The 50th BBC Prom of the 2013 season on August 19, 2013, promised to be something rather exceptional, with a world premiere of music by Frederic Rzewski and a UK premiere by Gerald Barry. The late-night contemporary music event attracted a relatively small audience of dedicated enthusiasts who were able to luxuriate in the spacious and sonorous surrounds of the atmospheric Royal Albert Hall, stretching out and, in some cases, fully reclining in readiness for what nocturnal musical delights might be lavished upon them. And their dedication was heartily rewarded. A master-stroke of programming from a long-time proponent of new music, conductor Ilan Volkov led the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a bravely esoteric program featuring a quartet of forward thinking and wholly distinctive composers, each possessing an enquiring mind and a tendency towards experimentation.
The world premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Concerto, with the composer himself as improvising soloist, was perhaps the most thought provoking of the evening. At points tautly ice cold, and littered throughout with heart-breaking descending figures, the concerto also offered moments of emotionally erratic theatricality. Rzewski had set himself the minor task of undertaking life-saving CPR on the genre as a whole. With Mozartian improvisation in mind, and the classical orchestra as his muse, this was his first ‘proper’ attempt at the most classical of forms, with a little help from the jaw of an ass, a singing saw, and a tuba.
Starting and ending with close-to-nothingness (an effect, according to the composer, designed specifically for the outsized acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall), the piece’s high point, curiously, proved to be its sparse third movement. An almost motionless expanse of sustained notes from orchestral soloists, expanding and contracting, dark as night, dotted by celestial piano-writing. A rather less engaging final movement of complex contrapuntal textures followed, and the casually dressed composer/soloist nodded modestly, sharing the applause with Volkov and the orchestra.
A UK premiere followed from the Irish maverick composer Gerald Barry. No Other People (2009), taking its title from proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel’s poetry, featured another kind of repetition of simple musical figures, but this time voiced through typically bold, rampaging and unpredictable motifs. After a rather banal opening, supposedly a reflection of the Henri-Achille Zo illustrations that inspired the piece, Barry moved on to well-executed counterpoint, comedic horn trills, and energetic dance rhythms, creating a deliciously unhinged juxtaposition.
John White’s Chord-Breaking Machine (1971) came first in the line-up and was, rather shockingly, the first Proms outing for this big daddy of experimental English minimalism. A sea of erratically jogging bows induced a shimmering texture of slowly rising and undulating two-note patterns, a succession cut sharply by sustained brass ‘milestone’ chords. At the piece’s completion, the father of Machines, other systems processes, and really any minimalism in the UK before 1980, John White, bounded eagerly onto stage to receive a long-overdue round of seriously appreciative Proms applause.
Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light (1985) was the otherworldly conclusion this late-night Prom deserved. Almost thirty minutes of hypnotic, organically unfolding, delicately morphing chords and transforming textures, inspired by the Coptic-era textiles Feldman observed in the Louvre in Paris. This was the first Proms performance of this modern masterpiece, and Volkov’s attention to detail successfully brought out the nuances within what could otherwise be something of a challenge to one’s ability to focus.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra electrified the air of the Royal Albert Hall throughout the night’s proceedings, and the trust between Volkov and the orchestra, developed over their many years of collaboration, was certainly palpable. Furthermore, what a joy it was to see such prolific composers, each a creative leader in his own right, engaging with each other’s work from a shared vantage point in the auditorium. A rare night by anyone’s standards.