qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Hearing Voices

Yesterday's Proms were a celebration of "The Voice". Although Poulenc's Gloria was tempting, I decided to opt only for the second concert, and kharin and I used the early afternoon to explore and meander through Battersea Park, taking in flora, fauna, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore sculptures, and the Peace Pagoda (planning permission for the pagoda was a dying act of the GLC). A Thames Water barge, moored just by the pagoda on the river, periodically gave off whistling pentatonic tones from its engines, curiously and serendipitously adding to the effect.

The rules for days when there are multiple Proms never seem consistent: for last year's Arvo Pärt late-night Prom, there was no raffle-ticket queue for those having attended the earlier Prom, so we ended up rather further back, but on this occasion the Hall stewards were in full-on queue-fascist mode. In the end there were only a handfull of repeat day Prommers, and we were right at the front of the arena anyway.

Paradoxically, the opening work in this celebration of the voice was purely instrumental, but it was appropriate enough: Wagner's Prelude to Act 1 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Initially I wondered whether the BBC Symphony Orchestra would fall short of having enough trombones, but after perhaps a wobbly first minute or so, they picked up and were in full stride. This was the nearest Wagner ever got to comedy: the programme notes observed that when it was written, the work "made demands on all concerned, not least the audience", for the entire opera was at the time the longest score ever produced.

Continuing the day's association with Ken Il Living-sum, the next work was commissioned a year ago by the Mayor of London: Michael Henry's Stand, an a cappella work for chorus group The Shout. Mainly gospel and spiritual in style, the text drew from protest speeches made over the years in Trafalgar Square. Apparently, we only heard half of the work; I was mostly indifferent to it, though I could admire its technical construction.

Soprano Christine Brewer joined the orchestra for Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Barber is one of those one-work composers: everyone knows the Adagio for Strings, but very little else. Yet the main theme in this work sounded familiar to me, from somewhere. The work was lyrical and heartfelt; a quirk of my particular position in the arena meant that in my line of sight, the giant tubular bells to be used in the second half of the concert were aligned to look like a telegraph pole, enhancing an atmosphere of a summer evening in small-town America.

The second new work was again a political inspiration. Orlando Gough's We Turned on the Light, with a text by Caryl Churchill, had a doom-laden message on climate change. Musically, it was interesting; textually, it was uninspiring. Although the main words from the chorus were clear enough, there was a lot of vocal "noise" from both choir and "rabble", from which no sense emerged. As some of the "rabble" choir was drawn from Prommers, in marked off boxes at either side at the front of the Arena, this was truly a surround-sound experience.

Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky has long been a favourite of mine, and I didn't bother with the text, just standing and enjoying the music. Conductor David Robertson is hereby nominated as the Proms Pixie, for his bounding up and down on the rostrum, clearly felt on the arena floor, and not just in "The Battle on the Ice"; mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina was appropriately melancholic in "The Field of the Dead". Eisenstein's film, to which Prokofiev provided the soundtrack and then reworked into this cantata, was a blatant propaganda piece against the Nazis; and while the final movement is titled "Alexander's entry into Pskov", it might as well be "Praise be to Uncle Joe!". In the first half of the concert the voice had been variously comic, political and homely; in the second half we concluded with heroic and epic.
Tags: music
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