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16 Aug 2019

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

Prom 32: Brass of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, National Youth Orchestra of the USA conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: National Youth Orchestra of the USA conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


Reading the booklet before the National Youth Orchestra of the USA’s Prom, I was struck by something written by the young American composer, Benjamin Beckman, in his notes for his work, Occidentalis (2019). In the space of two sentences, he manages to mention human rights, freedom, xenophobia, voting patterns, poverty, religious persecution and immigration. The photograph accompanying his text is headlined ‘Chasing the American Dream’, and the very concept of westward migration into America is a central theme of Beckman’s piece. Today, all of these ideals are under threat - and Beckman’s Occidentalis, a composition written on the basis of what it means to be American, questions all of this.

Of course, the notion a nineteen-year old American composer should have a social conscience isn’t surprising, especially when contextualised through the prism of the century in which he was born and the politics which have shaped it. What is unusual is both the confidence with which he expresses it and the musical direction it takes. The very choice of the word he has used to title his short work, of which this was the European premiere, is rich with allusion: To the nautical maps used, the specific westward direction and even its Latinate origins which takes us through centuries of history. Migration is the bedrock on which American society was founded, which links it to western Europe, but which also gives it unlimited possibilities.

Musically, Occidentalis, if slight in length, is clever. If it most obviously evokes Copland in its opening, it’s strikingly forceful in alluding to one of the most notable émigré composers to take the journey westwards to the United States, Stravinsky. The brass writing for Occidentalis (Beckman is a horn player) is bright in the fragmented fanfares which suggest something of the New World; elsewhere, the impression is that horns and trombones are the confident link on which much of the threads of the work are held together. Strings can be rich in their depth, and woodwind are like kaleidoscopic fractals. Beckman - at least in this piece - is a composer who doesn’t look to the style of Adams or Glass, but backwards towards Howard Hanson.

The size of the orchestra for Occidentalis is vast; Berlioz, in his Les nuits d’été, uses a much smaller sized one. It’s clearly the case that the National Youth Orchestra of the USA can play supremely well at either end of this of orchestral spectrum - though the brilliance of their playing during the Berlioz songs was often quite extraordinary, even ravishing. In fact, the whole performance was so rich, so intense it was almost too much to bear at 11am on a Sunday morning. Much of this had to do with the mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, a singer who really takes us on a journey not necessarily into, but completely through, the music she sings. She forces audiences (much as Haitink could sometimes do with the Adagio of Mahler’s Third) to hear with such rapt silence, to draw thousands of people into a performance as if they were a single listener that the effect is little short of magical. Often during these songs you could hear a pin drop - the spell only broken by a smattering of unwelcome applause between them.

JDD with US NYO.jpgJoyce DiDonato. Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

If there is one theme which unites this wonderful cycle it is the loss of love, and an aching loneliness. DiDonato is perhaps a little more melancholic than most singers; and almost everything is in anticipation towards the emotional fulcrum of the cycle, ‘Absence’, where the grief and pain are expressed with little sense of resolution. Her lower register is to die for - the words almost loop and spiral around her voice like a dark shadow; it was beautifully tenebrous here. It’s often suggested that the first song in the cycle, ‘Villanelle’ works less well with the mezzo voice - but DiDonato has sufficient freshness and buoyancy in her tone to make it sound zesty and bubbly as it celebrates springtime for the lovers. But even here, there is a suggestion of pensiveness and desolation, of that to come. It works, because when she comes to the ‘Le spectre de la rose’ the phrases are haunted, like half-broken limbs on withered trees moving in a shallow breeze. There was a spectral quality to her voice, perhaps made even more breath-takingly colourful by an orchestra which seemed to play like phantoms against it.

If ‘Sur les lagunes’ is one of the most melancholic of the cycle it is also one of the most evocative, especially through the orchestra. DiDonato brought all the breadth - and depth - of Purcellian lament to Gautier’s poem; Pappano drew the sound of waves washing against the edges of her voice. In ‘Au cimetière’ those ghostly apparitions, the bereavement among the tombs, took wing through the mezzo’s darkened timbre. If DiDonato felt pale, gently reposed and singing through the orchestra rather than over it simply added to the impression that both were walking through the cemetery in shimmering veils. With L’île inconnue’ we return to the more sparkling, feverish intensity of the first song, though with the theme that love is both unattainable and eternal. DiDonato sung it ripe with hope, the upper register of the voice teetering on the edge of a glimmering scintilla of newly discovered freshness - but the careful phrasing suggested otherwise.

This was a performance which in some ways looked indisputably towards Mahler and his song cycles. DiDonata’s voice has all the range, from the bottom to the top, of an organic instrument; in many ways it is a paradox. It can be Romantic - but its horizon goes beyond this into expressionism. Antonio Pappano drew hugely descriptive, lovingly phrased playing from the strings and woodwind of the scaled-down orchestra. By any standards, this was a magnificent performance.

Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie saw the National Youth Orchestra of the USA back at full strength for a performance of this mountain-climbing tone poem which was very much - rather appropriately as it happened - a young person’s hike up and down its craggy Alpine summit. Antonio Pappano doesn’t linger in this score, dashing it off in a little over forty minutes. It didn’t always feel this fast, with the opening and closing ‘Night’ sections having a brassy breadth to them which sometimes challenged the orchestra. But at its best, at its most precarious, this was a thrilling and dangerous performance which had the orchestra sliding on the ice, almost losing balance on the glacier and never bothering to take cover from a thunderstorm of earth-shaking intensity.

The Royal Albert Hall is almost made for Strauss’s epic Tone Poems. The wash of sound Alpensinfonie gives off is unforgettable - perhaps no more so than in the twelve off-stage horns, and pairs of trombones and trumpets, here played superbly from the galley by the brass of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain - but it’s also a work which reveals much through its inner details. Clearly the conductor matters here, or at least his ear does. I remember Giuseppe Sinopoli’s last Prom (given with the Philharmonia Orchestra in August 1990) of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben where the detail from the orchestra was simply magnificent. Pappano didn’t really worry about such things; ‘Vision’ really was a mess of musical hieroglyphics and occluded textures, harps pretty much inaudible (they really don’t need to be - and they were on my side of the platform).

But who is ever going to forget the ‘Thunderstorm’ unleashed by these players? There is no more vivid representation of a storm in all music, and this was one of the best played performances of it I have heard. It was shockingly good. A wind machine one could actually hear, incisive timpani playing - the whole thing was just wild and tremendous fun. Amid all this virtuosity, this was also a performance which was not short on taste. Here is an orchestra, not massively over-compensated for in strength of numbers as some youth orchestras tend to be, which has beautiful tonal, and even, weight in the strings and a blended, golden woodwind section. This was an impressive, triumphant performance, to close a memorable Prom.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Four on Friday 16th August 2019 and is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Marc Bridle

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Antonio Pappano, (conductor)

Brass of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, National Youth Orchestra of the USA.

Royal Albert Hall, 11th August 2019.

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