I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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A sunny matinee at the BBC Proms with Joshua Bell and the ASMF

Felix Mendelssohn: Overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21
Camille Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto #3 in B minor, Op. 61
Frank Bridge: Lament (Catherine, aged 9, “Lusitania” 1915)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60

Joshua Bell, violin
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell
London, Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2018

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) brought an utterly delightful matinee concert at the BBC Proms under their music director, violinist Joshua Bell. The joys were manifold. For one thing, it was a beautifully varied bill, including a couple of rarities. But above all this was a concert that demonstrated the pleasure of making music together, by a first-class ensemble of 40 musicians breathing as one and visibly enjoying their moment in the spotlights. Acting both (or simultaneously) as conductor and as soloist, Joshua Bell appeared a true inspirational force. Conducting from the leader’s chair (if not playing, wielding his bow as baton) in Mendelssohn, Bridge and Beethoven, he went centre stage to play and direct Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto. And all from memory.

The concert took off with Mendelssohn’s Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The woodwinds had a bit of a rough start but pretty soon everything fell into place and this rendition was teeming with youthful energy and imagination. The different scenes and moods of Mendelssohn’s microcosmic distillation of Shakespearean fantasy came vividly alive now with transparent textures, then again with warm colors and subtle shading. While Bell kept things going at a lively pace, the sound quality of the ASMF was outstanding throughout.

The concertos from Camille Saint-Saëns are rarely heard in the concert hall. Of his five Piano concertos only the Second is occasionally performed, and his Violin concertos fare even worse. And come to think of it, his symphonies aren’t exactly flooding the concert programs either. Interesting to read in the Proms program notes that Saint-Saëns was pally with Proms founder-conductor Henry Wood and that his Third Violin Concerto was a popular favorite at the time, receiving no less than 16 performances between 1898 and 1928 – although apparently only the slow movement initially. But only one in the following 90 years (in 1989).

The current revival by the ASMF was in this respect all the more welcome and with Bell’s authoritative reading we couldn’t have had a stronger advocate to get this lovely piece back in the mainstream concerto repertoire. It was quite a stunning tour de force for the soloist/conductor, alternatively facing the public and his orchestra. Ever graceful in projection and warmly attractive in timbre, Bell immediately hit the right balance between virtuoso display (it was written for legend Pablo de Sarasate after all) and romantic lyricism. The barcarolle-like Andantino quasi Allegretto sung in all its elegance, fusing violin with woodwinds in a ravishing dialogue. Naturally, Bell was the soloist and he got the brilliant parts (which he negotiated effortlessly), but the success and conviction of this reading was eventually due to the admirable teamwork, or rather companionship, between him and the orchestra. As said, an irresistible sense of making music together was running strong the whole concert, but this quality was never more palpable as in the concerto.

After the interval Bell and the string players of the Academy performed Frank Bridge’s short Lament, composed to commemorate the brutal sinking of the “Lusitania”, a British ocean liner by a German submarine in 1915, taking 1,200 passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. Bridge was friends with the Crompton family who perished in the disaster and composed this 5 minute Lament in memory of 9-year old Catherine Crompton. Again, a rarity for the Proms as the piece hadn’t been performed there since its premiere in 1915. A remarkable work in its dense but subtle string writing, and most impressively done here.

In order not to interrupt the impact of the memorial piece Bell wanted to segue from the Lament into the following Beethoven Fourth Symphony, however due to a slight hesitation of his part all good intentions were torpedoed by premature applause from eager Prommers. Still, once under way after the searching introduction, this Beethoven was pure sunny joy, excitingly muscular and crisp in the outer movements, warm and tender in the Adagio, but always full of ‘joie de vivre’. A convincing orchestral balance, clear textures, excellent solo work and impressive dynamics highlighted the quality of the ensemble again and under Bell’s direction the whole work seemed infused with an unstoppable drive running through all the movements. To his credit, Bell clearly doesn’t consider the Fourth Symphony a mere “divertissement”, but really a worthy companion for the usually higher esteemed Third and Fifth. It didn’t matter this was a small ensemble playing the gigantic Royal Albert Hall, this sweeping account of Beethoven’s Fourth made a very strong impression indeed.

It is now 7 years that Joshua Bell took over the music directorship of the ASMF from the late Sir Neville Marinner, but judging from this concert the orchestra is in the best of hands and can definitely look forward to its 60th anniversary in the 2019/20 season in full confidence.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net.


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West Side Story at the BBC Proms: musically strong, but dramatically weak

Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story (concert version)
Mikaela Bennett – Maria
Ross Lekites – Tony
Eden Espinosa – Anita
Leo Roberts – Riff
Gian Marco Schiaretti – Bernardo
Students from ArtsEd and Mountview
John Wilson, John Wilson Orchestra
Stephen Whitson, stage director
London, Royal Albert Hall, 11 August 2018

To mark Leonard Bernstein’s centenary several performances in the BBC Proms are dedicated to Lenny’s rich and diverse legacy. His essential contribution to stage and screen was commemorated with revivals of West Side Story and, later this month, On The Town. West Side Story was brought in a hybrid version, directed by Stephen Whitson, and performed by John Wilson and his eponymous orchestra and an international cast of singers. Half concert, half staged, it took its strengths from Wilson’s irresistible conducting and some of the singing, but as a whole the dramatic and emotional impact of the work was seriously underplayed.

