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August 26, 2011

Prom 53

By Spear's

The pizzicato in the third movement was stunningly slick, such was the understanding between this octogenarian and his fledglings

by Melinda Hughes

My knowledge of Stravinsky is limited: The Rite of Spring and The Rake’s Progress. I did scenes from The Rake’s Progress when I was a postgrad student at the Royal College of Music. As I recall, I wore a bathing costume in the opening garden scene and was more concerned about the state of my bikini line than my technique.

The now famous James Rutherford played my father but he wasn’t in his trunks. That I do remember. What I also recall is how long it took me to learn the rhythm and syncopation but as with most modern music, it takes longer to understand and familiarise oneself with a more complex form of music but once you do, my, you’re hooked and each symphony, concerto or opera becomes an addiction. It’s a little like hearing Prince’s double album Sign of the Times for the first time.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements in Prom 53 on Wednesday was an experience. War and unrest fire at you in the highly rhythmical opening bars. Percussion is integral to this symphony’s success and the added novelty of a piano in the orchestration makes this a powerful and impressive piece which the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra embraced with animation and veracity.

This was written during the Second World War and you feel it. It was frightening. The GMYO are a fascinating orchestra to watch; they had an overwhelming sense of physical movement; the players swept through phrases like a wave and the double basses were frankly wild and what a beautiful looking orchestra too. Something which was confirmed when Colin Davis led the stunning first violinist off stage by the arm to a rousing cheer from the Promenaders… the old smoothie.

Next up was the American mezzo Susan Graham to sing the French Oriental song cycle, Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Susan Graham is a beautiful, polished and secure performer. You can’t fault a singer of such calibre and experience. She is an expert in French song and her delivery of the text was clear yet romantic with a lovely line.

Susan Graham singing the first song from Shéhérazade

She is beautiful to listen to and to watch and shows what a wonderful technique she possess by keeping a relaxed and joyous face throughout. Too many singers nowadays let us see how difficult a phrase is to sing. I was always taught never to make anything look hard. Take note, this is the sign of a good solid technique.

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She was however wearing a rather strange evening gown… Perhaps she wanted to get into the Oriental spirit but as my friend remarked, she did indeed resemble a mermaid hosting a seventies Salon. On this note, I might add that I find the Peter Stringfellow purple neon strip along the back of the performance area a little… Classic FM. No matter, one can just close one’s eyes and be swept away to distant rose-scented lands because Lord knows, the weather in London this summer isn’t going to cut it.

The highlight for me was certainly Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I could hear what was to follow in his later work: strong themes of Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin as well as the interweaving of lost folk songs and grand melancholic gestures of a forgotten time. As ever, the comprehensive programme notes help you understand the personal and historical background to this symphony.

It makes the music all the more poignant and it was played with such passion and abandonment yet kept firmly in check under the baton of Sir Colin, so much so that the pizzicato in the third movement was stunningly slick, though he hardly need beat at all, such was the understanding between this octogenarian and his fledglings.

Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

If you have never been to the Proms, then shame on you, for it is a British Institution, right up there with tests at Lords and meetings at Ascot so I implore you to try your best to attend a performance, for they are of the highest standard, attracting top international artists and don’t worry about mixing with five thousand others, for Promenaders are terribly well behaved and chatty. Indeed my neighbour even offered me a polo mint when I suffered a tickle in my throat during the third movement. Well I’m certainly too old to be accepting sweets from strangers.

Watch Prom 53 here until Wednesday 31 August 2011

Visit Melinda Hughes’ website here

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