Opera and Classical Reviews

Prom 17: BBC Philharmonic/Mena @ Royal Albert Hall, London

25 July 2013


Juanjo Mena(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Juanjo Mena
(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The theme of music and dance in this year’s season was launched in emphatic style by Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth in Prom 4 with their infectious survey of music for the French stage. The programme for the BBC Philharmonic’s dance-themed Prom focused on Spanish flavoured repertoire in the second half, playing to the strengths of Juanjo Mena, their Spanish-born chief conductor. The first half, however, was more varied with its pairing of a world premiere by John McCabe and Beethoven’s seventh symphony.

In his programme note, McCabe describes Joybox as “an entertainment piece” inspired by the multifarious patterns created by the noise of a Japanese ‘entertainment centre’. A brief look through the full score before the performance confirmed it as a precisely scored and highly rhythmic piece of seven minutes’ duration. Initially seemingly jazz influenced it proceeded through accented passages that tightened the textural palette gradually and explored full orchestral tutti briefly, if somewhat savagely, before relaxing into a decrescendo that found a solo drum tapping out the initial rhythmic figure by way of a conclusion. Juanjo Mena’s direction was efficient and his reception for the composer during the applause was enthusiastic, as he lost no time in cutting a path through the Arena to the stalls seat that McCabe occupied.

Beethoven’s seventh symphony, regarded by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”, was given a performance whose parts did not give satisfaction in the whole when reflected upon in its entirety. The first movement was overly weighty, with a somewhat broad tempo that smouldered slowly before fully catching light after a somewhat clumsy transition to the Vivace passage. The second movement was prone to have a piquant edge from its outset, before becoming overly serious in its overall outlook that risked sacrificing too much of the delicacy within its classical form and structure. The third movement Presto and concluding Allegro con brio were rather more successful, their clean lines, sprightly tempi and lithe textures coming alive more naturally under Juanjo Mena’s alert baton.

After the interval, Mena’s Manchurian forces sounded thoroughly at home with Falla’s witty and colourful inflections, which serve to give much in the way of interest to his sadly under-performed score for The Three-Corner Hat. Clara Mouriz proved peerless as a mezzo soloist in this repertoire, the only regret being that her contributions were all too brief. Hopefully in a future season she will be given the opportunity to showcase a more extensive selection of her native repertoire alongside Mena, with whom she is building on-going collaborations. The Antonio Márquez company danced the ballet in characterful  fashion on a narrow stage apron between the orchestra and the Arena. At times their steps risked drowning out some of the music’s details, whilst drawing upon the somewhat anachronistic contrast of the tricorned elderly judge and the thoroughly simple mannered miller, danced by Márquez himself, or his irrepressible flirt of a wife to great comedic effect. In the end though, perhaps de Falla’s score deserved to be more centre stage than many might have perceived it to be on the night.

A lengthy solo danced introduction (improvised?) to Ravel’s Bolero almost found the music sidelined once again, yet once Mena took to the podium and began its slow pulsating ostinato Ravel began to assume his rightful place in proceedings. This might have been a Bolero danced to traditional flamenco styled choreography, but the dancer’s rhythms were often at odds with those propelled from the orchestra, which gradually lessened the music’s impact once again. Mena though seemed to be revelling in the moment, conducting with loose yet rhythmic verve that came as much from his shoulders as his wrists. A partial encore of Bolero gave the dancers further rein to impress before another unaccompanied company and solo displays. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these proved to be rather blatant clap traps which achieved their desired effect.

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Prom 17: BBC Philharmonic/Mena @ Royal Albert Hall, London