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Seen and Heard Concert
PROM 5: Ives, Bernstein, Hayden Orli Shaham (piano), Ralph van Raat (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, David Robertson (conductor), Matthew Rowe (assistant conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.07.2007 (AO)
Charles Ives Fourth Symphony is one of the most important works in the modern canon: itís such an amazing work that an opportunity to hear it shouldnít be missed. Certainly, it was, for me, one of the highlights of the entire Proms season this year. Itís even better experienced live, when the full breadth of Ivesí imagination can be appreciated. So why was the Royal Albert Hall so empty? This year there were no bomb threats, traffic disruptions and no heatwave. Ives and Bernstein are big enough names, and part of the Proms tradition has been the unveiling of new work. For whatever reason, those who didnít attend missed a superlative performance of one of the 20th centuryís masterpieces. Luckily, it was recorded (rather well!) for television. Donít miss the repeats.
Another good reason for attending this Prom was David Robertson. Heís a specialist in new music and a major champion of Ives in particular. In a sprawling piece of music like this, clarity matters. Robertson has clearly thought the piece through thoroughly, understanding how details work together to create an intricate whole. Often when I think of this symphony, I think of Ives on a busy intersection of a street in New York, surrounded by hundreds of people all busy on their separate journeys, converging for a moment before dispersing again. Ives creates an impressionistic collage, where all the diverse elements have separate "lives" and connotations of their own, and donít mingle. Yet, like the busy cityscape, together they create something beyond their individual selves. Thatís why Robertsonís attention to detail is so important. Each strand of music is there for a purpose, the country band, the chorus, the hymns, because all of them contribute to whatever panorama of sound Ives is trying to create.
It needs a performance as lucid as this, where the criss crossing strands are woven together with the precision ofÖ.. a marching band, (as Ives would have known!), marching in formation, criss crossing as they go, yet never missing a beat as they play. Itís most definitely a symphony that needs to be seen as well as heard, because you can pick up on the slightest nuances of body language, ad see how every player is listening, intently, quick to respond. Ives himself never heard it played, and indeed it wasnít performed at all until after his death when Stokowski took it up. It was such a challenge that it took many more rehearsals than was the norm, even then. Robertson made it look easy, but it isnít. Thatís why there are two conductors, and others helping offstage. The rapport between Robertson and Rowe Ė and their vast forces Ė was electric. This performance confirmed just how important and visionary Ivesí music is.
At its heart is a piano: a lone voice amid the tumult, weaving in and out. It was a brilliant idea to juxtapose the Ives symphony with Bernsteinís Second Symphony, "The Age of Anxiety", where the orchestra circulates even more explicitly around the central figure of the pianist. Orli Shaham deserved a bunch of roses like the one van Raat received later. Based loosely on a poem by W H Auden, the work wordlessly follows a tight seven part structure where ideas develop in logical progression. This is not the self-indulgent, flashy Bernstein of popular misconception, but far more introspective. Robertson knows his music well, and appreciates that it is, in essence, a kind of nocturne, meant to be contemplative and thoughtful. Bombast is the last thing it needs. Just as Ives weaves in musical elements he hears around him, so does Bernstein. The references to jazz, to movie music, to Stravinsky and to Gershwin are deliberate, because Bernstein, too, is creating a panorama of his age, and specifically the musical landscape of America at the time. Again, Robertsonís profound knowledge of the musical context gave the symphony interpretative depth and coherence. Bernstein was a far more complex personality than his public image might suggest, and this performance makes me wonder what he could do with other Bernstein works.
Although the programme listed a complete performance of Sam Haydenís new piece, Substratum, only the last three of its seven sections were in fact performed, which makes it hard to assess. However, it seemed fairly straightforward, nothing to scare away audiences. Great blocks of sound rotated slowly, carrying in their wake swathes of orchestral colour. As he says, his music evolves both from minimalism and the "new complexity", so thereís something for all : his mentors were Andriessen and Finnissy. But what vast forces he uses Ė the orchestra was of Brucknerian proportions! Surprisingly, that made Bernsteinís restraint all the more impressive.
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Seen and Heard, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.
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