It’s interesting to hear Bernstein lament in his last long interview published in “Dinner with Lenny” by Jonathan Cott (1989) about the problems the creators faced to cast West Side Story for the premiere in 1957. “Casting that show was a very tough problem because the actors had to be able to sing and dance and be taken for teenagers…. Some of them were wonderful singers, but couldn’t dance very well. Or they were great dancers who couldn’t sing very well…. and if they could do both, they couldn’t act. We went through hell.” A concert version which omits the choreography, most of the dialogue and some of the dramatic scenes “solves” a few of these issues the hard way, but creates others, and still has to deal with finding suitable voices. And Bernstein wasn’t even considering political correctness then.

As it goes nowadays in our brave world wherein political correctness is sabotaging even the most basic common sense (let alone an informed approach to a work of art), this performance of West Side Story was overshadowed by a row over the so-called “whitewashing” of the female lead. The announced singer Sierra Boggess, the American Broadway and West End star who has successfully sung the role of Maria and others on previous Proms, felt obliged to withdraw after suffering backlash in the US from overzealous critics who thought the role of Puerto Rican Maria should go to a Latin-American performer. Canadian-born Mikaela Bennett stepped in and your guess is just as good as mine as to what her Latin-American connections are. That this was after all primarily a concert performance where voices instead of backgrounds matter, was of apparently no consequence. Neither, I’m sorry to say, that Bennett is a far less accomplished singer than Boggess. But hey, thankfully, with the help of an Ottawa native, everything was politically correct again and the Puerto Ricans escaped another grave insult. I refrained from checking the origin of the other cast members though.

But back to the arts. The annual appearances of John Wilson and his handpicked orchestra have since 2009 become one of the most eagerly anticipated acts of the BBC Proms. There were two shows of West Side Story on the day and at least the evening performance was a total sellout (which means in London’s Royal Albert Hall over 5,000 tickets). The orchestra is a crack formation, with superb soloists and a magnificent sound to boast. John Wilson has proven to be the expert guide in reviving Broadway and Hollywood scores and here again the magic worked. The eclectic fusion of Bernstein’s music may be well known but I have never heard it perform in such a brilliantly colored and subtly detailed manner as here. It was indeed like hearing the score for the first time. With superbly controlled dynamics and an unerring flair for dramatic impact Wilson switches in a blink from ethereal string tones to the wildest swing and jazz rhythms. Kenneth Tynan’s characterization of the music in 1958 “as smooth and savage as a cobra” rang true. The Dance at the gym with its diverse Latin American rhythms was a total riot, as was Cool, but it were the lyrical numbers that proved revelatory by the complexity of their orchestration. And what joy to see the percussionists and drummer work out on their instruments with such cool panache.

Singers and choir appeared in 1950’s costumes but that was about the only element to place the action. For the remainder this was very much West Side Story in Kensington anno 2018, with this ugly amplification which gives the voices a metallic twang in the high notes. With most of the dialogue cut and Jerome Robbins’ choreography totally absent, we were dealt a West Side Story greatest hits version.

Nothing but praise though for Ross Lekites’ Tony who was for my money, with Wilson and the orchestra, really the star of the show. Acting the part within the constraints of the production to perfection, his rendition of the hackneyed Maria was absolutely heart-rending. Mikaela Bennett, on the other hand, lacked as singer and character the innocence for Maria. She was far too eager and knowing to be falling in love the first time, while her singing style sometimes verged on the operatic. After the interval she sounded more convincing in I feel pretty, which has the most ravishing string accompaniment. Eden Espinosa was a fiery Anita but her vocal delivery missed dramatic punch in A boy like that and wit in America. The hilarious Gee, Officer Krupke number however was tremendous fun with Alistair Brammeri’s Action and his Jets. The 2nd-Act ballet sequence Somewhere was adroitly turned into a number for soprano and orchestra, sung with ravishingly contained passion by Louise Alder.

It was expected you had seen West Side Story a few times (and who hasn’t, of course…) to grasp the holes left in the narrative. Most crucially at the end when Anita tries to warn Tony but only ends up being humiliated by the Jets, after which she gives them a false message about Maria’s death – nothing of this was seen in this version, there was only the music. We didn’t see the deaths of Riff and Bernardo either (we merely heard about them in the 2nd Act after the interval) and only Tony is seen dying in the final moments, although this scene was handled far too abrupt to be genuinely moving.

In short, plenty to enjoy this evening, primarily thanks to John Wilson and his fantastic orchestra, and some superb singing, foremost from Ross Lekites. Yet this was above all an homage to the art of Bernstein and orchestrators Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, rather than a celebration of West Side Story as a landmark in musical theatre history.

Copyright © 2018 Marc Haegeman

First published on Classical Net.