Proms; From Estonia to England via the way of the Tao

BBC SCOTTISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/IMPERIAL BELLS ROYAL ALBERT HALL
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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST sight this seemed like an exceptionally eclectic evening's music-making - three very different works by Estonian, English and Chinese- American composers, played by a Scottish Orchestra under a Polish conductor. As the concert progressed, though, a mysterious and intriguing web of interconnections began to become apparent.

The solemn atmosphere of Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" was made all the more poignant by the announcement of the death of Alfred Schnittke, and the dedication of this performance to his memory; from its opening bell stroke and shimmering high strings, its serene unfolding made an entirely appropriate gesture of remembrance for both these major figures of our time. A sense of serene unfolding was one of the links between the Part and the sublime "Fifth Symphony" of Vaughan Williams.

It is always interesting to get a non-English perspective on this most English of composers, and Jerzy Maksymiuk provided just that, bringing out the more dramatic moments and revelling in the spiky cross-rhythms of the scherzo.

If the slow, mystical opening of the Romanza was less broad than one might expect, and the brass occasionally more strident than majestic, nevertheless this was a convincing rendition, in which the BBCSSO's woodwind were particularly eloquent.

The European premiere of Tan Dun's Heaven Earth Mankind - Symphony 1997, was conducted, very vigorously (with the vocal participation), by the composer himself. Towering over the platform was the "bianzhong", a set of massive tuned bells - replicas of bells dating from 433BC unearthed in China in the Seventies. Also featured was the solo cello of Yo-Yo Ma, whose virtuosic role ranged from the purest cantabile to hair-raising two-handed pizzicatos and imitations of chinese traditional instruments - all of which he performed with total control and evident pleasure.

Last, but not least, redoubtable Proms veterans, the New London Children's Choir, took a star part, not even turning a hair at being asked to sing in idiomatic Mandarin. Influenced by Taoist concepts, this symphony contained echoes from many sources - touches of Messiaen, perhaps; an unexpected burst of Puccini; taped Chinese opera; even Beethoven's "Ode to Joy".

The bells, and the touching "Requiem" for the victims of war connected with Part's "Cantus", and in his own way Tan Dun was just as much on a quest for a Celestial City as Vaughan Williams in the "Fifth Symphony".

Perhaps it is no longer possible in the modern world to be as "simple" as RVW (what about Arvo Part, though?), but there was a distinct feeling that Tan Dun had perhaps tried to embrace too much in this long, episodic piece, which didn't always seem to hang together. As the children's voices soared joyously in the infectious "Song of Peace", though, and the "bianzhong" sounded a final carillon, the "reunification of nature and soul" did seem, momentarily, a real possibility.

Laurence Hughes

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