This Prom was one of the most imaginative and well
thought out programmes, with all the works based around man’s mortality.
Adams brought the right degree of agitated nervousness
and melancholic grace to the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony no.44
in E minor, 'Trauer', while the Menuetto was conducted
and played with a sprightly, cool restraint. The core of the performance
was the tranquil Adagio which was played with great elegance,
with the string sounds giving the impression of a distant ghostly haze
(an effect which was to return in Adams’ Transmigration of Souls
which ended the concert). The final movement was conducted with attack
and brio, with the strings assuming a weightier, sinewy toughness. Throughout
the entire symphony, the reduced BBC Symphony Orchestra played with
Hélène Grimaud’s crisp and subtle playing
of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.3 (1945) avoided any trace
of the egocentric antics of a star soloist by blending in with the tone
and colours of the orchestra rather than competing with it. She constantly
kept her eyes on the orchestra and was totally integrated, typified
by her delicate interchanges between piano and woodwind in the first
Grimaud’s playing of the Adagio was spare, stark
and deeply sensitive, perfectly complemented by equally expressive string
playing. The staccato exchanges between pianist and pointed woodwind
deliciously evoked a forest full of bird song. For the concluding movement,
the pianist took on a darker, percussive tone mirroring the intensity
of the timpani, shrill woodwind and biting brass. Throughout, Grimaud’s
finger work was agile, versatile and immaculate and she had total rapport
with conductor and orchestra, resulting in a wholly admirable performance.
Aaron Copland’s evocative Quiet City (1939-40)
was given flawless and sensitive solos from Celia Craig’s solemn cor
anglais and William Houghton’s sombre trumpet, complimenting one another
from opposing ends of the platform. Adams conducted with an assured
line, making the music flow perfectly, with the sweeping BBC SO strings
producing glowing, subdued colours.
Adams was recently appointed as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s
Artist-in-Association and he brought to the Proms the European premiere
of his Transmigration of Souls which he composed in response
to the events of 9/11. Composing music (or writing poetry) about the
traumatic effects of the destruction of the World Trade Centre can easily
lead to the sensational or mawkishly sentimental, with all the rhetoric
of ‘victimhood’, but Adams steered clear of this by composing a moving,
Adams said of his score before its New York premiere
on 19th September, 2002: "My desire in writing this
piece is to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets
upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals in France or Italy.
When you walk into Chârtres Cathedral, you experience an immediate
sense of something otherworldly."
The work opened with street sounds, sirens and the
word ‘missing’ being repeated with the hushed chorus eventually floating
through. There was something extraordinarily otherworldly in the way
Adams transcribed for the three choruses the words spoken by parents
of the victims in ‘Portraits of Grief’ (published in the New
York Times), using phrases taken from missing persons’ posters and
memorials posted in the vicinity of the ruins in Lower Manhattan. Adams’
genius lay in making these simple and direct words into the poetry of
loss and grief, and the words were hauntingly delivered by the Southend
Girl’s and Boy’s Choirs. Instead of poppy petals we were showered with
names; electronic voices coming from high up in the dome, intoned the
names of the missing, which had an overwhelming impact, greatly enhanced
by the vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall.
The orchestration was sparse, subtle, tight and economic
with the composer expressing maximal musical sensations with minimal
orchestral means. The brass writing had a particularly intense and razor
edge to it, whilst the woodwind sounded wracked with pain and despair.
The most poignant phrases were the closing: ‘I see
water and buildings’ and ‘I love you’. Such simple statements
took on an eerie, uncanny sensation, providing a transcendental memorial
to the souls of the dead haunting the hall. An extraordinary experience,
of a memorable event, on an unforgettable evening.
Freudian Marc Cousins stated: "For it is in
remembering the name of another that one moves from mourning to memorial."
(Tate Magazine, Winter 1996). John Adams’ sensitive score moves
us from mourning to memorial.