Proms 2011: Strange new sounds

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How will commissions from a trio of contemporary composers measure up? Nick Shave finds out

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In a recent backstage chat with the young conductor Nicholas Collon – he of Aurora Orchestra/Horrible Histories Prom fame – about what makes his orchestra a success, he told me a lot of it comes down to fulfilling a need for surprise: 'At an orchestral concert people too often know what they’re going to get,' he said. 'You have to challenge their expectations.'

I couldn’t agree more, so it’s good to report that along with the tried and trusted favourites, surprising new sounds have been emerging from the Proms over the past few days. Thursday saw the UK premiere of Austrian composer Thomas Larcher’s Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov – Matthew Barley and Viktoria Mullova the soloists.

Rain deterred many from turning out – the Royal Albert Hall was only a third full – but it was worth braving the downpours to hear it. The Double Concerto is written specifically for the Hall: it throws motifs, like glitter, into the air, and watches them catch the light as they fall into its dark, empty spaces.

As such, it demonstrates Larcher’s unique ear for colour – these were instrumental combinations (accordion, electric zither, and Larcher himself on prepared piano) and textures that you won’t hear anywhere else. But it also shows his awareness of accessible styles – the meditative writing of Arvo Pärt, and emotive minor-chord combinations of film soundtracks, for example.

What Larcher couldn’t have predicted, however, was the way in which the percussion would leap, unwanted, into the foreground. Though it was written for the Hall, I’d like to hear this piece performed live again but in a different acoustic.

I can’t say the same for Georges Aperghis’s Champ-Contrechamp, a BBC commission that was given its world premiere by the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton at Saturday’s matinee at the Cadogan Hall. Full marks to its solo pianist, Nicolas Hodges, for his composed way of turning fidgeting, repetitious dissonant figures into absurdist gestures.

But what started out as fertile idea – a musical analogy to the technique of filming dialogue with shot and reverse shot – turned into a please-will-someone-make-this-stop cacophonic problem.

Thank god for Harrison Birtwistle, whose Angel Fighter – a UK premiere – descended from the heavens to bring a real sense of drama to the Cadogan Hall. Birtwistle wrote the piece after seeing an illustration of the duel, as told in Genesis, between Jacob and the Angel, and the resulting work, with combative brass and dramatic exchanges between countertenor, Andrew Watts, and tenor, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, was an invigorating slice of brilliance. Lloyd-Roberts was outstanding.

I look forward to catching the world premiere of Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto this evening….

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls

 

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Nick Shave

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Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music...

Nick Shave