BBC Proms 2009: Prom 72, BBC Symphony Orchestra

09.10.09
Jennifer Koh
Telegraph (UK)

By Ivan Hewett

The BBC Proms 2009 concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek was let down by a vapid piece by Augusta Read Thomas.
 
"A fine ear for sonority". That's a phrase you often hear when people have no strong feelings about a piece, but feel they really ought to say something nice about its composer. I heard it several times at last night's Prom.

Not, I hasten to add, about Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is what opened the concert. And yet no composer has ever showed a more "fine ear for sonority" than Mendelssohn in this miraculous piece.
 
In the nocturnal "Overture", the combination of rustling violins and ghostly hollow tuba below – with a great yawning void in between – is pure genius. But to praise the music in that way misses the point, because those amazing colours are there to serve other more important things: the delicate poetic atmosphere and the really ingenious, taut musical argument, for example. Not to mention the wonderful melodies.

After the Mendelssohn – which, by the way, was clean and clear but had little of the Romantic glow one hopes for in the "Nocturne" – we arrived at the evening's premiere. This was the violin concerto Jugglers in Paradise by Augusta Read Thomas, an American composer who in terms of high-profile commissions and prizes is definitely on that country's A-list of living composers. One has to wonder why, if the vapid doodlings of this piece are typical of her output.

This was the moment when the phrase "fine ear for sonorities" leapt to mind. What a lot of pretty colours there were, all drawn from the light, sweet, sugary end of the aural spectrum. We heard silvery bells, vibraphones, high strings, with the superb soloist Jennifer Koh making dancing patterns between them.

The sound-world might have made an enticing introduction to something more substantial – but unfortunately it never arrived. At one point, the twinklings contained a clear echo of Alban Berg, which was a very odd moment.

I never thought this dark, complex composer could be turned into "Berg-lite", but Ms Read Thomas somehow managed it. Truly she is an aural magician.

Hearing this dud did have one benefit. It made Beethoven's leisurely Pastoral Symphony seem like a model of purposeful, dynamic argument – though the performance played a part in that too. Conductor Jiri Belohlavek showed that the best way to let the pastoral charm of the music shine through is to make it disciplined and taut, so the moments of relaxation really tell.