Proms Americana Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
A week ago, Leonard Slatkin took the Hallelujah trail Stateside with a Sunday night Prom which, in more ways than one, enshrined the spirit of the piece that began it: Variations on "America" by Charles Ives. Is this where our "special relationship" began - in mutual recognition of a second-rate tune?

For those who haven't had the pleasure, "America" is our very own national anthem. Lampooning it on the organ was Charles Ives's favourite boyhood pastime - almost as much fun as a ball-game, he later recalled. Perhaps someone should have persuaded Simon Preston (gainfully employed to cry havoc in Copland's youthful Organ Symphony) to take a home run at it on the Albert Hall organ. Not that William Schuman's capricious orchestration isn't fun, too (Ives with bells on, you might say), just that I should like to have imagined the smile breaking on Henry Wood's bust.

I swear I saw his eyes grow heavy during the automatous opening movement of John Adams's Violin Concerto. At best a two-movement work (the central Chaconne, though dead behind the eyes, does maintain a certain dream-like fascination), this Prom premiere was none too well served by Ernst Kovacic, whose uncharacteristic carelessness in matters of intonation and the like (granted the hectic arpeggiations of the outer movements are fraught with difficulty) suggested inadequate preparation. A broken string in the finale only served to contribute to the general air of disquiet.

And then Harlem came to town and blew us all out of the ball park. Duke Ellington's steamy, pile-driving orchestral tone-poem had the BBC Symphony stretching and bending those big-band tuttis like this is what they did after hours. "Harlem always had more churches than cabarets," said Ellington, and as the drums slammed and trumpets stopped up to scream-threshold, it was as if those churches had simultaneously emptied their colourful processions on to the streets around Kensington Gore.

Meanwhile, in Saturday's National Youth Orchestra Prom, Edgard Varese and Georgc Gershwin were on cultural exchange - somewhere between Ameriques and La Belle France. The eponymous American in Paris occupied the centre- ground of this gaudily ambitious programme - just the job for harnessing the energies of so much young blood. Considering their girth, the NYO slipped quite nimbly through the backstreets of Gershwin's Paris. Conductor Paul Daniel gave them plenty of room for reflection, sleek oboe and cor anglais solos (and one deliciously sleepy tuba) lending enchantment. And yet, while the spirit occasionally moved (pretty decent trumpet blues, though not nearly enough curling saxophone), there still remained a sense that these youngsters were up past their bedtime. What kind of Charleston is it that doesn't kick up its heels? It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Someone should have told Sally Burgess. I hate to be a party-pooper, but don't even think about playing fast and loose with classic Gershwin songs unless you're sure of your credentials. Burgess is a talented singer, but she's no jazz singer. Chic in a sequined figure-hugger, she certainly looked the cabaret queen, but what was she doing with her voice? It's like she had no idea where to place these songs. The mix wasn't working, the raspy chest tones came and went like crashed gears. The amplification stank. Perhaps if she'd tried simply singing instead of "performing" them. The whole sorry set was embarrassingly counterfeit. And the band way too big, of course.

Still, I've heard professional bands swing less convincingly ("slap that bass" and give the player a round). Invaluable lessons in style were plainly being learnt. But when the lessons are over, something has to give, and even as the big guns came out for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, you couldn't help thinking that, having worked so hard to get these fearsome notes under their fingers, they might have been encouraged to live more dangerously - outlaw caution, excite rhythm. This Rite was sound, not irresistible. Varese's Ameriques was. But then wild and wacky is all but written into its heaving sound masses, its seismic brass and siren-led percussion. Rites of passage to new worlds. What a blast for the NYO. And us.

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