Cubans turn up the heat

Proms 25-28 | Royal Albert Hall, London, Radio 3
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Thursday's Retro night brought out the Seventies survivors: hairy ex-rockers, dutiful trend-followers, bewildered faces, and a massive queue. That was the impact of a James Dillon premiÿre, all except the queue, who were waiting for the Cuban session later on.

Thursday's Retro night brought out the Seventies survivors: hairy ex-rockers, dutiful trend-followers, bewildered faces, and a massive queue. That was the impact of a James Dillon premiÿre, all except the queue, who were waiting for the Cuban session later on.

Inside, the faithful few had a stirring and dismaying time. Dillon's Violin Concerto, which featured astounding solo virtuosity by Thomas Zehetmair, revealed another change in this ever-developing composer's ways. The torrential stream of organised consciousness has softened. The subtler orchestral shades remain, but where there was once rage and fury, dancing rhythms and lyrical aspiration have begun to move in. Like the late music of Xenakis it takes getting used to. Just as you learnt to respect the wild man, he's gone mellow.

It was a shame for the BBC Scottish to play Elgar and Brahms to these empty spaces, and the latter's Second Symphony suffered bizarre accidents from an out-of-phase horn solo to a mobile phone trilling like the flutes in Strauss's Four Last Songs. Martyn Brabbins, undeterred, conducted increasingly fast and light from a Schubert-like start. Elgar's Falstaff was undercharacterised, its brass too blatant, and sounded best in quiet woodwind moments.

A packed house for the Cubans said all you need to know about the shift in music's front line. Cunningly, the BBC's choice was more current than the Buena Vista nostalgia trip - only one generation behind the times. Vocal Sampling sang, acapella, the instrumental parts of mainly traditional numbers, a brilliant trick considering there's more counterpoint here than in the whole of the first concert. Half an hour was just enough, leaving an excited house which the big band of Los Van Van didn't quite fire up. The driving rhythms, quick-change vocals and machine-like precision were terrific; not so the poor amplified balance, cheap lighting and shortage of strong instrumental solos, or rather audible ones. Still, this concert had a bigger crowd and a healthier atmosphere than a Last Night. It shows exactly how that appalling institution could be made properly global, if anybody has the courage to make it stick.

Meanwhile on Friday the National Youth Orchestra had to play a royal birthday tribute. Heard on Radio 3, Walton's Crown Imperial was unusually staid, though it probably felt different with one of Sir Roger Norrington's podium ballets to watch. The show smartened up with Handel's Fireworks Music - played by all 150, including eight harps - and especially the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.

In Handel's Messiah on Saturday, the English Concert's romantic introductions, and the choir's even balance contributed to a polished, almost cosy air. That, for a take on the source of one of the world's great religions, is not enough. Then the warlike central sequence reached a Hallelujah Chorus of terrifying triumphalism - just what European Christianity was about, if not its founder.

Comments