Classical Review: Weir hits right note - naturally
Friday 03 September 1999
ROYAL ALBERT HALL/RADIO 3 LONDON
JUDITH WEIR'S Natural History again affirms that among young composers today, few are as gifted as she is. Her music breathes coolly, calmly and intelligently with a clarity of tonal language that positively invites you in. Natural History is a four-part orchestral song cycle, based on Taoist texts - Horse, Singer, Swimmer and Fish/Bird. It marks a return for Weir to things Chinese, which have been so influential in her career, not least in her highly original A Night At The Chinese Opera.
Weir says she was drawn to these ancient texts by their "concision, clarity, lightness and (hidden) wisdom". Natural History, a kind of Taoist Carnival Of The Animals, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and "written for the voice of Dawn Upshaw", soloist on Tuesday at its European premiere (the rapturous world premiere was in Boston last January, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle). Upshaw has a delightfully light floating sound perfectly suited to these exquisitely simple but wise tales. The impact says much for Weir's delicate scoring, a feast to the ear which although employing the full orchestra and substantial percussion, always leaves adequate space for the voice.
In the same concert, clarity of a different kind came from the BBC Philharmonic under Mark Elder, in a spectacular performance of Richard Strauss's much-maligned Symphonia domestica. Played like this, Strauss's "sofa music" is transformed into a virtuoso concerto.
With an acronym like BOAC, it is hardly surprising that Bang On A Can play a piece called Music For Airports 1:1. But since Brian Eno describes the work as "ambient", it does seem perverse to expect an audience actively to listen to it. But Tuesday's late night concert, with New York's darling of "cross-over" bands, shows how chic the Proms have become. From David Lang's music of "ominous funk" to Steve Martland's heady Horses Of Instruction (one of his best works), this virtuoso group of six, playing heavily amplified electric instruments (including something that looked like an ironing board), thundered and spluttered, crashing all notion of boundaries between pop and art. The next night's all Russian evening with Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic - again on sizzling form - felt ultimately unsatisfying. It was a Pushkin anniversary celebration, drawing on works set by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rakhmaninov. As a student exercise, Rakhmaninov's Aleko is prodigious but it needed more fire from the soloists - Vassily Gerello, Vsevolod Grivnov and Matthew Best - only Elena Prokina breathing real life into the score. In a "bleeding chunk" of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, including the final scene, Prokina again dominated. The appetite was wetted. More Onegin was required.
Tuesday's early evening Prom will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 at 2pm on 9 September
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