Making my way to my seat, I encounter Proms director Roger Wright in unusually pensive mood.
Schumann didn’t sell out the Royal Albert Hall yesterday, he says, and it’s even thinner for his ‘Spring’ Symphony tonight: he glumly quotes his predecessor John Drummond’s famous dictum, that there’s no hall that looks so empty as this one when it’s half full.
Schumann may be quintessential core repertoire, but as Thierry Fischer leads the National Orchestra of Wales into this ardently hopeful symphony, I too begin to wonder. It’s not that the music’s banal, though echoes of the genuinely banal Mendelssohn crop up at many points: it just isn’t fired by genius the way Schumann’s piano music is. When I was a child, I loved it because it epitomised the Proms, but now it seems about as interesting as an old pair of pyjamas. The excellent performance given by Fischer and his band did nothing to dispel my growing conviction that, by religiously scheduling this hallowed piece of the repertoire, Wright and his colleagues are flogging, if not a dead horse, certainly one which will never again get up and run. It’s a period piece, not a spurt of the eternal flame.
New works, we are told on the other hand, don’t put bums on seats, but those who happened by accident on the London premiere of Simon Holt’s percussion concerto got a wonderful surprise. Its ingenious title, ‘a table of noises’, denotes both a little Peruvian drum and also the table at which Holt’s taxidermist great-uncle worked. Holt’s aim, with percussion-king Colin Currie at the controls, was to create a series of sonic tableaux evoking aspects of his relative’s strange craft.
Each of the seven movements got an explicit visual cue, but although the linkage with the music was tenuous, that didn’t matter. What mattered was the series of enchanted musical worlds which Currie created, with taut, terse, high-pitched pings and pocks from wood, skin, and metal. The slimmed-down orchestra consisted of woodwind, brass, harp, strings, and xylophones, with which Currie’s own xylophone created celestial harmonies; at some moments we might have been in a Japanese Noh theatre. This fascinating work deserves a properly theatrical staging, next time it is performed.