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Posts Tagged ‘BBC Concert Orchestra’

Contemporary Music

In recent years, the Proms have been embracing non-classical musical genres, and this year it was the turn of folk music, with five folk acts joining the BBC Concert Orchestra in what was a largely successful crossover. The highlights were favourites The Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, but it was good to be introduced to Welsh group ALAW and to sample the music of Jarlath Henderson and Sam Lee.

You rarely hear a musical score played as well as the John Wilson Orchestra played West Side Story at the Proms; you could hear every nuance, every note, every instrument. It moved you and thrilled you in equal measure. Add to that a fine set of young soloists, a chorus drawn from two drama schools specialising in musical theatre and a rapt full house and you have a very special evening indeed. So good, I even forgave them the ticket & programme price hikes, the unnecessary interval and the failure to televise it!

My second and last Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom combined some rare Bernstein works with pieces by his friends and contemporaries, plus a new commission, and it was a funny, quirky delight with a fine performances by American mezzo Wallis Giunta. It included songs set to recipes, one a world premiere, a UK premiere of an early ballet which contained the seeds of West Side Story and six pieces new to the Proms.

Opera

Grimeborn gave us more treats with an inventive adaptation of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman – A Fantastic Bohemian – which moved between three locations in the building. The quality of singing and playing was stunning, and at such close quarters there’s no hiding place. It was hard to follow, particularly on the same day, and as much I enjoyed my first outing of Donizetti’s Rita and renewing my acquaintance with Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, they struggled to live up to the afternoon. Same day double-dips do have their downside, as we found with this and in Chichester two days before, on both occasions the highlight coming first. Six days later it ended (for me) with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek. It’s hard to believe it was premiered thirty years ago; it’s still original, visceral and edgy and in this production was very well sung, with the Kantanti Ensemble on fire. This has been a great Grimeborn, now fully established as an annual event in my diary.

The live cinema relay of Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s 60-year-old opera getting its fully-staged UK premiere, was simply extraordinary. The design was superb, the singing stunning and the London Phil sounded sensational. It has the feel of a Hitchcock film, very mysterious and suspenseful. Wonderful stuff, probably better than being there with non-opera lovers and a 90-min interval to destroy the dramatic flow!

Classical Music

My first Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom saw Dame Sarah Connolly give a recital of English song which included four world premieres, including two by Benjamin Britten written 70 years ago! It was lovely, though somewhat melancholic, which made me feel it might be more of an evening programme.

I appear to be picking well this year, as my next Prom was a sometimes challenging, but fascinating and rewarding 20th century Anglo-American programme with the BBC Philharmonic playing Barber, Britten, Copeland and Walton. Two of the five pieces were new to me, and indeed to the Proms, including two arias from Barber’s opera of Anthony & Cleopatra which made me want to see a production.

Film

Apostasy is a quiet but defiant rage against fundamentalism in all its guises, in this case Jehovah’s Witnesses. Siobahn Finneran is stunning, but above all it’s a hugely impressive debut from writer / director Dan Kokotajlo, an ex-witness himself. Harrowing but brilliant.

Art

James Cook; The Voyages at the British Library was one of the best exhibitions of its type I’ve ever visited. Superbly curated and thoroughly objective, it contained journals, specimens, paintings & drawings and testimonials from experts and indigenous peoples. Illuminating.

London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art at the Weiner Gallery was a huge disappointment, consisting as it does of glass cases showing letters, flyers, catalogues and photos, plus copies of pictures. Only one actual painting and a couple of drawings!

Collier Schorr is a new photographer to me, but her exhibition at Modern Art did nothing for me, I’m afraid. All a bit too pretentious in my book.

A theatrical visit to Chichester was extended to visit the lovely Palant House Gallery which had three exhibitions. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings had some great 20th century works, particularly those by Vanessa Bell and Laura Knight, but though I liked the idea of including contemporary works, there were too many, and the quality was very variable. It was another of those exhibition whose raison d’etre was a bit dubious. Dance: Movement & Modernism was a one room curate’s egg, but again it had some nice works. However, I loved Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, a little known Lithuanian British photographer who captured people in the county in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s brilliantly.

It was worth the detour to Tate Britain for Lisa Brice’s one-room exhibition of mostly blue paintings of women. Very striking and very original.

