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20 Jul 2019

Prom 1: Karina Canellakis makes history on the opening night of the Proms 2019

The young American conductor Karina Canellakis made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms last night (19 July 2019) as she conducted the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall with soloists Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass) and Peter Holder (organ) in Zosha Di Castri's Long is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (the world premiere of a BBC commission), Antonin Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Karina Canellakis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the 2019 Proms

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Ladislav Elgr (tenor)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri's new piece had been commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing almost to the day (on 20 July 1969). The work used a large symphony orchestra (including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets, tuba and three percussion), plus the BBC Singers, and Di Castri interwove three diverse texts, extracts from Giacomo Leopardi's 1820 Italian poem Alla luna, fragments of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho (in English) and a recent text by Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo which references the 1969 Moon landing, the legend of the Chinese goddess of the Moon and the recent Chinese exploration of the far side of the Moon, resulting in a complex multi-layered work which perhaps tried a little too hard to fit too much into its 15 minute duration. Di Castri certainly created a series of striking textures, from the shimmering, glittering over deep bass notes of the opening to busier more vivid moments, she has strong ear for imaginative timbres. Perhaps if the BBC Singers' diction had been somewhat clearer, maybe the work needs a rather larger choir than this, but there were too many moments when the choir contribution was a somewhat distant eerie evocation. On first hearing, the piece did not always read structurally, though Canellakis drew superb performances from her performers.

The programme was very much an evening of 'novelties', with Zosha Di Castri's world premiere being followed by the first Proms performance of Dvořák’s tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, and Janáček’s mass which is one of the 30 works being celebrated in this year's Proms as being 'novelties' introduced to the UK by Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms.

The Golden Spinning Wheel is one of a group of tone poems which Dvořák wrote in 1896 on his return to his native Bohemia after his period in New York as director of the National Conservatory. It is a long piece, around 30 minutes, which narrates quite closely the folk tale as told in the ballad by 19th century Bohemian poet Karel Jaromír Erben. Dvořák’s orchestral writing successfully evokes the world the folk tale with the hunting, horse-riding prince, the seductively spinning young woman and the evil step-mother (cue some striking orchestral writing), but by keeping so closely to the narrative detail rather than more generally evoking the themes, Dvořák left himself little time for development and the result at times seemed a series of short breathed episodes. Canellakis drew fine playing from the orchestra, lovingly creating Dvořák’s colourful and beautiful writing.

Karina Canellakis.jpgKarina Canellakis conducts the BBCSO. Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass was premiered in 1928, but has a somewhat complex textual history with Janáček having to hastily revise (simplify) the work just prior to the premiere. Canellakis opted for the final published version from 1930, but previous BBC Proms outing of the work have explored the re-constructions of Janáček’s more complex first thoughts. However, in all its forms the work remains an immense challenge with Janáček’s vocal and instrumental writing taking no prisoners. It is noticeable that in the last 30 years, Western European choirs and orchestras have become more accustomed to Janáček’s style and the writing in the Glagolitic Mass no longer feels quite on the edge of the possible. In fact, one of the features of this BBC Proms performance under Karina Canellakis' direction was how beautifully the work was shaped and performed. Some of the most notorious choral passages were not simply negotiated by the BBC Symphony Chorus, but sung musically and expressively. And the same goes for the soloists, particularly Ladislav Elgr who sang the taxing high tenor part in a way which made it seem the most natural outpouring of religious expression.

Canellakis seemed to take quite a symphonic view of the work, this was beautifully shaped and highly expressive. The radiant sound of the choir and orchestra in the 'Gospodi pomliluj' (Lord have mercy) was magical, and throughout she created beauty out of Janáček’s cragginess. Thanks to the finely technical expertise of the performers, this was a highly sophisticated experience. Perhaps I slightly missed the sheer perverse rawness of some performances, the sense of communal struggle. Janáček’s image of an immense natural cathedral seemed to have been if not tamed perhaps somewhat tidied. More importantly, I did not always feel the intensity of the meaning of the work, whilst Janáček was not necessarily a conventional believer nor is the mass a straightforward liturgical work, but it is certainly about belief and about God. This did not always come across, and for all the many choral beauties it did not feel as if the chorus meant every note and word, and it should.

The soloists are variously challenged in the piece. Asmik Grigorian sang with plangent beauty, making Janáček’s lines radiant without ever quite convincing that the text meant very much to her. Jennifer Johnston, in the short mezzo-soprano part, was wonderfully expressive and trenchant, and I have only the greatest admiration for tenor Ladislav Elgr. Jan Martiník, stepping in as bass soloist at the last minute, sang the bass part almost from memory and made every note seem as if he really meant it. Organist Peter Holder was simply dazzling, in Janáček’s outrageous solo moments for organ, making the Royal Albert Hall organ move with great dexterity.

Robert Hugill

PROM 1: Zosha Di Castri - Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (BBC commission: world premiere); Dvořák - The Golden Spinning Wheel; Janáček - Glagolitic Mass (final version, 1928; Henry Wood Novelties: UK premiere, 1930)

Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Peter Holder (organ), Karina Canellakis (conductor), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 19th July 2019.

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