BBC Proms: Cooper, Juilliard Orchestra, RAM Orchestra, Adams | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
BBC Proms: Cooper, Juilliard Orchestra, RAM Orchestra, Adams
Two fizzing student orchestras prove their mettle, but what about composer John Adams?
One top student orchestra playing on its own can be exciting enough. Two playing together can produce a charge of dynamite that might not leave the building standing. That was so anyway in last night’s Prom, when players from New York City’s Juilliard School and London’s Royal Academy of Music, by now frequent collaborators, joined up to shake the earth with thunderous brass, swooning strings, diamond precision, a velvet bloom – every characteristic of a world-class orchestra except the honour of being conducted by Lorin Maazel.
Instead the podium was occupied by America’s favourite composer, John Adams. He came naturally enough carrying one of his own scores, City Noir of 2009 – 35 minutes of urban jiggling and smooching in desperate need of a firmer structure. But at least his conducting had drive and a point; so had the other works in the programme. Top of the pyramid for me was Respighi’s Roman Festivals, the most vulgar by far of the composer's Roman trilogy, and the least played. Sharing its shape with ancient Rome’s Circus Maximus, a location vividly depicted in the first movement, the Albert Hall proved the perfect venue. And its organ proved invaluable, jacking up the decibel level just when you thought Respighi had peaked, garlanding the orchestra in a lustrous reedy resonance that definitely shook my timbers.
Puddles glisten in the night, spider women spin their webs, bullets rain down
Watching Adams conduct this brazenly colourful, skilfully concocted monster brought its own joys. "Sock it to me, baby!": that’s what his body language said as he bent his knees, outstretched both arms, and implored players to blow their top or sprinkle on more chocolate sauce. Respighi’s piece – hideous and loveable at the same time, part Stravinsky pastiche, part warbling spirit of Mario Lanza – deserved nothing less.
After that big gargoyle, Ravel’s G minor Piano Concerto, far superior as music of course, appeared a bit lost in the Albert Hall. Imogen Cooper’s long experience performing Mozart came through in her light, incisive keyboard touch and the poise bequeathed to Ravel’s jazz inflections. The orchestra’s own skills in colouring and shaping were clear enough too. But when you’ve just enjoyed a roaring organ, a drunken trombone, and lions chewing Christians, the performance did seem rather distant and small.
Bigger sounds arrived again with Adams’ City Noir, first performed in Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural concert as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. LA’s also the city depicted – the city of Raymond Chandler’s thrillers and 1940s film noir, where puddles glisten in the night, spider women spin their webs, bullets rain down, and deadbeats collapse at dawn. The youngsters from RAM and the Juilliard took Adams’ multi-layered textures and jittery rhythms in their stride, with stand-out contributions from the leery trombones, Patrick Posey’s smoky alto sax, and the frantic percussion tattoo.
None of them, though, could give the music what the composer failed to provide. Here were three baggy movements, forced to struggle towards symphonic breadth without the musical argument and architecture to make the goal achievable. Still, enough moaning. We had those great musicians after all, and we had the Respighi. And it didn’t rain.
Share this article
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Classical music
Masterly festive Strauss and elegiac Elgar, predictably second-league Four Last Songs
Communication at the highest level in orchestral orientalia and Rameau motets
A striking new flute concerto by Simon Holt between established French masterpieces
Will China's army of young instrumentalists conquer the planet?
Swiss orchestra and choir bring radiance to the Royal Albert Hall
The youngest ever audience for a BBC Prom is introduced to an orchestra
Sizzling Czech orchestral music, witty classical symphonies from a much-missed conductor and contemporary piano music from Austria
Delicate Shostakovich, while the Soviet aesthetic is left to Neil Tennant
London's cross-collaborating ensemble wears its USP on its sleeve
International orchestra brings the light of hope in a very dark week
A Macedonian magician whose still waters run deep
All-day Schubert by the sea and a Sibelius symphony in a working potato barn