Page 14, 10th September 2010

10th September 2010
Page 14
Page 14, 10th September 2010 — Why the BBC orchestras are flagging

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Why the BBC orchestras are flagging

PROMS 2010 Michael White Prom 54; Waghalter


It always happens. Somewhere slightly past the middle of the Proms season, its energy subsides. And it subsides particularly (though forgiveably) in concerts given by the orchestra that works the hardest in the run, the BBC Symphony (BBCSO).

A glance at the Proms calendar explains the problem. Orchestras get pulled in from throughout the world to play just once (or maybe, if they’ve come a long way, twice). But the provincial BBC bands all play four or five dates, while the London-based BBCSO plays 11. And 11 different programmes, many of them involving new music to be learned from scratch, is a lot of work in a limited timeframe – even for a radio orchestra like this, used to a quick turnover of repertoire.

Proms 54 was one of those 11 dates and, coming in that past-the-middle zone, ran to form; despite the fact that it involved a Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere that screamed out for adrenalin and muscle. Energy requirements came unsubtly stated in the title of this new piece, Hammered Out. And it delivered 15 minutes of assault and battery: abrasive, swaggering and loud.

Where the dynamic level of Arvo Pärt’s 4th Symphony (whose Proms premiere I reviewed on this page the other week) barely rose above “piano”, this Turnage score never dropped below “forte”. And from start to finish it featured the same answering phrases bouncing to and fro in syncopated, dance-band rhythms, in yet another example of the composer’s persistent infatuation with American vernacular and the streetwise glamour of 1960s pop culture.

That he should be re-affirming this longstanding love-affair so emphatically in Hammered Out may just have something to do with the fact that he’s celebrating his 50th birthday: one of those life-landmarks you handle either by shedding a tear for the past or shaking a fist at the future. Hammered Out perhaps involved an element of both.

But it did feel like going over old ground with nothing new to say about it. The streetwise chic of Turnage’s music used to sound ultra-cool. This sounded stale. And, given such an under-charged performance under the American conductor David Robertson, a little tame.

The same went for Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto that followed: an easy, relaxed but small performance of a piece that isn’t naturally heroic but still needs more strength of character than it had here with the ultra-lyrical, non-sweating Gil Shaham as soloist. And the Sibelius 2nd Symphony that filled the second half was a serious disappointment, with nothing of the grainy-textured tension opening out into expansive grandeur that the best accounts (from Colin Davis in the old days, Osmo Vanska in more recent ones) deliver.

Annoyingly, Vanska was occupying the same podium for the Prom the following night, flying in with his Minnesota Orchestra. Pity he couldn’t have been there 24 hours earlier. It might have made all the difference.

Ignaz Waghalter is a name that doesn’t quite trip off the tongue and it meant little to me until last week when I heard some of Waghalter’s music for the first time. PolishGerman, born in 1881, and Jewish, he was a conductor/composer doing well in the Weimar Republic with a string of successful operas who then (and it’s a sadly common story) lost everything to the Nazis, escaped to America, but never managed to re-establish himself on similar terms. He died, obscurely, in 1949.

What I heard last week was part of a violin sonata written in 1904 and probably not aired in public since his death. It was being championed by a forceful young violinist called Irmina Trynkos, playing in a concert at the Savile Club with pianist Gamal Khamis. And although its BrahmsianSchumanesque-Tchaikovskyan melange suggested that Waghalter was far from the cutting edge of his time, it was engaging enough to warrant further investigation. There’s a group of London-based musicians who have taken him up as a cause and plan to record his violin concerto and other works with Ms Trynkos as the soloist. The RPO, apparently, are on board. Could be interesting.

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