Proms 72/73: BBCSO/Belohlavek; Penguin Cafe/Tickell, Royal Albert Hall (4/5, 4/5)
Thursday 09 September 2010
How should we listen to a complicated piece of new music? The premiere of Tansy Davies’s ‘Wild Card’ raised this simple-seeming question – to which the correct answer is not ‘let it wash over you’ – in a particularly pointed way.
This 37-year-old is one of the bright lights of the new-music scene, drawing her inspiration from visual art and architecture to create sparky musical meditations, and exploiting Dowland, Bach, and Scarlatti for their remix possibilities. This new piece, she told us in a programme note, sprang out of her fascination with the Tarot: for her, this mystical card-system was ‘flexible, light, profound, linear, multi-dimensional, game-like, and complex’. So we were warned – and perhaps too well prepared, as she devoted a whole page to describing in detail what we were going to hear, though not in the order in which we would hear it.
As a result I found myself trying to identify the recurring ‘characters’ as the work proceeded. It was quite easy to recognise ‘The Devil’ (‘a bestial dance for low woodwinds’) and ‘The Tower’ (‘yearning horn cries’ which ‘give way to things floating, tumbling, running and sliding downwards’), but since most of the elements were similarly bright, brittle, and emphatic, I soon gave up trying to differentiate between them, and just let it all happen.
There was little discernible structure, but the piece was fun, with a riot of cunningly-contrived blown, shaken, plucked, and struck textures: Davies, who is also a horn player, was an improviser before she became a composer, and her writing suggests she knows exactly how each instrument feels to play. But it all came across like a work in progress. Rather than leaning on words and ideas, perhaps it should have a video counterpart.
The traditional fare which made up the rest of this Prom was outstanding. At a boisterous pace, with super-bright brass, the prelude to the Bridal Chorus in ‘Lohengrin’ passed quite literally like a gust of wind, but what Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra did with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was simply majestic. After which it just remained for a reincarnated Penguin Cafe plus piper-fiddler Kathryn Tickell – all splendidly clad in Camden Market chic - to ferry us, with ineffable sweetness, off into the night.
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