sat 16/12/2017

Prom 26: European Union Youth Orchestra, London Voices, Petrenko | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 26: European Union Youth Orchestra, London Voices, Petrenko

Prom 26: European Union Youth Orchestra, London Voices, Petrenko

A youth orchestra teaches musical history in an astonishingly mature performance

The EUYO: hope and possibility for the musical future

The symphony – that structural pillar of classical music – found itself under siege last night at the Proms. Both Berio’s Sinfonia and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony assault and subvert, reshape and reimagine the genre, puncturing the Victorian smugness of the Royal Albert Hall with doubt. It was particularly poignant on this, the day after the anniversary commemorations of World War I, that the orchestra of the European Union should perform two works born, however differently, from the conflicts of this tumultuous century – one unable to see beyond the darkness of oppressive rule, the other offering a joyous plurality, a Babel of hope and possibility.

“And tomorrow we'll read that Shostakovich Four made tulips grow in my garden and altered the flow of the ocean currents. We must believe it's true. There must be something else. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless.” The self-reflexive, self-referential tricks of Berio’s Sinfonia are endless, an echo chamber in which it’s almost impossible to identify the original sound. Making explicit reference to “a composer and title of a work included in the same programme”, the composer plays his audience, tapping into every concert-goer’s anxiety and search for that elusive “something else” – something as potent now as when the work was commissioned in 1968.

EUYO captured not only the exuberance, but also the precision of Berio’s vision

Sinfonia is to classical music as TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is to literature. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – so Berio gathers together a jostling collage of musical moments and quotations, while inhabiting, parasite-like, the still-warm corpse of Mahler’s Second Symphony. It’s a witty and generous work, but one of considerable technical and conceptual challenges.

These were gamely tackled by the young musicians of the European Union Youth Orchesta, who, under Vasily Petrenko’s direction (standing in for the originally advertised Semyon Bychkov), captured not only the exuberance, but also the precision of Berio’s vision. The nightmarish waltz of Part III took focus out of the blurred, glassy textures of Part II, with piano and the leader’s solo violin emerging with particular clarity and swagger.

The EUYO were joined by the excellent London Voices, providing the eight solo singers whose mutters, shrieks, shouts and whispers mingled with the orchestral textures. Projecting drama into the far reaches of the hall, particular mention must go to the basses, who carry the narrative (such as it is) and succeeded in confronting us in multiple languages and projecting character over the weight of the orchestra.

Vasily Petrenko conducting the EUYOWithdrawn by the composer before its first performance and only subsequently premiered almost 30 years later, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony has a reputation that precedes its twisted difficulty and darkness. Controlling the work’s angular, richly unwieldy structure is a feat Petrenko (pictured above conducting the Berio. Photo: Chris Christodoulou ) has already demonstrated on his Liverpool Philharmonic recording, and one he repeated here – if anything with greater seriousness of purpose.

If there’s a flaw with the Liverpool recording it’s a tendency to glibness – not a grinning, macabre Shostakovich-glibness, but just an ease that takes the edge off the music’s urgency. Here, marshalling young players whose seriousness is matched by their energy, Petrenko had only to flick a finger and the full force of an expanded wind and brass section would fling itself into battle.

The composer himself thought the symphony plagued by “grandiosomania”, but if ever there was a festival or a building to transform that into monumentality it’s the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall. Filling the space (without overwhelming it), the orchestra’s brass howled out the desperate protest of the opening, belying the delicacy the ensemble displayed in the intermezzo-like central movement that attempts a dance, but can’t quite raise the spirits or the energy to get it underway.

Mercurial in mood, the symphony stands or falls in the logic of progressions and oppositions, juxtapositions and transitions between sections. Petrenko’s scheme made sense of each, guiding us structurally while tightening the screw emotionally, never allowing a moment to pass that didn’t contribute to a larger narrative.

Orchestra concerts are always super-charged, the urgency of ambition and expression in the players magnified in their music. This one was no exception. These young players gave everything they had here: intellect to the Berio and heart to the Shostakovich. And in return they found that elusive “something else” that Berio hoped for and imagined.

Comments

I agree with every word - the concert itself was a neatly constructed tower out of the "Babel of hope and possibility" - and no, Alexandra and I didn't confer at any point.  For me this, one of the best Proms I've ever attended, was so moving because here were a work from the 1960s which actually seemed to be saying that 'classical' music had splintered and collapsed, and one from the 1930s which ends with annihilation, and yet playing them were a collective beacon of optimism for the holding-together of a united Europe, astoundingly marshalled by an already great Russian conductor, a day after we commemorated its shattering in 1914.

So why on earth the BBC didn't film it for televising - ideal, a photogenic conductor, young attractive players, European flags around Sir Henry - beats me. Politics?

I found the last paragraph of the review both touching and true. This was a magnificent concert. The Berio made converts of some extreme sceptics around me too...

Terrific review, Alexandra. We sat in the stalls near the orchestra and the experience was overwhelming. The performance of the Berio almost overcame my long-held suspicion that his work is more 1960s radical chic than musical substance. And yes, the Beeb should have been there with cameras!

Oh, and if the camera could have caught the joy of those young performers at the end of the concert.

I know, Kerry - that warm embracing of each other after a job superlatively done, which we can also see with the players of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, is a wonderful thing.

The BBC has some explaining to do as to why it passed on the screening of this one. True, it's televising the National Youth Orchestra's Prom, but why not both? Isn't this the best message to send out to the world about the future of music-making?

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