Home » The BBC Proms: in Melbourne

The BBC Proms: in Melbourne

by Suzanne Yanko

The second night at the BBC Proms Australia promised an intoxicating mix of Latino fire and street beats, and it delivered in spades at Hamer Hall on Thursday night.

Conducted for the most part by their new Chief Conductor, Alondra de la Parra, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra seemed to enjoy their foray south, in a program of Gershwin, Ginastera, Hamilton and Bernstein.

Prom No.2: Reviewer Josephine Vains

Gershwin’s Cuban Overture set the scene with the immediately recognizable rhythms of Havana, notable for thrilling moments from the percussion and world-class clarinet solos. There seemed to be a lag in energy initially in the string sections, which lacked a certain pizzazz needed to carry off the mood. This improved as the evening developed.

The music of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera is seldom heard in this country despite a certainly original and engaging musical language. No doubt intended as a sort of birthday celebration (Ginastera would have been 100 years and 3 days old last Thursday if he hadn’t died in 1983) pianistic wonder Sergio Tiempo (pictured) infused this difficult first Concerto from 1962 with a boyish impetuosity, capturing the neo-expressionist elements convincingly. As a player he has technique to burn, paired with a galvanizing courage and rock-solid rhythmic sensibility.

Capturing the quick tempo changes from frenzy to stasis, Tiempo was very capably supported by Alondra de la Parra and the QSO. The jagged rhythms and almost unending palette of timbral possibility created an unsettled atmosphere, and an especially fatalistic conclusion to the 1st movement. Tiempo’s crystalline tone was a highlight of the Adagissimo, and paired well with the muted strings. A disturbing viola solo created one of the more musically pessimistic moments of the evening, drawing the listener into a brief murky world, before emerging once more into obsessive rhythmic patterns and keyboard gymnastics.

After the interval the audience was privy to an unusual pairing, that of symphony orchestra and beat-boxer. Composed and conducted by Gordon Hamilton, the Concerto for Beat Box and Orchestra / Thum Prints injected an air of modern whimsy into an already upbeat program. Beat box artist Tom Thum is an international sensation, having turned his lifelong love of making strange sounds come out of his mouth (from humble beginnings beat boxing in the shower) into a viable career playing festivals and large gigs. Beat-boxing as a modern cultural phenomenon emerged from the hip hop scene in the 1980s as humans learned to mimic the sounds of the first electronic drum machines, or beat boxes. The art of vocal percussion however has intrigued humans for centuries, with further origins in other American musical genres and African traditional music.

“Welcome to the mind of a beat-boxer. This is the sound of severe sonic trance”, spoke Thum in a faux Pommy accent at the outset before hijacking the orchestra with a mesmeric ostinato. The bass end of the orchestra clearly revelled in the interplay with Thum, with their pizzicato passages bringing the orchestra alive. Impressive too was Thum’s near-perfect imitation of ricochet bowing from the celli (when the musician drops the bow onto the string from a height, producing an accelerating bounce). Composer / conductor Gordon Hamilton utilised Thum’s considerable talents to great effect, at times joining him on keyboards and riffing against each other.

Thum’s vocal machine has to be heard to be believed and undoubtedly delights listeners of all ages judging by the rapturous applause and multiple curtain calls. A welcome encore also entertained as Thum and Hamilton remained on stage, producing clever live sampling of Alondra’s voice.” Come on guys, it’s time for us to play the next piece”, morphed into an orchestral free-for-all based around Piazzolla’s Libertango, unfortunately marred again by some unfocussed playing from the string section.

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from his hit musical West Side Story took us back to 1950s America, a clever inclusion in this Latin-inspired program, and providing no less impact without the screen or dialogue. The QSO was at its most engaging here, held together by Parra with what seems like an infectious energy. Let’s hope the QSO will find time and funds to revisit the Melbourne concert stage in the near future.

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Melbourne’s own exposure to the festivities of the Proms got underway on Wednesday 13 April with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, who has himself enjoyed a long association with the British version of the event.

PROM No.1 Reviewer John Weretka

The evening opened with the suite Dream of Flying, drawn from music Nigel Westlake wrote for the 2015 film Paper Planes. The orchestra navigated the demands of Westlake’s deftly and kaleidoscopically orchestrated suite well, but the suite itself is too slight musically to withstand being parted from the images it accompanied.

Cellist Laura van der Heijden was the soloist in Saint-Säens’ 1872 first cello concerto, written as part of Saint-Säens’ attempt to reinvent the concerto form as a viable one for French composers without trying to take on the densities of German composers’ expressions in that form. Notable on account of its one-movement cyclic form, and beloved by composers and players, van der Heijden took this concerto by the horns. Her performance in middle section of the concerto revealed her considerable melodic gift and sweet yet present tone; only occasionally was she overpowered by the orchestra in some of the outer sections of the work.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the orchestra’s reading of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, each of the movements of which was enthusiastically received by the audience. It’s always a delight to revisit a familiar work and to discover that you’ve underestimated it or missed some of the fine details and, ultimately, to have the greatness of vindicated. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra provided committed advocacy to this work, from the visionary and fugitive opening movement, the froth and bubble of the second, the lonely desolation of the third, the ironic horror of the fourth, or the violence of the fifth. We had confirmation — if it were needed — of the sheer scale of Berlioz’s musical imagination, and individual strokes of his orchestration genius seemed still vividly alive and still revolutionary: how could I have missed how important Berlioz is for the history of the writing of the percussion and double bass sections in particular? A performance tour de force, special mention must be made of thrilling playing of these sections, and of the brass, whose performance of the celebratory fanfare after the execution in the fourth movement really played up the bitter wit of the movement.

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Editor’s note: Each of the four Proms was covered by a different reviewer for Classic Melbourne. Keep your eye on this story as we’ll add each review as it is filed.

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