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Snape Proms 2006 (1): Copland, Ravel, Gershwin and Shostakovich Youth Orchestra of the Americas,Gabriela Montero (piano) Benjamin Zander (conductor) Snape Maltings, Suffolk 08.08.2006. (JPr)

You had to be there, you really did! Had you been you should have been in no doubt that it will be a ‘shoe-in’ for concert of the year. It was the perfect antidote to the apparent fossilisation of classical music and a realisation that music has something to say to us cynics in the twentieth-century.

The undoubted master of ceremonies for all this was the conductor Benjamin Zander: although born in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire he has spent most of his life in the US and is probably not as well known over here as he should be. He teaches at Boston’s New England Conservatory and is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. It was very much a homecoming for Zander as he told the audience that after spending three summers in Aldeburgh at the age of 10, 11 and 12, at the request of Benjamin Britten to discuss composition with him and also be taught by Imogen Holst, this was the first time he had come back!

The Youth Orchestra of the Americas he brought to the Snape Proms has its origins in the New England Conservatory, and he paid tribute to its President, Daniel Steiner, who died in June by saying ‘We loved him for what he did and what he gave and without him we would not be here’. It gives more than 110 musicians from ‘Different strata of society from the tip of Alaska to the bottom of Patagonia’ the opportunity to perform under leading conductors and receive coaching from exceptionally distinguished musicians.

Reminiscences of Britten suffused the programme as Zander recounted that he would have loved the Ravel (Rapsodie Espagnole) and the opening Copland Fanfare for the Common Man as Copland had come to Aldeburgh as so did Shostakovich (Fifth Symphony) who studied the score of Death in Venice with Britten. Even the pianist for the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, the young Venezuelan Gabriela Montero, had won the Britten Prize when studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London!

The Fanfare was a suitably thunderously dramatic opening even if the brass was not yet completely at ease with their task. The Ravel Rapsodie Espagnole always seems to display its piano duet origin never so much as here where it was all a little diluted across such a full orchestra but there was much suitable gypsy life, colour and atmosphere on offer.

From the Gershwin onwards everyone seemed more relaxed and at one with the music. It is hard not to like Rhapsody in Blue - it is so well known that it is like revisiting an old friend. I don’t think I have ever heard it in the concert hall but I know it so well. But it always makes me expect  Tony Martin singing the 1941 ‘Tenement Symphony’ which begins:

chubert wrote a symphony
Too bad he didn’t finish it.
Gershwin took a chord in ‘G’
Proceeded to diminish it.

The music built up a cumulative head of steam driven on by Gabriela Montero’s dazzling pianistic skill that was never more in evidence than in the glistening Cadenza. Indeed that Ms Montero is a very talented keyboard virtuoso was revealed by her two encores; spontaneous unaccompanied improvisations on previously unknown melodies, one supplied by the orchestra and the Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ given to her by her conductor. The former melded the sounds of Bach Chorales and highly syncopated Ragtime and the latter brought us sounds of Iberia and Bizet.

Shostakovich's politically-charged Fifth Symphony was written in the middle of 1937. At this time in the Soviet Union there was Stalin's ‘Great Terror’ when innumerable people were arrested, tortured, exiled or executed. The composer’s own sister Mariya was sent to Central Asia that year and many other relatives and friends disappeared over time.

On 28 January 1936, Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, had been criticised in Pravda, the Russian newspaper, and the anonymous article (believed to be written by Stalin himself) accused the composer that he ‘apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life.’

By May 1936 Shostakovich had finished his Fourth Symphony but he withdrew it from rehearsal in December and it did not receive its first performance until as late as 1961. Those who could understand his Fifth Symphony recognised it as Shostakovich's response to the attack on his music and character that began with the Pravda article but the message was well enough hidden to make the work acceptable to the authorities.

The composer’s son Maxim considers that ‘The third movement is the highest achievement of lyricism in all of Shostakovich's work. Very intimate. Shostakovich divides the violins into three parts to increase the number of voices. It is the last night at home of a man sentenced to the gulag; but the problem is eternal! I see a man who spends his last night before execution with his family. He hears his children breathe. He feels the warmth of his wife. But he does not cry.’

Just how Shostakovich’s message was concealed was explained by Zander. Whereas the fourth movement is supposed to end in a great paean of praise as a triumphal march in fact if the composer’s markings are followed 176 to a crochet (not 176 to a quaver) then ‘a triumphal march at half speed is not a triumphal march but becomes a cry of pain behind a curtain of sound in brass and strings’.

For me, it was a first hearing of a work suffused with reminiscences of times past, horrors of times present and a requiem for those who suffered. The final crashing, indeed crushing, timpani at the conclusion of the symphony eliminates all optimism … there is no immediate hope for it to get any better. I wonder whether the Youth Orchestra at the end of a gruelling European tour could ever have played better. The plaintive and poignant solo violin of the orchestra’s leader will live long in my memory but I will not name any individual as so great was their combined technical proficiency and so strong was the ensemble spirit throughout the evening.


The advertised programme finished and the concert was already long past its expected finishing time but yet there were more surprises in store. Zander concluded we needed some British music and as the Max Bygraves of classical music he told us another story how during his last summer in Aldeburgh, his father, a Jewish refugee from Germany met the conductor Hans Oppenheim, another similar refugee. He was in the midst of a crisis about a performance and could not find Britten who had gone off to play string quartets (‘not well’ as Zander noted). Zander’s father said ‘That is the genius of the English – how ever much trouble there is they always go off and play string quartets!’

To conclude the formal music we were given a very elegiac account of ‘Nimrod’, the ninth of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Disturbingly Zander told the audience how 4 of the young players were refused visas to come to England (2 from Columbia and 2 from Cuba) but concluded that his musicians were ‘Extraordinary people united in their love of music. Together they speak powerfully for good in the way only music can’. 

I have seen all the great comics and entertainers alive in my generation from George Burns and Bob Hope to Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. What they all have is the ability to work an audience and win them over. This is a talent Zander has and he brought the capacity Snape Proms audience to their feet at the end of this astonishing concert and it was indeed no mean feat to get that from this audience. Once again, apart from a smattering of younger people, mostly associated with the young musicians in the orchestra, the majority of those present must have been 60 or more years old but they were definitively young at heart, most clapped and swayed to the Samba beat of the music played at the end of the evening. So Rio was brought to Suffolk and there was an impromptu carnival celebration for the end of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas European sojourn and the young people hugged each other and danced together with great joy on the platform.

Jim Pritchard





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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)