CLASSICAL MUSIC Pelecis's Jack and the Beanstalk Royal Albert Hall, London

The hall buzzes with shouts, jeers, the odd chant. In the upper tiers, football terrace-style clapping breaks out, others pick it up, there's even a brief Mexican wave. This isn't the usual classical concert atmosphere, but Christmas looms and last Friday's Royal Albert Hall performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra included the premiere of the Latvian composer Georgs Pelecis's Jack and the Beanstalk, with text adapted by Donald Sturrick from Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes. The kids may be here for Danny DeVito's Giant, not to assess Latvian music in the post-Soviet era, but the willingness to party is infectious.

Was it, then, a good idea to programme Schumann's Piano Concerto in the first half? Soloist Aleksandar Madzar was impressive in the recent Leeds International Piano Competition, and here his playing was fluid and strongly rhythmic, but much of it was buried beneath a blanket of coughing and whispering, symptoms of inattention. A baby cried, cameras flashed, the orchestra, conducted by Peter Ash, seemed merely incidental, applause broke out some time before the final notes sounded, as if the audience was relieved to have reached the end. In a preamble to the Pelecis, Pam Ferris praised the Roald Dahl Foundation's efforts "to entice children into the concert hall", but might it have done more for musical appreciation to perform something loud, modern and irreverent, instead of predictable, acceptable and irrelevant (in this context) Schumann?

Oh well, what really mattered were Jack and the Beanstalk and its starry cast: Simon Callow as the Narrator, Joanna Lumley as Mother, Phil Hill as Jack and DeVito as the Giant. Given that DeVito got the loudest applause, it was disappointing that, apart from some brief by-play with the orchestra, his contribution was in sound only, but in the event, the star turn was the 120ft beanstalk which grew before our eyes, eventually reaching the roof. No problem with wandering attention at this point, and with orchestra and actors now amplified, there were fewer interruptions from extra-musical accompanists.

Pelecis responded readily to the story's knockabout drama, delivered by the cast with pantomime gusto, and his sense of orchestral balance was precise. Insistent rhythms, repeating string figures, often in a folkish mode, and a percussion line-up that included washboard, all made for visceral excitement. At one moment, we seemed to be on a sleigh-ride orchestrated by Sibelius, the next would be punctuated by something raspy out of Shostakovich. While much of the time Pelecis was content to provide efficient musical drama, rather like a film-score (and that isn't derogatory), a sextet of saxophones added unusual colours to suggest that an original imagination was at work. Most of the time speech and music were kept apart, but the most beguiling moments came when they worked together.

If in the end the piece ran out of steam, that's perhaps because the story did too: now that children are so Jung and easily Freudened, turning Jack and the Beanstalk into a homily in favour of frequent baths seems rather inadequate, but there wasn't much Pelecis could do about that.

The concert will be broadcast by Classic FM on Boxing Day

Nick Kimberley

Comments