sun 23/06/2024

Prom 32: Bartlett, Elschenbroich, RPO, Whitacre | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 32: Bartlett, Elschenbroich, RPO, Whitacre

Prom 32: Bartlett, Elschenbroich, RPO, Whitacre

The poster boy of American choral music offers up a mixed bag

Eric Whitacre: strengths and limitationsAll images by Chris Christodoulou

The England cricket team recently went through seven Test matches alternating winning and losing, the longest such sequence in the history of the game. Eric Whitacre managed a similar, and similarly frustrating, series of hits and misses in his Sunday matinee Prom of American music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whitacre featured as both composer (of four of the pieces) and conductor, the programming showing the strengths but also the limitations of both of these aspects of his work. As a presenter, though, he is excellent, speaking to the audience between items with assurance and humour, covering the rearrangements of the platform and introducing the music in a way that is unpretentious and welcoming. This was not the stuffy concert environment that can put off newcomers.

The opening item was also neither stuffy nor pretentious: the European premiere of Jonathan Newman’s Blow It Up, Start Again. This was composed as an encore but is perfect as a miniature overture, fizzing with big-band grooves, heavy on the low brass and percussion, and entertainingly hectic.

Leonard Eischenbroich in Whitacre PromBut if Blow It Up, Start Again was glitzy and bold, Whitacre’s The River Cam, for cello and string orchestra, was anaemic and saccharine. In his introduction Whitacre name-checked Vaughan Williams, but if he was aiming for something akin to The Lark Ascending he fell sadly short. In fact, the influences felt closer to home: sections of chugging cellos evoking Philip Glass, and the climax a shadow of Barber’s Adagio. The soloist, Leonard Elschenbroich (pictured above), did his best, projecting nicely over the ensemble without ever forcing his sound, but there was little for him to work with.

The highlight of the afternoon was Whitacre’s breakthrough choral piece Cloudburst, sung here by the combined forces of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus and conducted from memory by Whitacre, spotlit in the centre of the stage. Written when he was only 21, it sets a text adapted from Octavio Paz about rain coming to a parched land. The variety of textures, from solo moments to full tutti, were well handled by the large choir and the Spanish pronunciation was very convincing. But the piece is memorable above all for the coup de théâtre at the end, when the singers start clicking their fingers to simulate rainfall, which is then taken up by the audience to create a panoramic soundscape. This is a contemporary choral classic and deserves its reputation.

Martin James Bartlett in Whitacre PromAccording to the concert programme, Rhapsody in Blue wasn’t heard at the Proms until 1985, when it was played by – of all groups – the London Sinfonietta. This seems an extraordinary fact, given the piece’s centrality to the American concert music tradition. It is pretty much indestructible, its wonderful tunes always carrying the day; but this eccentric performance by the young British pianist Martin James Bartlett (pictured above) seemed determined to test that theory. Although the opening clarinet solo was stylish and suave, with lots of extra slides on top of the iconic opening glissando, once the piano entered things got sticky. The tempos throughout were undercooked and this was exacerbated by Bartlett’s mannered and exaggerated rubato, which chiefly consisted of starting phrases almost comically slowly and then accelerating steeply in the following few bars. There were some issues of orchestral ensemble: Rhapsody in Blue has some very tricky corners for the conductor, and it seemed as if these demands pushed Whitacre’s technique to the limit. The biggest problem, though, was one of balance, at least from where I was sitting. Bartlett, for all his wonderful facility in the toccata-like passages, failed to fill the hall as required in the big moments.

After the interval, Aaron Copland’s Quiet City was introverted but eloquent. The cor anglais and trumpet of RPO principals Amelia Coleman and James Fountain were noble in tone and beautifully blended, and the string ensemble gave sympathetic and graceful support.

Whitacre’s Equus was originally for wind ensemble but has grown in stages into the latest version for large orchestra and wordless chorus. The original version is much more taut and biting, the addition of the chorus taking the piece into heroic film music territory (think Gladiator), which does it no favours. Whitacre described the choral version of Equus as “Carmina Burana on steroids”, and the effect is as short on taste as that suggests.Climax of Whitacre Prom

The finale was the European premiere of Deep Field, inspired by images produced by the Hubble space telescope, involving more audience participation in the form of a pre-downloaded app, triggered at the appropriate moment in the piece. Before that there was 20 minutes of slow music with a Brucknerian broadness, building into a series of well-judged climaxes. The massive scale and slow evolution of the music matched the subject matter of the vastness of space, and in places the harmony showed an adventurousness absent elsewhere. The end saw the singers file into the stalls aisles (pictured above) to sing repeating pairs of chords in the vein of “Neptune” from The Planets, at which point the apps were triggered, resulting in a shower of glittering electronic sounds around the hall. It was striking but not the amazing effect I had anticipated. I don’t know if the Proms audience is particularly technophobic, but there were not that many people near me using the app and I think with more participants – and perhaps a clearer signal from Whitacre – the moment could have been truly magical.


Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

Whitacre name-checked Vaughan Williams, but if he was aiming for something akin to 'The Lark Ascending' he fell sadly short


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Enjoyed reading your review, sad to hear that you felt the programme didn't quite reach a high. I enjoy Eric Whitacres music, as much for the diversity as the personality and approach he takes to making it, evolving what he writes and taking it to various audiences. I wonder whether the expectations of a Prom audience and indeed large scale British venues expect a certain 'level' of performance and as such the act of listening is somehow limited as well as the artistry of the maker underappreciated. Many times I have heard it suggested his music isn't new or it doesn't hold up to other composers. These measurements are what we traditionally use to judge, I think Eric Whitacre music needs you to go a bit deeper in yourself to join it. Work a bit harder - shame about the apps not being used.

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