Proms: Roger Reynolds premiere Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At last: someone writing for, rather than against, the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall! The 63-year-old American composer Roger Reynolds devised The Red Act Arias, premiered on Monday, specifically for the cavernous spaces of Albert's barn. He has fashioned his text for its three sections, or "arias" - "The Storm", "A Dream of Calm" and "Threnody" - from English translations of Aeschylus and Euripides, focusing on the relationship between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

A narrator (here Harriet Walters, declaiming in suitably epic style) prefaces each "aria" with an introduction to its action. Twenty-four singers represent "a communal resource", a chorus in the manner of Ancient Greek theatre: chanting much of the text in declamatory unison, sometimes "multifurcating", as the composer puts it, into "cluster-glissandi and harmonic blossomings" and, eventually, into "the vulnerability of individual voices". While this chorus bears the brunt of the proceedings, accompanied by a large orchestra, computer-processed sounds intervene fairly frequently, providing further commentary on the action: vocal, instrumental and natural sounds, transformed by the computer, are periodically flung around the whole auditorium.

So why did such an imaginatively-conceived project (surely the most ambitious Prom commission this season) by a respected composer (highly experienced in mixing live and computer-processed sounds and in exploring acoustic space) fall so terribly flat? For one thing, Reynolds' musical materials simply aren't sufficiently individual or memorable, despite the inclusion of melodic and harmonic ideas not usually associated with modernist composers of his generation. Even quite modally allusive materials strive in vain to respond to the text. "What does he know of this accursed bitch?" asks the chorus; yet the settings of such a repeated line seemed uninvolving and artificial.

For another, neither are the computer contributions sufficiently powerful to engage with and reflect on the richly suggestive text. These vocal concatenations, instrumental transformations, sounds of fire and water, whoops, burps and gurgles, didn't succeed in producing more than a brief thrill or two in their exploration of the hall's space; and I'd carefully positioned myself in the arena so as to experience the maximum impact of the surround sound. This whole aspect felt patched on to the live contributions, and was consequently enfeebled. Finally, The Red Act Arias lacks the kind of dramatic thrust essential to propel the listener through its 48-minute length. Anything set up is too quickly replaced, often negated. There is little feel for drama at all: extremely worrying since the work is apparently the first stage in an operatic project.

A composition of this nature requires extensive collaboration, not to speak of financial resources, and a whole raft of computer technicians and others were duly credited in the programme book. What a pity that the BBC hasn't got more to show for its faith and hard work. While the performance could have been partly to blame, the efforts of the BBC Singers and BBC SO under Leonard Slatkin didn't suggest anything but skilful and committed input. Slatkin and the orchestra even managed to pull a remarkably fresh and inspired performance of Mahler's First Symphony out of the hat after the interval. I wonder how much rehearsal time had been left for that.

Comments