BBC Proms reviews

Prom 29: NYO/Elder – Kernis, Prokofiev, Shostakovich @ Royal Albert Hall, London

4 August 2007

How do you make Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony seem less rhetorical and overdone?

The National Youth Orchestra may have found the solution – simply put it in a programme with Aaron Jay Kernis’ 1992 composition New Era Dance.The Shostakovich has its share of percussive marches and huge, violent climaxes, but it has nothing on Kermis’ use of police sirens, gunshots and rap music.

New Era Dance kicked off the NYO’s Prom on Saturday evening. The work is Bernstein but more so: more arrogant trombone calls, more indulgent percussion writing, a more tumultuous tapestry of sound, a more daringly colourful evocation of New York (think Bernstein’s On The Town). It’s just the sort of thing that this orchestra does well – a jubilant, rhythmic piece, full of opportunity for ensemble virtuosity. This performance, under the baton of Mark Elder, fizzed throughout. All was carefully prepared – down to the layered dynamics of the players’ rap chants – yet it seemed spontaneous and fresh. Some loss of linear clarity is only to be expected with a band this large. It was a joy.

To follow, Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto was less characterful. Alexander Kobrin was soloist. His touch was bouncy yet precise in the work’s opening theme; his phrasing in the Andante assai was refined and sensitive; the more virtuosic passages never really twinkled, though they were firmly and accurately attacked. What stood out was the orchestra’s playing – the string pizzicati underpinning the soloist in the first movement were exactly in time and miraculously together.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is a challenge for any group, let alone a youth orchestra. It’s a long ride, lasting around 80 minutes, and the mix of grandiosity and introspection is as daunting to the listener as it is to the orchestra. No one quite knows what it’s talking about either: is the Allegretto‘s bombastic war march describing Stalin’s decaying Russia or the Nazi invasion of the period (the work was written in 1941)? This performance wasn’t a total success, but the NYO came close to cracking the work, and there is no shame in coming close.

Once again, everything seemed carefully prepared. In the march, Mark Elder attempted to avoid a typical Boleroesque crescendo, preferring to find points of reference and ratchet up the dynamic notch by notch. In doing so, I felt that he lost some grotesque irony. And throughout, Elder’s careful beat perhaps didn’t capture the more heady pleasures of Shostakovich – the rampant, arrogant climaxes and jarring switches of mood. But the performance warmed considerably as it progressed: the Slavonic, hanging strings of the slow third movement were breathtakingly beautiful and the finale provided grand, explosive resolution. The orchestral playing was professional and passionate throughout, and technical slips were minimal.

I wish that some of the audience hadn’t felt the need to cough and whisper so much. Such behaviour is inexcusably apathetic and highly distracting. But there you go.

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