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August 30, 2012

Prom 62: Eric Whitacre

By Spear's

Whitacre had latched on to the aspect of music that touches the listener, that of suspension of dissonance and broad melodic lines

I may be a regular Prom-goer but I’d never been to a late night Prom so last night’s, featuring the music of the American choral composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, was an unexpected adjunct of musical magic.

Whitacre is by all accounts very popular, and there was a lot of whooping coming form the packed audience; perhaps it is his American appeal, his accessible melodic, yet haunting music or his knack at crossing genres (having recently created a virtual choir on YouTube).

For me, though, it is the fact that Whitacre had latched on to the aspect of music that touches the listener, that of suspension of dissonance and broad melodic lines.

He walked on stage, tanned, relaxed and coiffed, to conduct his own choir together with the BBC singers. His Alleluia, written for the choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 2011, is nothing short of beautiful: a stunning held soprano line while melodic phrases rise and fall around. The sound is compelling, fresh, contemporary but above all, melodic.

He draws on Renaissance polyphony but presents it in a film score approach: think Braveheart meets Tallis. This trademark was predominant in his next piece, Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, a near-pastiche on Palestrina and Monteverdi with a bit of Keith Jarrett thrown in. Elongated vowels, stretched phrases and harmonies achieved an otherworldly quality which transfixed me. Whitacre is a clever contemporary composer, layering texts, rhythms and harmonies but the music is always beautiful.

As the Opening Ceremony continued in East London, we heard the premier of Higher, Faster, Stronger, written for the BBC Proms to celebrate the Olympics. Taken from the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, the large choir was split into three parts competing against each other in a crescendo of rhythms and speed.

The highlight of the evening, however, was The Listening Chair, written by folk phenomenon Imogen Heap, arranged by Whitacre. The Listening Chair draws on the crowd-sourced video responses of passers-by who sit in a chair (placed in musical venues around the world) and place their song wish.  

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The result is a song that reflects the desires of people of all ages, where each minute represents seven years of a life, ending with a question, ‘Who am I now?’ The piece was partly sung, partly spoken by Imogen who gave the concert an edge of rock and roll glamour. It was backed by British percussion group ensemblebash and American soprano Hila Plitmann. It was quirky, fun, hippy and a little out there but really enjoyable.

Whitacre’s most famous piece, Cloudburst, was nothing short of a spiritual experience where instrumental and percussive elements herald an approaching storm, building into a vocal spoken and sung chorus. The element of snapping fingers, symbolising rain, building into random handclaps from the choir while thunder roared about us in the Hall was magical.

The audience was asked to click their fingers too and suddenly we were in the eye of a heavy storm. It was an effective trick, clever yet terribly simple, and this is where the BBC Proms score gold medals: for their collaborative works, musical fusion and cross-genre projects, be it Nitin Sawhney, the Comedy Proms or Doctor Who evenings.

They seem to be on the pulse of a new generation of music, popular culture without selling out, and happily incorporate a wild card into traditional programming. I was totally enchanted and utterly captured by Whitacre’s music and the atmosphere of this unusual late night gathering of a few thousand in Kensington Gore.

Watch Eric Whitacre conduct Cloudburst below
 

  
Read more by Melinda Hughes

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