Noisy tables and empty seats
A Proms premiere on a Monday night failed to bring in the punters. A shame, says Nick Shave…
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has covered considerable ground these past few days. Last Thursday they entered a war zone with a heavy-weight line-up of the Sinfonia da Requiem, Britten’s fearful response to WWII, and the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich’s depiction of Leningrad under Nazi siege. (The military onslaught was lightened only briefly by Prokofiev’s single-movement Piano Concerto No. 1 from Alexander Toradze.)
After some Dalek music at the Dr Who Proms over the weekend, the orchestra settled into a Monday-night program of Cherubini’s Médée Overture, Schumann’s First Symphony, a table of noises by Simon Holt (its associate composer) and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel.
So far the Albert Hall has been packed to the Gods every night – even the Welsh Orchestra’s heavy duty military displays were a sell-out. But Monday’s programme was the first in which the attendance figures significantly dropped – the hall was three quarters empty. One could lay blame on Schumann’s Spring Symphony which hardly exerts the same kind of pull as his songs and pieces for piano – the Dichterliebe, piano concerto, and the early piano masterpieces. But no doubt the real fallout had been caused by the presence of a London premiere on the program: namely, Simon Holt’s percussion concerto, a table of noises.
A shame, because there was much to admire about Holt’s half-hour concerto, performed by soloist Colin Currie for whom it was written. The title refers the table on which Holt’s severely crippled great-uncle, Ashworth Hutton, a taxidermist, would spread out the tools of his trade, and to the Peruvian mesa de ruidos, a type of drum (better known as a cajon) that is used in the flamenco music of southern Spain where Holt lives. Avoiding the sprawling layout of most percussion concertos, Holt restricts the soloist’s instruments to those that will fit like tools on a table: Currie sat on the Cajon within reach of whistle, block, glockenspiel, bongo, cowbell and klaxon. A xylophone was placed alongside.
Currie, who first premiered the Concerto with the CBSO three years ago, brought a breezy enthusiasm to the score. Divided between six main movements, it opens with an arrestingly raucous dialogue between percussionist and piccolos that skitter like frenzied birds into their highest registers. Indeed, it’s a work that explores registral extremes. Holt had stripped his orchestra back to nine woodwinds – without standard-size flutes, clarinets and bassoons – and strings without violins. Added to this unusual combination, its 10 brass produced at times the most deliciously dense chords, and percussionists interrupted with disorientating dialogues. Haunting instrumental combinations filled the five instrumental interludes – called ghosts – that were placed between each movement.
While the darkness of a table of noises is typical of Holt, the autobiographical content that draws from his Lancashire childhood is less so. The titles of the main movements all relate to his Uncle Ash: the first movement is ‘jute’, the stuffing for the animal skins; the second – effectively combining solo xylophone with two more xylophones in the orchestra – is ‘fly’, the name of his dog. This xylophone combination returned in ‘skennin’ Mary’ – about his neighbour with a glass eye – between which the third, a Scherzo entitled ‘a drawer full of eyes’ refers to the occasion when Holt’s mother ‘opened a drawer in Ash’s bedroom tallboy and discovered thousands of false eyes for foxes, kingfishers, stoats, etc staring back at her.’ ‘Table top’ – an instrumental cadenza – is rounded off by ‘under glass’ where the stuffed animals would end up.
Conductor Thierry Fischer coped admirably with the fluctuating time signatures of Holt’s score. So why did this nostalgic shop of horrors – with its drawful of eyes – scare so many punters away? I can only think that death on a Monday is just not de rigueur...
Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.