There’s a point in any recovery when the tiny calibrations of progress or regress have to stop and, to use government-speak, we have to get on with it. We aren’t there yet with concert life. To suggest otherwise would be an insult to musicians, every aspect of their working practice ruptured, even the simple act of sharing a music stand a hazard. That said, they might wish we’d concentrate on their music-making, rather than the undeniable oddness of it all. We’ll try.
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales made a second appearance at this year’s Proms with their new principal conductor, Ryan Bancroft. A Californian, he chose an American-accented programme that opened with a world premiere by Augusta Read Thomas, a prolific and well-established composer born in Long Island in 1964. Her Dance Foldings (2021), one of four BBC commissions to celebrate the Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary, came complete with her own multicoloured diagram in the programme showing the structure of this 13-minute piece.
The music’s airborne, kinetic energy – shiny beads of sound tossed aloft, caught by a taut, rhythmic structure of, especially, woodblock and plenty of pizzicato – was mirrored in her complex drawing. Thomas describes proteins being assembled and folded in the human body, in a “ballet” of activity and contraction. I understood the kaleidoscopic music, virtuosically played by BBC NOW, more than the programme note, which is as it should be.
The orchestra’s reading of Dvořák’s New World Symphony was full of attack, with well-shaped solos all round, but the work as an entity could have done with more definition and welly. Ives’s mysterious Three Places in New England was the centrepiece, a reminder of the strange atmospheres this composer could create with his maverick concoction of borrowings and layerings. The orchestra’s brass triumphed in the marches and bugle calls of the middle movement, “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut”, but the last place, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”, conjured a heat haze of poignant memory, beautifully captured by Bancroft and his players.
Perceptibly, encouragingly, the Proms has gathered pace, and audiences, this past fortnight with some high-profile appearances: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; violinist Nicola Benedetti with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain; and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov playing Rachmaninov with Aurora. The orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, also performed their ever more impressive conjuring trick of playing without a score, except that it’s not illusory but real. Every musician puts in the work, each having to find their own mnemonic device, and there’s no counting the hours. In this case, marking 50 years since the composer’s death, and winning a standing ovation, the choice was Stravinsky’s The Firebird. All these concerts are worth sampling on BBC Sounds/BBC iPlayer.
After 10 challenging weeks, Opera Holland Park ended its season with a first co-production with Charles Court Opera, a year late, postponed due to Covid. Their minimal, witty staging of The Pirates of Penzance, excellently sung, with a fine cameo from Yvonne Howard as Ruth, came as close to cracking my stony, Gilbert-and-Sullivan-resistant heart as anyone could. (Being exposed to G&S from the cradle can go either way.) John Savournin directed, and also sang a mean Pirate King, with Frederick Long the charming orphan Samuel, Richard Burkhard skilful as the tiresomely loquacious Major-General Stanley, and a bevy of sonorous, pigtailed daughters led by Daisy Brown as Mabel. David Eaton conducted, keeping speeds brisk. The City of London Sinfonia, one to a part, showed their prowess. I laughed. Bravo.
Another first, or two in fact: the Philharmonia made their trailblazing debut at Bold Tendencies, with Maxim Emelyanychev making his first appearance with the orchestra. It was a two-part blockbuster of an evening in which Samson Tsoy was soloist in both Brahms piano concertos: massive works, which he performed with inexhaustible imagination and poise. The 50-strong ensemble, the first international orchestra to appear in this car-park venue, sounded magnificent, poetic, rampant, as if finally unleashed.
Star ratings (out of five)
BBC NOW/Bancroft ★★★★
The Pirates of Penzance ★★★★
Samson Tsoy, Philharmonia/Emelyanychev ★★★★★
The BBC NOW’s New World Prom is on BBC Sounds, along with all the other Proms mentioned