PSM5: Camerata Nordica/Terje Tønnesen – Britten, Tippett & Walton

Camerata Nordica
This fifth and final Proms Saturday Matinee concluded the Saturday-afternoon Marking of Benjamins Britten’s centenary year by placing him in the context of his British contemporaries with works by Tippett and Walton. Included was the premiere of Britten’s Elegy for Strings. It seemed appropriate that this piece new to us was performed by a group making its Proms debut. Camerata Nordica plays without conductor or with the use chairs (for the upper strings, anyway), adding visual drama to its performance.

Read my full review at The Classical Source.

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It’s Showtime! John Wilson and his Orchestra return

If you are a keen Prommer, it’s hard to avoid the hype surrounding the John Wilson Orchestra. Since their first appearance in 2009, the bespectacled conductor and his hand-picked musicians have been bringing music from film and musicals to the Royal Albert Hall.

Wilson’s passion for film music has played a large part in his international career. Beside orchestration and arrangement projects, he reconstructed a number of classic MGM film scores. His previous Proms appearances with his own orchestra have dotted between Hollywood, MGM and Rodgers and Hammerstein. The John Wilson Orchestra was formed in 1994, and now play a major role in performances of both contemporary and classic film scores.

The Broadway theme of this programme (performed 2nd September 2012) saw a selection of six soloists and the Maida Vale Singers perform alongside the John Wilson Orchestra. Gershwin’s Overture to Funny Face opened the programme, seeing Wilson sashaying about the programme with a cheeky half-smile upon his face. The orchestra not only recaptured the Broadway sound, but injected it with dynamism. Sassy brass cues punctuated the silky strings, and the players were definitely in the groove.

The singers (who aptly currently star in Broadway shows) strode around the stage with confidence, the glamorous ball-gowns and tuxedos lending old-school glamour to the nostalgic evening. Despite a few issues with intonation and balance between soloist and orchestra, the infectiousness of the tunes was irresistible and the concert flew by. Wilson’s relaxed approach prompted a laid-back jazzy feel from his orchestra, although they certainly weren’t lacking intensity at the climaxes of the songs.

From Bernstein to Cole Porter, the selection of songs held appeal for all, whether as introductions to the musicals or as top-notch performances for those more familiar. With the lively performance of these classic songs injecting an extra presence to the magical mood characteristic of musicals, Wilson’s Broadway night certainly brought the glitz of New York to London.

Cartoon Capers

I was disappointed to find out that the televised version of the Wallace and Gromit Prom was to be highlights. I had heard positive feedback from those of all ages, and so this afternoon I made myself comfy on the sofa with the prospect of whiling away a few hours.

Unfortunately, it was only for 45 minutes that was shown by the BBC! This seemed a shame not only for the Aardman creators (who had lovingly crafted both new scenarios and montages of the old) but for the audience too. The Family Proms have been doing a brilliant job at introducing those of all ages to classical music since they were launched in 2006, and it was clear from the animated faces (and the enthusiastic applause!) that this Prom hit the spot.

Introduced by (of course!) the theme tune, the Prom saw Wallace and Gromit cause chaos from the Green Room below stage. Communicating with the audience through a telephone and sending objects through a tube constructed by Wallace, the puns drew laughs from children and adults alike. The brilliant Nicholas Collon must be praised for maintaining the flow of the evening. Turning to joke to the audience between pieces, the young conductor’s buoyant energy definitely created the right tone. Linking themed montages of Wallace and Gromit to excerpts including Shostakovich, Debussy and Stravinsky, the concert covered a range of musical styles. The Aurora Chamber Orchestra and Collon must be commended for matching the length of the excerpts with these clips. However, the centrepiece of the concert was undoubtedly the chaos surrounding Wallace’s new piece, ‘My Concerto in Ee, Lad’. Preceded by commotion in which the piano (intended as the solo instrument) is smashed, the concerto is eventually performed by Gromit and guest star, violinist Tasmin Little.

Although the Prom was clearly well-received (with my own family laughing along too), I did feel that the music was somewhat disconnected from the video montages. The footage was not particularly synced with the events in the music, and it seemed that any combination of images could have been put in any order! The cartoons also ran the risk of distracting the audience from the performances by the Aurora Chamber Orchestra (particularly the blistering fugato from Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony!). Perhaps this would have been solved by the placement of a more coherent cartoon narrative alongside the music?

Ultimately, the effort was clear to see, and the new films continued in the same vein as the much-loved cartoons. Even though it was aimed at families, the Prom had much broader appeal. Whether for the film clips, the music or both, the success of this concert will without doubt attract even more to next year’s Family Proms.

‘Vanity project’ or vital social tool? The divisive effect of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (Monday 23rd July)

There are few ensembles as discussed at present as the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and their conductor Daniel Barenboim. Currently midway through their Beethoven Symphony cycle for the BBC Proms, each concert is broadcast on television as well as BBC Radio 3. However, they are also making headlines for different reasons after Mayor Ana Botella enforced their withdrawal from an annual open-air concert in Madrid due to budget cuts.

Part of a high profile European tour, Barenboim responded by denouncing the move as “neither an intelligent nor elegant” decision. With Madrid acting as a base for four symphony orchestras alone (each relying on government funding), the logic behind the action is clear. Barenboim has met much criticism over his response, many reproving him as selfish (one even dubbing the orchestra Barenboim’s ‘vanity project’).
This label is unfair. Founded by Barenboim and Edward Said in 1999, the orchestra unites musicians from across the Middle East through performance. These musicians are from a variety of countries, with the particular aim of attempting to forge an understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. With rehearsals taking place upon neutral Spanish ground, the orchestra Barenboim’s own background in Israel demonstrates his integration to the cause. With critically-acclaimed concerts around the world, the orchestra certainly deserve their reputation. And after all, surely it is the mark of the orchestra’s success that they should be playing high profile concerts?
As I write, the orchestra are mid-Prom, performing music by Boulez alongside Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies. In preparation for the London Beethoven cycle, Barenboim has been quoted as prompting the musicians to find a path of “resistance” in the music. Yes, some have objected to the Beethoven interpretations due to their heavy-handedness, but the determination in the orchestra’s performances cannot be doubted. What has struck me most in their concerts, though, is the connection between the musicians. Many camera shots show the players caught up in their enjoyment of the music, sharing their delight through eye contact across the orchestra. Their effect is not purely down to the critically-acclaimed concerts, but the human element. It goes far beyond Barenboim, representing optimism for the future of the Middle East.