot precision in the strings. As they lamented this loss, the same bemoaners forgot that they once carped about the very sound that was fading away. Uncharacteristically, the French were listening.

Prom 4: Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1 “The Gothic”

OMG! The appearance of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony is like the biblical Leviathan surfacing in Hyde Park. It’s epochal. The buses lined up behind the monster aren’t full of gawkers but the assembled forces needed to perform the work, not counting trucks loaded with 32 timpani, eight brass choirs, a horde of extra offstage trumpets, and more — much, much more. Choruses throng from all points of the compass. Somewhere at the musicians’ union a shop foreman is screaming into the phone, “Don’t tell me we’ve run out of ophicleides and sarrusophones! This is apocalypse!” Oh wait, it was Berlioz who calls for ophicleides and sarrusophones. But some wisp of his spirit hovered over Stoke-on-Trent when the very, very dotty composer, Havergal Brian, was born in 1876.

First Night of the Proms 2011

Check the odometer. The Proms deserve a jolly rev up when they start, and after 117 summer seasons, it was a fresh young pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, who provided it. At nineteen, he came out in a casual shirt looking like a college freshman who might be spending his vacation as a pizza delivery boy or valet parking attendant. Those attendants are notorious for taking Porsches and Jags for a quick spin, returning them with hot wheels. Grosvenor had his chances with Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2, but he returned it respectfully to its owner. He displayed glittering fingers and a beguiling soft touch at the beginning, but this work is faux art, setting a mood simply to tease the audience before the fireworks display.

David Robertson, BBC Proms 2010

The buddy system. Last night’s Prom was as close to an all-smiles evening as one could hope for with rain pouring down all day. David Robertson, although known as a champion of contemporary music, programmed two easy pieces, the Barber Violin Concerto, which is about as challenging as a box of caramels (very delicious caramels) and the Sibelius Second Symphony, a sure-fire hit in Nordic-friendly Britain. There are so many stories of promising American conductors who falter in middle age (Robertson turned 52 last month) that I was eager to hear him a second time. The first was with the Boston Symphony some years ago. Before I register my impressions, however, there’s a spic-and-span back story to his career — apparently this man has left behind him a trail of good will wherever he goes. He looks fit and friendly, with flat gray hair and the long face of a Yankee banker sitting for a Copley portrait. Born and raised in Malibu — not an arduous beginning, one assumes — Robertson was educated at the Royal Academy of Music. This tie to London glided into becoming the chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony, which he presided over last night with happy faces all around. Robertson even entered the thorny patch that is the Ensemble Intercomtemporain in Paris and was cheered on despite having no ties to its founder, the formidable Pierre Boulez. Robertson preferred to conduct John Adams instead, and he got away with it.

Valery Gergiev, BBC Proms 2010

Capo di tutti capi. If you must have a gang invade your turf, let it be a gang of scintillating Russian conductors. The UK is in that enviable position – for some reason the Russians haven’t made real inroads in America – and Valery Gergiev in particular has London at his feet. All but the critics, that is. They are grumpy about Gergiev, and admittedly he is a grandstander. His first concert this summer was a program of almost amusing arrogance as he led the World Orchestra for Peace in the Mahler Fourth and Fifth symphonies. One knew in advance that it would be too much of a glorious thing. The mega-wattage of the orchestra, which draws its roster from the great orchestras of the world (even the back bench violins are first and second desk players at home) insured an evening of thrills. This ad hoc ensemble premiered in 1995, the brain child of Sir Georg Solti, who wanted it to symbolize harmony among all peoples. High-flown sentiments, but on the rare occasions when the World Orchestra assembles, with Gergiev now at the head, even the citizens of Berlin and Vienna have to take notice. This is orchestral playing of sizzling virtuosity.

Sondheim at 80 – excerpts from Sondheim Works

Master of all trades. Stephen Sondheim’s career has been a slippery alloy of brilliance and spite. The brilliance is entirely his; the spite seeps from Broadway‘s “vultures, hangers on, and harbingers of bad news.” The quote is from a BBC interview this spring, indicating that at 80, Sondheim either feels the old barbs or is reconciled to being the perpetual outsider. His melodies can be as sweet as cream toffee, but you have to walk over broken glass to get to them. Addicted to puzzles and word games, he inserts them liberally into his lyrics, which are never for the dull witted. Before him, the American musical was a national pastime. Show tunes made the top 40, and everyone knew the numbers from Oklahoma. (In Sondheim, the corn is as high as a salamander‘s eye.) Even Kurt Weill cottoned that he had to transform the scabrous ironies of his Berlin work into something anodyne and folksy once he crossed the Atlantic. Sondheim alone was willing to write with a razor and strop. The way that critics reviled him, you’d think he filched the champagne from Die Fledermaus and substituted cyanide.

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