For those brought up on a diet of Elgar and Butterworth, it can be hard to remember that American composers write pastoral music. But America has plenty of wide open spaces to write about, as was smartly demonstrated by Elmer Bernstein – veteran composer of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape – and the BBC Concert Orchestra in their Hollywood Prom. Passing swiftly through the lurid landscapes of medieval England, Old Testament Israel, and ancient Rome, and the squalor of the Lower East Side, Bernstein took us across country to Georgia, Texas, and the prairies of the Midwest: the setting
for some of the finest scores by Aaron Copland – the only featured composer to escape from, rather than to, Hollywood.
Copland's score for Milestone's 1948 Steinbeck film The Red Pony, aptly illustrated the pitfalls in presenting a programme like this. Firstly, his music explained the frustrations of aspiring concert composers such as Herrmann, namely that Copland was the better composer. Period. Secondly, most film music relies on remembered visual association; hence the confusion passing over the faces of those who mistook the last movement of Korngold's Robin Hood for Steiner's Gone with the Wind (it didn't sound like Tara, but then it didn't sound like Merrie England either) and the genuine interest in Copland's score for an obscure Robert Mitchum movie. Thirdly, that if you're going to do this stuff, you have to remember that even the most commercial composer will do something technically demanding at some point – just to prove that he's heard of twelve-tone – so in order to avoid falling flat on their faces, the orchestra in question has to be very, very good. Which is why the LSO can pull off a sci-fi evening with über-geezer Jerry Goldsmith, dignity intact, and the BBC Concert Orchestra should leave the complexities of Copland to others.
Against the irony of the best music being the least well played, I should point out that after the Copland, the evening took a dramatic and distinctly urban up-turn. Given a clear, rhythmic base and some crunchy block chords, the BBCCO perform with a kind of loony verve that can raise a smile from even the dourest critic. And given a star soloist – in this case saxophonist John Harle – they'll rise to the occasion with more enthusiasm than many a more polished orchestra. They swooned effectively through Raksin's intense Laura, menaced in Waxman's A Place in the Sun, and gave muscle to Harles's shrieking contempt in Herrmann's Taxi Driver. In Bernstein's slickly powerful The Man with the Golden Arm, one of the bassists even twirled his instrument. Through all of this, Bernstein remained super cool. Did he have air-conditioning beneath that glossy mane? I guess that once you've hit 79 years of age, a Proms debut can be taken in your stride.
As besotted as I was with Bernstein, I'd take issue with his claim that Copland "invented American music." Those of us at Sunday night's Prom know better: the inventor of American music was Charles Ives, whose music was largely popularised by Bernard Herrmann. Though the tension in conductor David Robertson's beat was worrying, the BBCSO's performance of Ives's Three Places in New England was divine. In cinematic terms, this is "magic hour" music. Robertson's Boulez also sparkled as new (only one movement, Notations VII, actually was), but he failed to support Paul Watkins's sensitive playing of Tobias Picker's cello concerto. With two operas about to be premiered at the Met and Dallas, Picker's instrumental writing has acquired a vocal plangency. Each movement was in fact inspired by a poem, so the concerto can be seen as four songs without words. It wasn't the best performance, the speeds seemed unsettled, but it was another reminder that Americans really can do pastoral too. Even Manhattanites.Reuse content