Ryan Bancroft and the BBC NOW in an excellent American-themed Prom  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2021 [6]: Thomas, Ives, and Dvořák: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.8.2021 (MB)

Ryan Bancroft conducts at the Royal Albert Hall (c) Chris Christodoulou

Augusta Read Thomas – Dance Foldings (world premiere)

Ives – Orchestral Set No.1: Three Places in New England

Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95, ‘From the New World’

An excellent American-themed concert from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its Californian Principal Conductor, Ryan Bancroft. It began, as is right, with a new work: Augusta Read Thomas’s Dance Foldings. For the 150th anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall, founded to promote the arts and sciences alike, the BBC has commissioned four new works to reflect the arts and sciences in our world. Dance Foldings is the first, Thomas taking as the starting point for her material ‘the metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms and images inspired by the biological ‘ballet’ of proteins as they are being assembled and folded in or bodies’. As she observes, the animations one can view online of proteins folding can resemble assembly lines or ballets, both types strongly suggesting ‘musical possibilities’. The sense of ballet music, even without dancers, was strong from the opening: hard-edged, sharply rhythmic, ‘alive-from-the-inside’. The orchestra, including piano, suggested a post-Agon world, perhaps even some commonality with Henze, though it was Stravinsky who more frequently came to mind. There were rhythmic, melodic cells, but there was also, increasingly, mirroring, chain-like progression, and transformation, leading us through a musical maze that suggested something both spontaneous and yet, once done, set in stone (or, perhaps, an amino acid chain). Urgent, unquestionably forward-looking, and highly colourful, it was a work and performance both raucous and controlled, as if evoking a life-force more scientific than often one encounters in the concert hall.

Charles Ives’s First Orchestral Set, Three Places in New England, followed, an all too rare opportunity to hear Ives’s orchestral music in the concert hall. I would not say the misty opening of ‘“The St Gaudens” in Boston Common’ sounded more ‘modern’, but rather differently modern, its known/found melodies notwithstanding. In highly atmospheric, expertly shaped performance, it sounded like music of the clouds and/or music emerging from the clouds. Ligeti was not far beyond — or should that be behind? At any rate, Ives’s pioneering spirit was unquestionably, poetically present. ‘Putnam’s Camp’ was admirably clear, the riot of tunes heard against each other and gaining from that experience without losing their own identity. There was a fine sense of what I thought of as the programmatically spatial: this was music in some sense ‘about’ space, temporal space included, irrespective of the space in which it was performed, or at least not confined by that latter space. Still more mysterious at its heart, the movement seemed to explore the age-old dramatic dichotomy of private and public, as well as old and new, in ways that never ceased to surprise and to enliven. Enigmatic, liminal, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ proved in its breadth as complex as its predecessor — so long as one listened. There was something ineffably human at its base or its far-away, aurally glimpsed hymn-book source, but there were no easy questions, let alone answers.

The New World Symphony opened similarly broadly, as if in keeping with social distancing on stage, yet with no lack of tension. Bancroft’s principal tempo for the Allegro molto was, if anything, on the swift side, but not unreasonably so. He was flexible too, permitting keen woodwind plenty of opportunity to sing. There were some strikingly Wagnerian moments to this first movement: harmonically, but also in the way the cellos ‘spoke’. Grave brass and soft strings prepared the way for that melody in the Largo. It moved, without being harried; in short, again it sang. As did much else: not in one voice, but in many, more than the sum of their parts, not entirely unlike Ives’s music. Bancroft shaped the movement unobtrusively, comprehendingly, another nice touch being the nod to Mendelssohnian processional (the second movement of the Italian Symphony, as in the First Night’s Sibelius Second). Indeed, there was a strong sense of narrative: not necessarily programmatic, but not necessarily not either. A properly urgent scherzo, to which harmony was as crucial as rhythm (or melody) gave way, through somewhat disorienting transition, to a polished, lyrical, rhythmic trio. As for the finale, this may sound facile — perhaps it is — but it combined and culminated. Lyricism was just as crucial here as elsewhere. What a tremendous symphony this is, in quite a different league from any other by Dvořák; and so it sounded here.

Mark Berry

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