The long march of everywoman

Proms 29-31 | Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3
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Just the presence of Jessye Norman in the Albert Hall, voice and manner addressing the space with ease while seeming to speak directly to each individual, is a joy. The artistry goes way beyond her practised and intimate relationship with the material. Yet on Sunday afternoon the experience peaked only with the encore, as she powered Strauss's thanks-offering to the heights, turning a full circle and apparently holding everybody's gaze.

Just the presence of Jessye Norman in the Albert Hall, voice and manner addressing the space with ease while seeming to speak directly to each individual, is a joy. The artistry goes way beyond her practised and intimate relationship with the material. Yet on Sunday afternoon the experience peaked only with the encore, as she powered Strauss's thanks-offering to the heights, turning a full circle and apparently holding everybody's gaze.

The main item had been the UK premiere of woman.life. song. Commissioned from the writers Maya Angelou, Clarissa Pinkola Estés and Toni Morrison, and the composer Judith Weir, it is a near hour-long cycle for voice and small orchestra, the story of a woman from youth to age.

There was evidently constant collaboration between singer and creators, producing joyous and searching poetry, yet nothing specially close about the way it links to the music.

Weir's subtle and downbeat manner pleases the ear in passing as it works on snatches of melody and dancing rhythm. It is most effective in the pre-pubescent stages. The music becomes more saturated but more generalised in emotion until it rests on a plateau of melancholy, while the poetry heads off into areas of bereavement and renewed determination. And there is the problem of what the cycle leaves out. Obviously the absence of pregnancy and motherhood makes a point, but then this emblematic life needs some other struggle and fulfilment. Instead, it goes straight from adolescence to retrospect. The result is all preludes and epilogues, leaving a hole at the centre, instead of a core, which somehow the creators have skated over.

Conducted by David Robertson, London Sinfonietta players had opened with Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks concerto - very precise, no feel for the rhythms - and on their own they fended off a coughing epidemic to make Ravel's Introduction and Allegro radiant.

Norman returned with the pianist Mark Markham in the Schoenberg Brettl-Lieder, which present the composer's lack of a melodic gift at its height, and rousingly exercised the force of her personality on their blatant texts.

On Monday Barry Wordsworth conducted Street Scenes, a potted version of Kurt Weill's Street Scene. This made a timely Proms showcase for the BBC Concert Orchestra's fine tradition of Broadway revivals. Rationalised at length by the adapters, Street Scenes really belongs to a simpler and older line of concert opera that runs from Liszt's piano paraphrases to Birtwistle's Songs from Mrs Kong. It told the central story with focused intensity. The music moves toward powerful peaks of feeling, though it overworks its one good tune, "Lonely House". And what a depressing story! The one spirited character walks out, leaving the community to rot. Humane it may be to write about the American dream's losers, but a few years later West Side Story treated street life with vitality. No wonder Weill's take never caught on.

Here it was upstaged by a feisty Stephen Sondheim tribute sequence, as Kim Criswell led the proof that this music has tunes and heart, as well as brains and preciousness - not so much Broadway's Seurat as its Ravel. From a well-stocked two days, only a mention for Sunday night's momentous Dream of Gerontius: a Proms institution, but Sir Andrew Davis took the BBC performers to Elgar's full life-and-death urgency.

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