Arts: A conga through the Albert Hall


TUESDAY'S PROM began with a march pretending to be a scherzo pretending to be a street dance - in ragtime, wouldn't you know - and ended with a conga through the Albert Hall arena. The American Dream, wide-awake. Charles Ives - the founding father of musical America - made the alarm- call, telling it like it was, is, has not, nor ever been.

The songs, scherzi, and "take-offs" which almost constituted the first half of this prom were like tissues of every romantic notion and cynical afterthought you've ever had about the good old US-of-A. Thomas Ades, conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, juggled the marching- bands, fireside songs, wrong-note rags without dropping any balls - except on purpose. And the ridiculous was sublime, the simple truths magical. And moving. Who but Ives could drum General William Booth into Heaven (Thomas Hampson and London Voices wacking out the "Hallelujahs") and have us simultaneously chuckling and overawed?

Probably not Conlon Nancarrow - though as a chip off the Ives block, this maverick of the "player-piano" certainly hints at Ives's keyboard style, using rhythm like broken biscuits to concoct exotic confections. His Study for Orchestra (realised by Carlos Sandoval) may not have been what Ira Gershwin had in mind when he wrote the words "fascinating rhythm" (maybe that should now read "schizophrenic rhythm") but it does field one terrific joke: the spectacle of Tim Murray sitting impassively at a pre-programmed Yamaha Disklavier finally to reply to its whizz-bang figurations with a single chord.

Meanwhile, the pay-off was a cracking rendition of Leonard Bernstein's second Broadway score, Wonderful Town - the one written in five weeks when the original composer, Leroy Anderson, failed to impress the star, Rosalind Russell. This is Lenny's postscript to On the Town writ large in all the gaudiest colours from his Big Apple paintbox on a band that got hot from racing with the clock. The speed of composition is reflected in the heat of inspiration and Simon Rattle's performance, more than his recent recording, conveyed that sense of imperative - of a show being written and performed on the hoof. Besides, any conductor who can take the sigh from the vocal line of "A Little Bit in Love" (gorgeously sung by Audra McDonald) and persuade his strings to turn it into something almost indecent can't be all that bad. The sibling revelry of sisters Ruth and Eileen taking their first big bite of the "Big A" found Kim Criswell and Audra McDonald really playing up their vocal differences, like acid and alkaline. So, great band, feisty chorus (London Voices, New York attitude), and a timely reminder of two of the smartest mouths in the history of the genre - lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Don't look directly at the sun, they said, so in Wednesday's Prom we listened directly to it. Poul Ruders's Gong - receiving a belated UK premiere - was not to be eclipsed, even partially. The awsome resonance of many gongs, the deep palpitation of the bass drum, like a solar heartbeat, a corona of high muted trumpets. The ruler of the Universe bade us dance, and we did - a throbbing, pulsating, pounding, blinding (Ruders's words) sun dance. This big and many-faceted score received a rather safe, literal performance from Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the BBC Symphony. Indeed, throughout the evening, Saraste's flabby stick technique appeared to be waving the music on instead of seizing it. You can't hope to liberate Nielsen's Third Symphony with your nose buried in the score.

Edward Seckerson

Wednesday's Prom will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 on Monday at 2pm

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