BBC Prom 54
Thursday, August 26, 2010, 7.00pm
Royal Albert Hall
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson, conductor
Gil Shaham violin
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hammered Out
(BBC co-commission with LA Philharmonic: world premiere)
Barber – Violin Concerto
Sibelius – Symphony No. 2 in D major
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.
Just because it’s so much like a celluloid dream, I must add that Robertson won the directorship of the Saint Louis Symphony after only three appearances with them, the second being a last-minute substitution for the orchestra’s then chief, Hans Vonk, in Carnegie Hall (Vonk was in the early stages of ALS, the disease that tragically ended his career and eventually his life). I am not building up to a dramatic collapse of faith. In the Barber concerto he showed adroit skill in handling the lush orchestral part, a flexible, natural beat, and easy rapport with the soloist, Gil Shaham. The violinist is no longer the beamish boy he was when he made a celebrated recording of the Barber, paired with a ravishing account of the Korngold concerto, but his manner couldn’t be more winning. Shaham’s elevator eyebrows rise and fall with feeling; he smiles rapturously as he plays and nods happily at both conductor and orchestra. After a triumphant yelp from the audience that extended into long applause, Shaham and Robertson took the acclaim like Alphonse and Gaston (“You first, my dear sir.” “No, you first. I insist.”) I’m tweaking them, but on musical grounds Shaham remains remarkably communicative, sincere, and instinctive. He can’t make a phrase that is unbeautiful, yet that phrase will also show insight.
But back to Robertson. How could the same conductor come back after intermission to lead an utterly meaningless Sibelius Second? It’s one thing to look like a Beacon Hill Brahmin and quite another to conduct as if you were in front of the Boston Pops. All the things that count in Sibelius—grandeur, mystery, eloquent silences, romantic yearning undercut by melancholy—were ignored. The notes were delivered with the proficiency of an e-mail. Robertson used the same big sweeps of his right hand, usually echoed by the left, without variation. What could the musicians read from that? As he applied himself with such vigor, the conductor threshed a lot of grain but made very little bread. I hate such inconsiderate music-making; it’s an affront to great art. Conductors generally produce outstanding results by demanding them or inspiring them. Being buddies with the orchestra may not cut it.
The concert opened with the aptly named Hammered Out, an orchestral work by the prolific Mark-Anthony Turnage. Its fifteen minutes were occupied with big noises and a jazzy, quasi-Latin rhythm that sounded like a rumba for heavy machinery. Turnage is known for his use of jazz materials as well as effects from Hollywood soundtracks and television thrillers. The addition of scratchy dissonance didn’t really matter. This was easy-listen modernism, and the audience applauded gratefully. User-friendly is a horrible term, but Turnage comes perilously close to being that way. For that matter, everyone involved was that way, which is not an automatic criticism. It was still raining as we exited Albert Hall, and one longed for the great Fritz Reiner, an eminently unhuggable sour puss who would have had a few caustic things to say about the buddy system when it comes to leading orchestras. He preferred the scare-the-bejesus-out-of-them system. Should we?