BBC Proms reviews

Prom 58: Netherlands Wind Ensemble / Vis @ Royal Albert Hall, London

28 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

In a season awash with composers’ anniversaries, this late night prom recognised two more birthday boys. Louis Andriessen (whose 70th was marked a couple of weeks ago with the UK premiere of The Hague Hacking) saw an outing for his seminal De staat, while his pupil Steve Martland’s half century was noted with Beat the Retreat.

Written in 1995 in defiance of the Criminal Justice Bill which, amongst other things, sought to ban the gathering together of people for the purposes of hearing certain types of music (believe it or not), Martland’s bouncing celebration of dance, entwining techno and Baroque dance models with a stalking Purcell base line, is as colourful as the multi-hued shirts of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. It had at least one prommer bopping in the arena.

The UK premiere of Andriessen’s De staat in Aldeburgh was the occasion of the biggest walk-out I’ve ever seen in a concert hall. The Dutch composer’s onslaught of sound was just too much for the good old folk of Suffolk who voted with their feet.

Nearly two decades on, the proms audience (a good deal fewer of them to start with) responded to Andriessen’s visceral and exciting bombardment of the senses with much greater receptivity. A good match for Martland’s mix of politics and music, it takes its inspiration from Plato’s The Republic (with text in ancient Greek), which similarly calls for the outlawing of certain musical modes.

The work thrills initially but does go on a bit – how many varieties of attrition on the ear can you take at one sitting? Andriessen’s written much subtler but equally dramatic music since.

Another Andriessen pupil, Cornelis de Bondt’s Doors Closed uses similar techniques, overlaying the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica with Dido’s Lament and a whole lot of other less musical material. Its complex rhythmic pulses required a second conductor (the excellent Lucas Vis joined by Bart Schneeman). With constant headache-inducing percussive crashes and a comical repeating gong smash, I felt ready to be laid in the earth long before its 23 minutes was up.

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Prom 58: Netherlands Wind Ensemble / Vis @ Royal Albert Hall, London