In 1958, Leonard Bernstein began presenting the Young People’s Concerts hosted by the New York Philharmonic. His ability to engage, educate and entertain without patronising made the programmes immensely popular. As part of this year’s Prom season’s tribute to Bernstein on the centenary of his birth, Sunday evening’s concert, the brain-child of Gerard McBurney, was a homage to this aspect of his work, and was based on his 1965 broadcast The Sound of an Orchestra. It incorporated elements of the New York Philharmonic’s current series, as well as the presentational style of BBC Four’s current crop of arts programmes: large screens showing constantly changing images; ambient lighting; voices of actors, students and concert-goers reading quotations from composers, philosophers, poets, critics, musicologists and listeners, played from different points around the Albert Hall, as well as extracts played by the live orchestra (The Royal Philharmonic), conducted by Joshua Weilerstein, who occasionally substituted baton for microphone to explain some of the technical points of orchestral playing.
It was slick, it was entertaining, and, to some degree, enlightening – a pleasant way of passing an evening. It delivered a lengthy reel of information, that dwelt occasionally on single instruments, explained the use of timbre, examined orchestration techniques, explored the way orchestral colour can illustrate aspects of the world – such as running water or urban mechanisation – and showered listeners with a huge variety of live (and occasionally unsatisfyingly incomplete) musical extracts from Mozart to Mussorgsky to Mossolov and beyond. The programme note was emphatic that this wasn’t a lecture, but, ultimately, beyond requiring the audience to sit in the warm bath of McBurney’s intellectual creativity, it wasn’t clear what it was. Certainly, it was a child of the internet generation – substituting wide, shallow and eye-catching for deep and earnest – and there were some things to be learned (especially from the demonstration of string techniques by Weilerstein and the orchestra). But it lacked the simple story-telling appeal of Bernstein’s broadcasts: his deep love of music, and his genial way of presenting the detailed analysis of a piece to an audience of amateurs, who came away not only delighted and entertained, but educated. Notwithstanding the first-rate playing of the orchestra, and Mike Tutaj’s polished screen-projections, the presentation somehow managed to be a collage of information that solicited admiration from those already in the know, while leaving too many loose ends for those not so.
The second half was a tie-in of longer pieces of music, working back in time from an extract from Elizabeth Ogonek’s 2017 All These Lighted Things through to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Ogonek’s piece, pulling together the themes of Renaissance Books of Hours and the changing light throughout the day, was a delightful demonstration of a shift of orchestral texture from bright, sparse and twinkling to solemn lower-pitched sonorities – begging a performance of the whole work. The brilliantly executed (but sadly unapplauded) rendering of Ligeti’s Atmosphères was also a first-rate demonstration of variation in orchestral timbres. The band took Bernstein’s overture to Wonderful Town and… went to town with it, giving a performance full of heartfelt crackle and pop. The prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin and the final movement of Debussy’s La mer were given competent renditions.
At the beginning of Bernstein’s 1965 broadcast, he discusses size of orchestra across the 18th and 19th centuries, and makes great play of losing some of the musicians for the earlier works. It was a pity that Weilerstein did not take his advice, as the performance of Egmont by a full, late-romantic orchestra at the close flew in the face of all that Bernstein tried to impart.