Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 58: BBC Concert Orchestra – Charles Hazlewood @ Royal Albert Hall, London

28 August 2006


Jazz is an art form intended to ‘lure the working class into a bourgeois world’.

At least that was the claim made by conductor Charles Hazlewood during Monday afternoon’s concert of jazz-influenced compositions.

If that was also the intention of the concert’s organisers, Prom 58 was a success.

Of course, nowadays the matter is not as simple as working classes versus upper classes, but there is unarguably a divide between those who are cultured and those who are not.

It was truly refreshing to see such a youthful, enthusiastic crowd in the Royal Albert Hall, including a large number of children. The arena was especially populated by them.

Of course, the drawbacks of having such a classically innocent audience are many a lot of coughing, some fizzing coke bottles, a lot of excitable whispering (and one mother who, during the first half, gave her child the most penetratingly loud packet of sweets imaginable, apparently to stop him talking). However, with classical music losing its audience, it was hard not to feel silently gratified that at least this concert had found one.

With the longest piece of music on the programme lasting only 26 minutes, and the shortest seven, Prom 58 was a perfect introduction to classical music for the young ones there. We started with Ibert’s 1930s piece Divertissement, which comprises six short movements and mixes popular and classical styles. In the Cortége, Ibert gives us a mangled version of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, while the lurching trombones in the Valse (superbly played here) amusingly send up the attempt at a traditional dance.

The BBC Concert Orchestra responded to Charles Hazlewood‘s direction, and barring the odd inaccuracy (a lack of communication between strings and woodwind in the Introduction and a double bass fluff in the Nocturne) played with flair. This trend was continued in the other solely orchestral pieces on the programme. The world premiere of Dai Fujikura‘s Crushing Twister was given special treatment, with thrillingly violent percussion and ethereal high violin pedals.

The piece itself is a bizarre little thing. The general idea is that the orchestra is divided into three. The one in the middle is the ‘proper’ one, with four violins, a trumpet and some percussion, and this plays the opening idea. This idea is then taken up by the orchestras on either side and distorted, just as a piece of dance music would be distorted by a DJ on his turntables. On paper this sounds fun, and I recall Schnittke’s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (performed earlier this season), which also took pleasure in destroying a piece of music. In practice, this new commission suffers from a lack of clear direction.

The problem with Fujikura’s work is that the opening theme is as atonal as the rest of it, and one finds difficulty in distinguishing between what is the ‘proper’ music and what is the distortion. On the plus side, the deliberately uncoordinated entries of left and right orchestra, once they become apparent amongst the general barrage of sounds, are ingeniously worked. Crushing Twister has a certain momentum, and its brevity at seven minutes means that it does not overstay its welcome. Time will tell whether the piece will prove popular enough to enter the repertoire.

Finally, Bernstein’s 1944 ballet score Fancy Free was joyfully played, and it was hard not to be carried along by the surging syncopations. So back to the works featuring soloists, and most disappointing was mezzo Pauline Malefane, singing three songs by Kurt Weill. She looked absolutely radiant in her pink and gold dress, but her voice was sadly undistinguished. I was unsure whether her microphone was to amplify her in the hall or simply to help with the BBC broadcasts, but either way, its placement directly in front of her mouth muffled her sound.

Malefane’s voice could become good with work, but at present it is stretched and inconsistent. Her opening crooning would have not seemed out of place in an R&B song, while saliva-infested consonants and rasping breathing were distracting. Diction was especially concerning in The Ballad of Caesar’s Death (the only song sung in English). To use but one example, how can an L end up sounding like an S?

And whether or not you can say Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a piano concerto is debatable, but its extensive solo piano part was well played by Kevin Cole. His interpretation was lyrical, and only a couple of missed notes during the Lisztian cadenza passages marred an accomplished performance. More distracting was his self-conscious style of delivery, with that never-ending smile and wildly flailing arms.

Then again, it sounded good, so that mattered little. The young crowd in the Royal Albert Hall loved every minute of the concert (well, almost), and hopefully they will return for more next season. Apart from the family eating sweets.



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