As old certainties fade the Last Night of the Proms has assumed a unique role in national life, albeit one that would have perplexed Henry Wood given that its ‘traditional’ second half post-dates him. The 150th-anniversary of his birth gives rise to one of the running threads of the new season. Another, woozier, theme takes off from the Apollo moon-landing fifty years ago, a cue “to explore the link between music, nature and environment, which to this day continues to inspire composers of every kind.”
In recent years First Nights have tended to fall into one of two categories, providing either a themed sampler or a one-off presentation of music inimical to conventional programme building. This year’s offering was perhaps intended to hit both targets but rather underwhelmed the capacity crowd. The big piece, the Glagolitic Mass, is no longer a rarity after all, whereas something like Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts would have had the merit of coinciding with the 150th-anniversary of its composer’s death. And while one scarcely expected a UK outing for the gloomier Berlioz-indebted Requiem of American composer Christopher Rouse, his 70th-birthday is one of several significant markers wholly overlooked this season. Likewise uncelebrated is the centenary of Galina Ustvolskaya. Indeed, for all the fashionable emphasis on women composers and performers – another theme? – you won’t find many unglamorous, indigenous figures of the older generation. So no Elisabeth Lutyens, no Grace Williams…
Instead we began with a new commission from a Canadian thirty-something who teaches at Columbia University in New York and has a fondness for multimedia projects involving electronics, video or dance. Shades of 2018’s opening concert, perhaps, minus the lightshow. Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory at least proved more sonically sophisticated than Anna Meredith’s score for the collaborative Five Telegrams. Lasting some fifteen minutes it interweaves chronologically and linguistically disparate strands of text to help explore “how humans have looked to the Moon across time and cultures”. There is plenty of interest, eeriness and wide open space in an orchestral fabric which scintillates even if ‘music’ as such never really gets going. Sharp-eyed audience members will have been amused by various unorthodox manoeuvres involving paper bags and bottles as well as instruments. The invention is primarily textural although harmony where present is surprisingly consonant: the opening sounds oddly like the Tippett of the Fourth Symphony, thanks presumably to its anticipations of the French spectralists rather than any direct influence. The choral writing, delivered by the BBC Singers, at times recalls the Adams of Harmonium; the words are largely inaudible.
Of the four orchestral ballads Dvořák based on folktales by Karel Erben, two were given autumnal UK premieres by Henry Wood and his Queen’s Hall Orchestra. The Golden Spinning Wheel on the other hand was so long considered a dud that it had never previously surfaced at the Proms. In 1896 Musical Times went so far as to remark that “a piece of such length, containing so few striking ideas and so little of interest in the workmanship, has not been heard at a high-class orchestral concert for many a day.” Tonight it seemed long indeed as Karina Canellakis eschewed the cuts (recommended by composer Josef Suk) often made in concert and refused to rush or inflect overmuch. There was some elegantly turned playing from both woodwinds and strings (violins were bunched to her left), yet the foursquare material, endlessly repeated to mirror the gruesome narrative, made this a difficult listen.
After the interval, for the third time at a Proms First Night, we had the Glagolitic Mass as it used to be heard prior to the editorial caprices of recent years. A Wood “novelty”, he conducted it both live and in a BBC studio though never at the Proms and presumably only in English. The BBC Symphony Chorus joined the BBC Singers to give what was an overly refined account. We had the numbers but nary a trace of the fervour with which the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus used to tear into these notes and the associated archaic Church Slavonic, singing from memory under Simon Rattle. This was a surprise in that it was apparently Sir Simon who convinced Canellakis to swap the violin for the baton. That her solo line-up lacked the promised Metropolitan opera star Eric Owens mattered little. Her soprano was lustrous, quite without the screaming that scarred Pierre Boulez’s 2008 stab at the reconstructed ‘original version’ prepared by the scholar Paul Wingfield. Canellakis began with the ‘Ùvod’ (Introduction) and ended with the ‘Intrada’ one is or was used to hearing only at the work’s conclusion. All good news in my book. Then again the conductor did seem unwilling to let rip. This was a controlled reading of lyricism and poise rather than wild passion.
The generally well-behaved audience responded with a rather short-lived ovation at the close. Only the clapping between ‘movements’ dismayed. The Glagolitic Mass is arguably a secular work but must we now expect applause between bits of a sacred Mass setting or Haitink’s Bruckner 7? The first woman to lead the First Night of the Proms becomes Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra next season.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, on BBC2, first half, and BBC4, second (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms