United Kingdom BBC PROM 1 – Di Castri, Dvořák, Janáček: Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), BBC Singers; BBC Chorus & Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2019. (CC)
Zosha Di Castri – Long is the Journey, Short is the Memory (2019, World Premiere, BBC commission)
Dvořák – The Golden Spinning Wheel (Zlatý kolovrat), B197 (1896, first performance at Proms)
Janáček – Glagolitic Mass (1928)
The First Night of the 2019 Proms brought with it celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Wood and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was with the latter that we began.
New York-based Canadian composer Zosha di Castro (b.1985), who studied with Fred Lehdahl and Tristan Murail at Columbia University, where she is now an Assistant Professor, offered the first premiere of the season. Long is the Journey, Short is the Memory is inspired by mankind’s fascination with the moon. Here the choral forces were the BBC Singers in a piece that takes in a variety of literary views on the moon: Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), Xiaolu Guo (b.1973) and Sappho (c630-c570 BC). Goddesses associated with the Moon include Chang’e from Chinese legend (a beautiful Goddess who drank an elixir of immortality), who also gave her name to Chang’e 4, the craft that enabled China’s recent exploration of the far side of the Moon That Chinese mission included an experiment to grow plants in a sealed biosphere and therefore resulted in the first ever living matter to be grown on the Moon – a cotton plant sprouted.
In keeping with much contemporary music, the percussion department is augmented: there is a large array of gongs, and an ocean drum, the last of which gets its own solo moment. Sound effects include tuning keys scraping across the harps. Structurally, the very first sonority we hear, warm but somehow also otherwordly, acts as a sort of marker across the quarter-hour span of the work. A central panel offers a stiller space over a drone, indicating Man’s first steps on the moon, before the choir ponders the Chinese Goddess Chang’e. The work, rightly, reminds us of the aspirational time of the Moon landings, when the Earth’s population seemed to be thinking outwards, expanding into space; and although there is something of a reinvigoration of this today, much of our attention since has been directed inwards. Perhaps, Di Castri seems to be saying, we need to look outwards again.
Karina Canellakis is clearly at home with freshly-minted scores, given that her reading of Thomas Larcher’s Alle Tage (the UK premiere) in February was most impressive; that concert also pointed to someone who has a real affinity with the classics in a powerful Beethoven Seventh Symphony (review). Canellakis certainly inspired the BBC forces to their best, but she could not erase the impression that Di Castri’s score was something of a compendium of modern clichés, from the percussion emphasis to the massed brass gestures. The BBC Singers were their normal, impeccable selves in terms of tuning and rhythm, but actually hearing the words proved to be an issue. Throughout all this was the impression of a beautiful performance of a rather forgettable work, notable more for its philosophical basis that for its musical substance. There are some visual elements: the tube player seemed to be rubbing his hands to create a sound from something at one point, and there seemed to be a deliberate dropping of a score by one chorus member at the close.
Dvořák’s Zlatý kolovrat (The Golden Spinning Wheel) has had a bad rap, eschewed by the Proms until now. This seems remarkably unfair: it is a splendid example of programmatic music on a folk theme, a tale by Karel Eben. Heard in its full, flowing form (cuts are available), this was an affectionate performance. No missing the hunting horns of the beginning as the noble lord rides; he meets the maiden Dornička (muted strings and cor anglais). An evil stepmother, that constant fairytale trope, is the fly in the ointment – she plots to substitute her own daughter for Dornička in the marriage. She succeeds, only for it all to come apart when the daughter is presented with the golden spinning wheel of the title, which proceeds to tell the tale of substitution; Dornička is resurrected. One only need experience the recordings of Harnoncourt or Mackerras, or to remember the Berliner Philharmoniker under Rattle at the Barbican in 2015 (review) to be sure this is a major piece, charming, beautifully constructed, glowingly and imaginatively scored. If Canellakis did not quite rise to the heights of the three aforementioned luminaries, this was a more than creditable account, the BBCSO violins at their best in some of the tricky writing at speed. If the climax did not quite hold the sense of jubilation the score implies, one has to admire Canellakis’s mix of sound-painting and structural awareness. The BBC orchestra responded well to her, not least the creamy lower brass (trombones and tuba).
Both first half works were through-composed. The second part offered Janáček’s multi-movement Glagolitic Mass in its first version of 1928. This came under the new Proms heading of ‘Sir Henry Wood novelties’, as he had given the UK premiere in 1930 (not at the Proms). Jan Martiník was a late substitute for the promised Eric Owens as bass soloist. The piece is of course perfect for the First Night, inviting in a certain sense of largesse and power. I say ‘certain’ as Canellakis gave us a predominantly lyrical reading, enabling us to bask, for example, in the luminous scoring of the ‘Slava’ (Gloria). Her gestures are beautifully clear, encouraging long, cantabile lines and this was, from an ensemble point of view, a markedly tight Glagolitic. She was blessed with a line-up of soloists that went from the fine to the exceptional. The two clearly in the latter category were the soprano soloist, the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, with a voice of crystal clarity and supreme passion (there is a slight edge to her voice that works perfectly, and she can soar over a complex texture with ease); and the strong, fine tenor soloist Ladislav Elgr. Interestingly, both soprano and tenor soloists are Proms Debut Artists. Bass Jan Martiník shone in the ‘Svet; Blagoslovl’en Gredyj’ movement (Sanctus, Benedictus) – here the busy violins did struggle a little with the composer’s ultra-high and fast writing. Jennifer Johnston was a solid mezzo, but perhaps the finest soloist of all was the the non-vocal one, organist Peter Holder, sub-organist at Westminster Abbey and organ tutor at the Royal Academy of Music. His solo movement, the penultimate section (the work ends with ‘Intrada’), was astonishing, a demonstration of on the one hand fiery virtuosity and on the other the most precisely attuned playing to the composer’s wants and needs. Utterly remarkable.
The chorus was fervent, and one had to wonder in admiration at their opening, sighing gesture at the opening of the Credo, and its recurrences; the final choral movement, ‘Agneče Božij’ (Agnus Dei) held finely judged contrasts, a credit to Canellakis’s evidently fine ear.
A somewhat mixed experience, therefore, but with enough positives to bode well for the 2019 season. Inter-movement applause, whether moderately enthusiastic or hesitant, was an expected (read dreaded) part of the second half of the evening (I see this was commented on by my colleague John Quinn regarding last year’s First Night, again reviewed by myself, here).
For more about this year’s BBC Proms click here.