BBC Proms: Prom 36/Prom 37, review: 'Symphonic scope'

Musical responses to conflict recurred throughout the evening

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The Independent Culture

“Is there a sound addressed not wholly to the ear?” William Carlos Williams’ question echoes and re-echoes through the sonic patterning of Steve Reich’s 1983 The Desert Music, centrepiece of Prom 37, but it’s one that could have served as subtitle to the whole evening.

Musical responses to conflict – works intended for mind as much as ear – recurred through the evening, moving from Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in Prom 36 (composed in 1914) to Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, written shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and The Desert Music with its textual response to the bombing of Nagasaki.

The BBCSO and Sakari Oramo were joined by soloist Janine Jansen for the Vaughan Williams, a performance that downplayed loveliness in favour of a more thoughtful, introverted meditation that banished any easy-listening associations, despite Oramo’s indulgent speeds.

Late Night Reich saw conflict take aural form. Meaning was wrestled from words in the Babel of distorting sound that is Reich’s early tape piece It’s Gonna Rain, before Endymion and the BBC Singers took up the narrative with a vital and virtuosic performance of The Desert Music. This might have been the chamber arrangement of the work, but pulsing through the Royal Albert Hall, setting a substantial crowd twitching to its rhythmic impetus, the performance had symphonic scope.