In terms of productivity, Mark-Anthony Turnage sits comfortably at the bottom of the league among contemporary British composers, but as a significant voice, he’s up at the top.
His first opera, ‘Greek’, gleefully set the cat among the bourgeois pigeons; his second, ‘The Silver Tassie’, gave English National opera its most solid contemporary hit. His next opera, ‘Anna Nicole’, about the strange life and death of American super-model Anna Nicole Smith, will be unveiled at Covent Garden next March: in a neat little tease, we were told that the opening bars of his new orchestral piece ‘Hammered Out’ would reflect that opera’s climax.
And with the massive clangour of fortissimo chords from the whole orchestra, climactic was the word, but thereafter he segued into a very different mode. Jazz has been Turnage’s lifelong love, and here it surfaced again, with echoes of Fifties Broadway: ‘Hammered Out’ could stand not only for the percussion which chugs through it, but also for the way notes and phrases ricochet between trumpets, trombones, horns, and flutes. The super-bright textures, liberated riffs, and boogying momentum were so infectious that conductor David Robertson was almost dancing on his podium; one expected a stage-full of hoofers to materialise at any moment. ‘Serious’ new music seldom comes in so un-mysterious and un-ironical a guise: this work’s fifteen minutes went by in a joyful flash.
And there was joy in Barber’s Violin Concerto as Gil Shaham played it: spinning out its lyrical flights, his sound recalled Twenties Vienna, and the audience response confirmed how much-loved this sun-drenched work from Thirties America still is. As an encore he gave us Bach’s great Chaconne, its angularities smoothed in a very Viennese way.
No angularities to smooth in the convivial late night Prom which followed, in which jazz singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum, backed by his own band plus the Heritage Orchestra, used his signature-tune ‘Twentysomething’ - plus a dozen other showbiz hits - to wow his twentysomething rock-crowd listeners. He may have a fairly ordinary voice, but he’s a nifty pianist and a born showman. Ecstatically received, this was one of the Proms’ token moments of hat-doffing to musics outside the European-classical palisade. Should there be more such moments? Discuss.