At Proud Central, the photos of the Observer’s late photographer Jane Bown were like a review of people in my lifetime; stunning B&W pictures, some now iconic. Downstairs a multi-photographer selection focused on pop and rock stars; this too was outstanding.

The Frieze Art Fair consisted of thirty or so sculptures placed in a corner of Regent’s Park. It was more miss than hit, but made for a pleasant wander en route to the Open Air Theatre in the same park.

Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum brought together the work of four photographers using the seaside as their subject over the last fifty years. I identify the seaside with my youth, so there was something very nostalgic about it, and some terrific pictures too!

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The Proms is unquestionably the world’s greatest and most accessible music festival; this year there are 74 concerts and promming is still £5. New life has been breathed into them in recent years with chamber proms, late night proms, children’s proms, proms in the park and the inclusion of jazz, folk, world music, film & TV music and comedy. My selection of 5 this year was particularly eclectic.

The first was Havergal Brian’s Symphony No.1 ‘The Gothic’, written in the 1920’s by an almost forgotten British composer. How can you resist something that requires c.1000 performers? – two orchestras, nine choirs, four soloists and the RAH organ! A third of the stalls was given over to the three children’s choirs, four timpanists and most of the brass. No wonder it’s very rarely performed (and therefore no wonder he’s almost forgotten). Conductor Martyn Brabbins deserves a medal for having the balls to put it together. They made a terrific sound in unison, but even in the quieter moments it impressed. It’s not a great work, but I’m glad I took this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear it.

I never saw the Human Planet TV series, but I like listening to music from around the world and this prom caught my imagination as something a little bit different. It combined five extracts from Nitin Sawhany‘s orchestral TV score with five visiting musicians / groups from Greenland, Russian Siberia, Zambia, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, with scenes from the programme projected onto screens around the auditorium. I liked the orchestral music and would like to hear more, but it was the visitors who caught my, and everyone else’s, imagination. The boys from Papua New Guinea and Enock Mbongwe from Zambia had never left their own countries and their excitement was infectious. Their innocence meant they didn’t leave the stage when they’d finished as they didn’t really know when to do that. At the curtain call, Enock was jumping up and down excitedly and the audience’s warmth was palpable. There was a bonus too, as the BBC Concert Orchestra under Charles Hazelwood gave us the world premiere of the 1812 overture played on specially made instruments made by professional instrument makers entirely from re-cycled material. It didn’t half sound bad, but it was the sheer fun of it that brought the audience to its feet for one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve ever seen at the Proms. What a surprising and thrilling evening.

Verdi’s Requiem and the Royal Albert Hall are made for each other. With a chorus of almost 400 and a large orchestra, it fills the space. This was one of the best interpretations I’ve ever heard. The BBCSO & Chorus under Semyon Bychkov were joined by  the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir and four fine soloists – Marina Poplavskaya, Mariana Pentcheva, Joseph Calleja (hugely impressive) and Ferruccio Furlanetteo (guess where he’s from?!). The choruses have never had so much power, yet more delicate moments were deeply moving.

The late night prom of Grainger songs included folk favourite June Tabor, so this one was always going to be a must. I’d had to miss the Kings Place Grainger songs concert earlier in the year, so that made it essential. Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell‘s clever programming included pairing contrasting orchestral / folk interpretations of four songs collected by Grainger. I loved both her band’s instrumentals and the Teeside Wilson Family unaccompanied vocals and June Tabor’s solo voice was hauntingly beautiful in the RAH. The orchestral contributions sat well alongside the folk, but I’m afraid the BBC Singer‘s jarred with me – they just didn’t suit the material. We ended with a clog dance, as if to prove the Proms goes where no-one else dares.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra have been on my ‘maybe’ list many times; the fact they had a late night prom promoted them to the ‘let’s go’ list. These five mad Aussies recreate the film scores of Ennio Morricone with both instruments and sound effects – from a variety of items including a tree branch and cornflake packets. On this occasion, they also get to use the RAH organ. The whole thing has every tongue in every cheek, but it’s an affectionate  homage rather than a comic spoof.  Even from good stalls seats, we couldn’t see exactly what was being played some of the time and I think screens would have helped in this vast hall. It was great fun, though something I think you can only do once – though many there seemed to be regulars.

As I said at the outset, a lovely eclectic cocktail at the world’s greatest music festival.

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