“It’s like Carmina Burana on steroids” was how Eric Whitacre introduced his filmic piece Equus at Sunday afternoon’s family-friendly all-American Prom. Whitacre has great charisma, and engages well with his audience – both in the flesh and via his online presence. To be able to create and conduct such a big noise, – a galloping, minimalist-inspired tour de force that includes textures as varied as a vibraphone with slide trombone, tubular bells, a slapstick and a massive descending-scale horn chorus – was clearly as exhilarating for him as it was for the audience, and the substantial forces of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers responded to every gesture of his balletic conducting style.
The concert began with the European première of Jonathan Newman’s encore work, Blow It Up, Start Again, another bravura piece that works equally well as a concert opener; it is also a minimalist-inspired work, whose bold themes in the brass struggle to form out of the driving rhythmic texture, only to collapse again. This was followed by two more works by Whitacre. Firstly, the RPO strings were joined by the cello soloist Leonard Elschenbroich for the pastoral The River Cam; Elschenbroich gave a sensitive performance, creating passages of Elgarian yearning. Next came the piece that made Whitacre a name, not just among choral aficionados, but in the wider sphere of ‘accessible’ contemporary music: Cloudburst for chorus and percussion. It is an effective and entertaining work, using chattering voices, choral cluster chords, occasional brief sung or spoken solo lines and finger-clicking to simulate the arrival of a storm. It worked well in the Albert Hall, and the chorus responded as one voice to Whitacre’s skilled direction, allowing for the full range of dynamics to sound in the large space – even the audience responded perfectly to Whitacre’s request to join in the finger-clicking.
Ferde Grofé’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue took the concert into the interval; the free-form approach to the initial clarinet solo heralded a nuanced performance in which the blue-notes of Gershwin’s jazz inspiration were allowed full measure, and in which the young piano soloist, Martin James Bartlett, teased us with his relaxed placement of chords, and enjoyed to the full the cross-rhythms of orchestra and piano. At the other side of the interval came Aaron Copland’s wistfully desolate Quiet City in which the composer’s strings-only textures are complemented by meandering cor-anglais passages and muted fanfares from the trumpet – in this performance interpreted finely by Amelia Coleman and James Fountain.
Following Equus, the afternoon finished with the first European performance of Whitacre’s Deep Field, a piece inspired by the Hubble Telescope’s images of distant galaxies. The work begins with Whitacre’s signature cluster chords that arise from a gentle rocking in the strings. The chords change in texture – sometimes muted brass, sometimes from a bowed glockenspiel, or high woodwind harmonics – and build to some immensely satisfying brass-and-percussion climaxes, the whole piece slightly reminiscent of Holst’s Neptune. But it was in the final five minutes of the piece that Whitacre’s joint love of voices and contemporary media came to the fore. The orchestral sound faded to nothing, to be replaced by a wordless ethereal chorus from the singers, now stationed in the stalls aisles. This was accompanied by the gentle twinkling of electronically produced chords from thousands of mobile phones belonging to audience members who had downloaded a pre-recorded app., and who had set it going on Whitacre’s cue. Corny – perhaps. But entirely magical.