qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

The Promenade at The Promenade

Prom 62 began with a selection from Benjamin Britten's Balinese fairy-tale ballet The Prince of The Pagodas. The piece was chosen as part of this year's East-West theme and the excerpts focused on Britten's challenge at reproducing the sounds of a gamelan orchestra with western musical instruments. This was especially effective in one particular piece (either The Pagodas itself or The Salamander, I think) but was noticeable throughout. The piece was written in the 1950s and it's interesting to reflect that a contemporary composer would probably just write music for gamelan if that was the required sound - perhaps the aural equivalent of the distinction between a painting and a photograph.

John Corigliano's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra was composed in 1977 and was rather more avant-garde. The first movement conjured images of a swarm of bees, with the soloist as queen; the second was rather soporific; and the third made clever use of the auditorium by placing french horns around the edges of the Hall. Michael Collins was technically accomplished. As he and Corigliano received their applause, I found Michael White's infamous 1987 article on the Kinnock-Hattersley gay wedding coming to mind; this image was not improved when conductor Leonard Slatkin joined in. Unfortunately someone's mobile phone rang out with Mozart's Rondo alla turca during the third movement: consequently there was some ironic applause when the sound system re-broadcasted its instruction for such devices to be turned off, during the interval.

The second half of the concert was an unconventional performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Leonard Slatkin briefly took the microphone to explain some history: the piece was originally written for piano solo, and later famously orchestrated by Ravel, but there are many, many other versions, and in 1991 Slatkin conducted another performance (which I remember seeing on TV, and was the reason that I selected this particular Prom) in which each 'Picture' came from a different orchestration. This time the feat was to be repeated with a different selection. Slatkin gave us some initial excerpts of different choices for the Promenade theme; some illustration on the variable dynamics of Bydło (and in particular, Henry Wood's version, in which the ox-cart arrives late, after Wood doubled the length of the introduction), and the consensus on orchestrations of the final picture, The Great Gate at Kiev (unsurprisingly, as it is marked quasi campani in the piano score).

The opening Promenade (famous perhaps most recently as the theme for The New Statesman), orchestrated by Byrwec Ellison, was a little disappointing: the programme notes explained the parallel to Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, but I don't think it worked beyond the opening phrase on the tubular bells. The rest of the piece was rather better: in particular I liked Il vecchio castello, orchestrated by Emile Naoumoff, in which there was a piano solo, with Tchaikovskiesque ornamentations, playing rounds with the orchestra; Ashkenazy's laden Bydło; Henry Wood's surprisingly colourful Samuel Goldenberg and Schymuyle and Douglas Gamley's The Great Gate at Kiev. I had the feeling that this last selection was made on the excuse to bring in the men's voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Royal Albert Hall organ, but like Angela Lansbury's drunken and lewd authress in Death on the Nile, this is a piece where over-acting is acceptable, and brought the piece to a most triumphant conclusion.

It's curious that there are some things which we seem to value or consider aesthetically satisfying because they are rare (for example, gold, caviar, or olive oil), and yet there are other things which we value because they are familiar. Ravel's orchestration is familiar and definitive, but not necessarily the most pleasing, and this is a work that bears variation (perhaps because even purists have to note that Ravel's is not the original work). Performances like this are experiments, and they could be over-done, but in small quantities they are very successful.

As it was Leonard Slatkin's 60th birthday, the orchestra played, and the chorus sang, an encore of Happy Birthday: I wait with interest to see whether the BBC site lists this as anon or trad. I think it's a shame he is leaving the BBCSO: I don't know whether it's his relationship with the orchestra or the BBC management that is the source of the uneasiness. Certainly he is more soft-spoken and has less "personal charisma" than his predecessor Andrew Davis, but I don't think he is any less a musician for that.
Tags: music
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