Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Prom 5: Hayden/Bernstein/Ives (Royal Albert Hall)

Is there a longer stretch of urban road in the world without a bin than Kensington Gore? that's how it feels, anyway. Eventually I find one skulking by the Royal College of Art like a Dalek left behind after the invasion was aborted. Such things that a new Proms season brings to mind.

They like to make a big deal of the fact that you can get into the proms for a fiver, but that's somewhat negated by the extortionate bar prices - £3.90 for a 335ml bottle of beer! Arrive early and go to the pub, is my advice.

The old routine comes back quickly once I'm in the hall, many of those strange faces that have become familiar over the years are present - that ageing hippy who sadly seems no longer to have his "Proms 78" t-shirt, that man who looks, frankly, like a paedophile... The announcement telling us to turn off our phones. I am so paranoid about this that I check my phone, despite knowing full well that its battery is flat and it's currently dead as a doornail.

it's not particularly full tonight, but it's not an unrespectable crowd - pretty good for a concert with no conventional warhorse, I guess.

First up is tonight's premiere - Substratum by Sam Hayden (who, I discovered at the weekend, is a relation by marriage. Small world). I seem to recall that a few years ago Sam talked a lot about politics and the composer's role in society. Tonight's programme note talks about "exploring the fundamental and essential characteristics of its material through highly formalist means". One should never put too much store by programme notes - I remain convinced that Stockhausen wouldn't have half such a fearsome reputation if it weren't for the well-meaning but obfuscating waffle that's been written about him - but one does wonder if there's a danger of him being dragged down into the mire of the establishment. The piece itself is OK (it's refreshing to hear a new piece these days that's so apologetically "modern"), but lacks a certain spark for me. Maybe it needs to be listened to a few times, something that if you're played on Radio 3 you have the advantage over most new works in that this is quite easily done.

Anyhow, whatever my reservations, it's certainly a better experience than hearting the next piece in the programme, Bernstein's Second Symphony, the Age of Anxiety. This uneasy blend of pastiches of Rachmaninov, Copland, Shostakovich and Bartok, to name a few, is a seemingly endless parade of cliches, drenched in pretentious portentousness. I wanted to wish it well, really I did, but it was tedious almost beyond endurance, and it was a wonder that I made it to the end. Who'd have though that the flamboyant, extravagant, voraciously bisexual raving egotist Bernstein could come up with something so dull? I suppose this is what happens when you chase respectability. Sam Hayden take note.

Thank god, then, for Charles Ives, who was certainly never troubled by notions of respectability. I last heard his Fourth Symphony a few years ago at the Proms, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This performance didn't quite scale the heights of that one - in particular it lacked the clarity that the CBSO brought to the riotous second movement - but this is a piece that sweeps all before it. It is an assertive, unapologetic and thoroughly necessary work that exists on a higher plane than what went before it, and in its closing bars you hear a glimpse of infinity. There are many works that it is interesting to hear, and a few that are a pleasure, but to hear this symphony is a privilege.


Rhina B. said...

I have to confess I'm completely ignorant on this subject, but I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts on it.

"...and in its closing bars you hear a glimpse of infinity."


petemaskreplica said...

I think it was Frank Zappa who said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Every time I do it I feel uneasy, that I haven't really managed to get across what it's like. Because you can only really know that in the moment, I think.

The Ives symphony's one I've known and loved for years, but looking back I don't think I ever really got it until I heard it live. You can intellectualise about this stuff as much as you like, but it's only standing in front of someone playing it you can really understand it.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying thanks :)