Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture should have been the ideal way to launch the 2015 BBC Proms. In the festival’s 120th year, one would expect that the first concert would begin with a bang. While the actual fireworks came after Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville, the musical fireworks were saved for the end.
It seemed strange that Pierre Boulez should be absent at his own 90th birthday celebrations, especially those of an ensemble with whom he holds such a strong connection. Having been closely involved with the ensemble during the 1960s, Boulez was appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra between 1971 and 1974. He was widely considered to have raised the standards of the ensemble, who gave a number of premières of Boulez’s own music. Comprising of two films, three concerts and a talk, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion day could only ever scrape the surface of Boulez’s contribution to music. The selected works emphasised the longevity and the range of his musical output, ranging from 1945-2005. The lunchtime concert featured Boulez’s Piano Sonata no. 2 (1947-1948) and his Éclat/Multiples (1965, 1970), offering a glimpse into the composer’s aesthetic stance at three different moments.
John Adams and Gustav Mahler might not seem the most obvious bedfellows. Separated by a large temporal gap, the two figures are worlds apart; indeed, the only thing linking the pieces featured in Prom 63 appeared to be orchestral colour. However, it was not a musical connection which tied together the programme, but the ebullient personality of Marin Alsop. Alsop has long been a champion of Adams’ music, and proved herself to be no less impressive in Mahler.
Bookending two contemporary French works (including one UK première) with familiar fare, this was definitely a concert of two halves. As with last week’s concert, the BBC Symphony Orchestra excelled in the more recent repertoire, giving dazzling performances of Gérard Pesson’s Ravel à son âme and Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto. Although Bolero brought the concert to a rousing close, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4 opened the evening on a shaky note.
Grisey, Dufourt, Boulez and… Beethoven? It might have been an inspired programming choice, the intricate orchestration of the contemporary French works contrasting with the directness of Beethoven’s textures. However, it was this much-loved audience favourite which proved to be the weak link in what was otherwise an excellent performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov at the Barbican.
Saturday saw the BBC Symphony Orchestra open their 2013/14 season with an evening of firsts. Not only was this Sakari Oramo’s first Barbican season concert as Chief Conductor, but the programme placed a première by leading “spectral” composer Tristan Murail alongside Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony.