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Prom 61, Royal Albert Hall
01 Sep 2017

A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

This Prom was all about places: geographical, physical, pictorial, poetic, psychological. And, as we journeyed through these landscapes of the mind, there was plenty of reminiscence and nostalgia too, not least in Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

Prom 61, Royal Albert Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Soprano Renée Fleming performs with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Sakari Oramo

Photo credit: Mark Allan


‘We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child’, begins the lyrical prose-poem by James Agee from which Barber drew his text, and which the composer said, ‘reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home’. [1]

But, Knoxville is not simply a recollection of the synaesthetic sights, sounds and scents of a long, warm Southern evening - a horse-drawn buggy, clanging streetcars, strolling couples, quilts spread on dewy lawns; it presents a progression from the wide-eyed innocence of a child’s response to their immediate surroundings, through a growing appreciation of the darkness and dangers of the wider world, to an anxious striving for maturity and selfhood. And, the challenge for the soprano performing this work - which is accompanied by chamber orchestra of strings, seven woodwind, harp and triangle, in Barber’s revised scoring - is to communicate a vision which is unaffected and unworldly as well as instinctively knowing and fathoming.

The capaciousness of the Royal Albert Hall did not make Renée Fleming’s task any easier, as she introduced us to the dusky vista, ‘that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently’. Her beautifully limpid soprano did not, initially, carry with sufficient presence to draw those in the furthest reaches into the tale (though I suspect listeners at home had a different experience, with the BBC engineers working their magic). But, as the blue of night deepened and the child’s awareness grew in profundity and urgency, Fleming’s soprano gleamed, as sumptuous and silvery as her opulent grey frock, conveying a burgeoning intensity of feeling which climaxed thrillingly in the final section, ‘The stars are wide and alive’.

Not all of the score’s magical moments came off, though. Following the departure of the bellowing, blasting iron of the passing streetcar, Fleming’s first ascent to the high peak of ‘Now is the night one blue dew’ felt tentative, as she struggled to move cleanly onto the successive rising notes, using a wide vibrato to sustain them. But, in the repetition of the phrase the Bb glistened incisively and with controlled rapture. And, she used varied colour to convey first the painful recognition of human transience - ‘By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.’ - and then, sinking low and finding rich vocal layers, the consoling power of prayer: ‘My God bless my people … oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. The pentatonic theme played the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra’s horn-player, and the woodwind’s after-word, imbued this moment with stillness and spirituality.

Fleming didn’t always make the most of the text, either. Agee’s words are themselves deeply musical, in syntax and in sound. He wrote of his prose-poetry, ‘I want to write symphonies … so that it flows naturally, and yet … has a discernible symmetry and a very definite musical quality’ [2] . And, we needed more clarity for the sounds of the South to really communicate, through Agee’s alliteration (‘Low on the length of lawns …’; ‘still fainter; fainting, lifting; lifts, faints foregone: forgotten’) and the circling rhythmic lilt which captures man’s ephemerality (‘People go by; things go by.’; ‘There are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.’). But, Fleming did successfully contrast the episodes which are speech-like - she tripped easily through the family account, ‘One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home.’ - and the genuinely ‘song-like’ passages.

Throughout, the poetic expansiveness of conductor Sakari Oramo’s generous gestures drew warm, detailed, truly sensitive playing from the visiting Swedish Orchestra, whose woodwind players conjured a wonderful pastoral ambience supported by the flowing reiteration of Barber’s underlying rocking momentum. The clangour and stridency of the streetcar’s intrusion was painted with precision, the jagged strings, stringent trumpet and frequent sparks and growls leaving no doubt of the threat posed by modernity.

Greater consolation was offered by Fleming’s encore, ‘Sure on This Shining Night’, Barber’s setting of an untitled poem by Agee which formed the third song in the Four Songs Op.13 of 1940. Fleming’s seamless lyricism was equalled by that of the cellos and horn, who relished their cantilena melodies, and complemented by the gently pulsing chordal accompaniment.

There was more magic and moonlit transcendence after the interval when Fleming returned to sing the ‘Transformation Scene’ from Strauss’s Daphne, in which Apollo, relinquishing his desire, grants Daphne the union with nature for which she yearns. Asking Zeus to transform Daphne into a laurel tree (effected here by Fleming’s departure, her subsequent wordless undulations floating ethereally from off-stage), Apollo enables her to escape from the corruption of the earthly world. I’m not sure that Fleming’s pitching of the sliding chromatic melodies was entirely or consistently accurate, but the lingering luxuriousness of her soprano remains the perfect medium through which to convey the ecstasy of her paean to everlasting love. The Stockholmers relished the sonic radiance of Strauss’s kaleidoscopic score, creating a dizzying colour-scape which swept the listener into fantastical lands.

The serenity of Daphne’s new beginning was extended in a second encore, Strauss’s ‘Morgen’ Op.27 No.4 - a serenity to which Lauren Stephenson’s gently trembling harp and Andrej Power’s blissful violin solo contributed in no small part.

The concert had begun with another fusion of landscape and memory, Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s Liguria (2012) being, in her own words, a ‘walking tour’ among the small villages of the Ligurian coast. The six linked sections - Onde [Waves], Orrizonte [Horizon], Sentiero azzurro [Bluth Path], Colori [Colours], Montagne [Mountain] and Stelle [Stars] - formed a beguiling canvas of diverse impressions, from Manarola’s clock towers to Monterosso’s parasol-strewn sands, from Vernazza’s cliffs to another starry night sky, this time above Corniglia.

At the close of Knoxville, we are troubled by the child’s loneliness: sleep smiles and ‘draws me unto her … but will not ever tell me who I am’. The final work of the programme, Nielsen’s Second Symphony (‘The Four Temperaments’) is also in some ways a search for what it is to be human. Led now by co-concert master Joakim Svenheden - there was a lot of democratic seat-swapping in this concert - the RSPO gave an absolutely captivating performance, during which they and their conductor seemed to be smiling, both figuratively and literally. No doubt there will be further smiles when Oramo returns with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he is also chief conductor, for the Last Night next week.

Claire Seymour

Prom 61: Andrea Tarrodi - Liguria (UK premiere); Samuel Barber -Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op.24; Richard Strauss - Daphne (Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme - ich komme’), Carl Nielsen - Symphony No.2 (‘The Four Temperaments’)

Renée Fleming (soprano), Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London; Wednesday 30th August 2017

[1] In interview with James Fassett, cited in Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music, Barbara B. Heyman (1994), 279.

[2] Letter, 19th November 1930, cited in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962).

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