Prom 6: Rite of Spring

Prom 6. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School
James Ehnes, Edward Gardner
Royal Albert Hall, 19 July 2019

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Metacosmos
Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

As a companion to the First Night’s offering of Janáček’s 1927 Glagolitic Mass (revied here)the BBC Prom 6 moved back 15 years to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, both monuments to the development of 20th-century classical music. It was performed by the joint orchestras of the Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and New York’s Juilliard School a partnership that I first heard playing Bach in the 2015 Leipzig Bachfest. The violin soloist James Ehnes was a Julliard student, and conductor Edward Gardner was a student at the RAM.  

The opened with the UK premiere of Metacosmos by the Icelandic composer, Anna Thorvaldsdottir. After studies in America, she is now resident in London and is composer-in-residence with the Royal Academy of Musi and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Metacosmos was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Society. The composers’ programme note describes the piece as “constructed around the natural balance between beauty and chaos – how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structured whole. The idea and inspiration behind the piece, which is connected as much to the human experience as to the universe, is the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole – the unknown – with endless constellations and layers of opposing forces connecting and communicating with each other, expanding and contracting, projecting a struggle for power as the different sources pull on you and you realize that you are being drawn into a force that is beyond your control”.

The c15 minute sonic scenario avoided any of the absolutely disastrous effects on anybody stupid enough to actually fall into a black hole which, incidentally, has a gravitational pull too strong for light waves to escape, so is unlikely to have any discernable music to accompany the journey. In its place, we had a surprisingly gentle and harmonic evocation of the vastness of space using an inventive range of sounds from the large orchestra. Opening with a gentle plonk on a gong and the rumble of low strings, interrupted by a sudden pluck from the cellos, we were led through an evolving sequence of musical reflections, built on simple structures and repetitive groups of notes. Moment of ethereal sounds included using hard brushes on the bass drums, slithery strings, and what I think was wind noise from blowing into the horns without mouthpieces. A regular pulse of low notes interrupted into the timeless nature of the music, forming the start of a slow and increasingly rhythmic built-up towards the only real aural climax of the piece.

The harmonies underlying the complex musical language was generally simple, the climax coming on what was more-os-less a major triad. The work ended on a long slither up the musical scale, finishing with the solo violin of Emily Nebel of the RAM, and leader for the first half of this concert.

Prom 6.JPG
    Anna Thorvaldsdottir with Emily Nebel and Edward Gardner.
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Another former student of the RAM was Benjamin Britten, whose Violin Concerto followed, played by James Ehnes (who, incidentally, later joined the strings for the Rite of Spring. The early repetitive five-note phrase sets a rather disturbing mood which continues throughout the piece, which was composed in 1938/9 with later revisions. A youthful work, it is full of musical ideas based on the influence of Berg and Stravinsky. The rather intense mood is only rarely relieved. The central Scherzo brings rhythmic intensity but still with the sinister undertones of a rather ungainly dance, not least in the accompanied cadenza that followed the powerful climax. The air of menace continues into the concluding Passacaglia with its theme of a rising and falling scale that pervades, rather than providing a bass-line, for the movement. One of the quietest moments of repose in the generally reflective mood was interrupted by a few shouts from a domestic somewhere in the upper reaches of the hall. James Ehnes gave a strong performance, maintaining an attractive and generally vibrato-light tone throughout, despite the underlying unease of the pieces. He returned to the stage for an encore of the slow movement of Bach’s second violin sonata.

The evening finished with Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring given a generally assured performance by the student orchestra. The opening bars might not have sounded quite as intended, but what matter. I particularly liked the crescendo into, and inflexions within, the distinctive bassoon solo, here played by Patrick Bolton. The entire woodwind section have a complex time here, which they coped with magnificently, as did the trumpeters, throughout the concert. Two of the latter, who I assume were Rebecca Toal and Madison Lusby, were outstanding in their beautifully delicate muted moments

Edward Gardner conducted the combined orchestras well, his clear direction no doubt helping the young players through the many complexities of the programme. I also liked the way he held off the applause at the end of pieces – usually a tricky thing to do with Proms audiences. It was difficult to accept that this was such a young orchestra, some still in their teens. On the basis of this performance, the future of classical music is assured, at least as far as the excellence of its players is concerned. I just hope they can all find secure future work in the performing world. Oliver Knussen’s Flourish With Fireworks was an appropriate encore.