It's got a bit silly, this not keeping up business. There are only so many times I can offer excuses, and to be honest, not keeping up with things other that daily life has been one of the themes of the summer. I've not even reviewed the record number of Proms I've been to, never mind everything else which has been going on. Well, I shall make a start on catching up - 7 Proms reviews, squeezed into the periods of the day when I'm waiting for various reports to compile and run. It will stop me trying to run other jobs in the system, thereby slowing myself down. If I don't reach the end, you can assume that I've had problems with the reports (or that they've run really quickly, which is less likely). Otherwise, here goes:
Prom 12: The Blue Peter Prom
I said we'd be back this time last year, and here we are, after a very pleasant day in the park with long-lost friends, all of us piled in excitedly to a box (all seats one price, so we go for the best). If we enjoyed it last year, I can say that we loved it this year. For a start, we're all here; no one's missing out this time, and there's something on the bill for everyone. I'm most pleased to have finally heard 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine'; there's Chinese lion dancing and Taiko drumming for those who want spectacle; there's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', complete with organ rumble, there's jazz Beatles (personally, i could have lived without that, but it seemed to go down well), and then there was Ravel's Bolero.
Now, I was a little concerned about it; it's a well-known tune, of course, but somewhat repetetive for those who are not versed in the nuances of orchestral playing. I needn't have worried. The piece began with only three members of the orchestra on stage, and the slightly worried presenters wondering where everyone had gone. As things developed, the orchestra joined us one by one - some reading newspapers, some plainly direct from the pub, some via the audience, some being chased by the police, some in various kinds of fancy dress, one even dressed as a rabbit. There was much hilarity and excitement, yet through it all, the drummer continued his immaculate rhythm in spite of giant rabbits and people trying to reel him in on a fishing line. As we neared the end, I was beginning to be concerned by the lack of a percussion section, but eventually they appeared, being chased through the arena, and took up their positions with less than half a second to spare for the finale. It could not have been better timed, and my children still talk about it. That's how to get people involved in classical music...
Prom 35: Academy of Ancient Music
An unexpected Prom; I was in town anyway, and when my disaster recovery test finished on time (for once), I thought I'd give this a go. It was time - after an absence of several years - for a jaunt to the balcony; somehow it seemed appropriate for an evening of baroque music. The programme was unfamiliar: Biber, Muffat, and Bach (well, I must have heard Bach's Magnificat before now, but I'm not exactly familiar with it.) The gallery turned out to be an appropriate place for it, but for one small detail: the orchestra and choir in the Biber were arranged to give an approximation of how they sounded at the original presentation of the work, in Salzburg cathedral. This meant that the choir was split in three and interspersed with the string players, and that the brass was lined along the top row, where the choir would normally be. This meant that for those of us above the players, the sound was rather too brassy, and detracted a little from the three organs and three theorbos on stage. Excellent playing, though, and lovely singing, especially from some of the soloists. In the end, this one won't live as long in the memory as some of this year's Proms, but I'm very glad I went.
Prom 36: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov
I wasn't going to miss this one, even if it did mean sore legs two days running. I saw Volkov conduct the BBCSO in Shostakovich 10 last year, and thought him astonishing for one so young; I wasn't about to pass up the same forces in Mahler, was I?
Yet my abiding memory of the evening won't be the cowbells of that most peculiar symphony. First up, a tiny Mozart symphony, no 32. It was pleasant enough, I suppose, but served as no more than an appetiser for what was to follow. If I have largely forgotten it, it is because what followed was so startlingly good. Janacek's Eternal Gospel has hardly ever been recorded; had never been seen at the Proms(or anywhere else in the UK) before now, and I am at a loss to explain wahy, for it was a wondrous thing, expertly played and truly magnificently sung by both the soloists and the London Philharmonic Choir, belting out those awkward Czech syllables as if they were native speakers. If only there were an easily available recording of this; it would be my unexpected discovery of the season. Perhaps after this, there will be.
Mahler 7 is a difficult beast. Written at a time of deep turmoil in his life, it reflects all his confusion and pain, and seems at times to have been assembled from scraps. It takes a skilled interpreter to make the final movement in particular hang together and make sense, but Volkov is already a master at such things, and we were in safe hands. There are two moments early on in this symphony which can cause giggling in UK audiences at any rate - the Castrol GTX moment, and the Star Trek moment - but both passed with supreme control, and Volkov scaled the alpine jaggedness of the final movement with real delicate skill, it all pulling together into a coherent whole (aside from the cowbells, which have wandered in from an enirely different piece of music, and which I still cannot get my head around. They just sound wrong whatever you do with them, and I cannot explain them) and surging magnificently to a spellbinding finale. Wonderful stuff, and very nearly my favourite concert of the season. Very nearly.
Prom 38: London Sinfonietta / Yo-Yo Ma / Silk Road Ensemble
I missed the Turangalîla last time it was played, and I missed Yo-Yo Ma last season due to work commitments, so this was something I was particularly looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. Ma is spending much of his time working with the Silk Road Ensemble, bringing eastern and western musical traditions together. This Prom featured a new work by Bright Sheng, "The Song and Dance of Tears", feauring solo parts for cello and piano alongside pipa and sheng. The sheng is a Chinese mouth organ, which is to say a tiny pipe organ powered by human breath, rather than a harmonica. It is a magical instrument, and I most definitely want to learn to play it. Like that's going to happen. The music was intriguing and in places thrilling, never straying into parody of either style, but walking the tightrope between them very well indeed, and thanks to the discreet amplification of the pipa, all the musical elements merged beautifully. Enjoyable and memorable.
Which can also be said for the second half. Pressed for a description of Turangalîla, I'd have to say that it sounds frankly bonkers, with the Ondes Martenot whooping and screeching all over this elemental cacophony. It takes a good number of listens to get into the structure of the thing, and work out what's going on, and needs patience and concentration even once you do know what's happening. There has been criticism elsewhere of Cynthia Millar's Ondes playing in this concert, but I felt it to be perfectly fine, altough not a patch on Paul Crossley's superb piano part. This performance for me illuminated a different side to the whole thing, emphasising the piano part, and allowing the Ondes to stay out of the limelight a little, letting it sing with the strings rather than dominate them. It may not have been perfect, but I still had a big grin plastered all over my face for several days.