Thursday, 7 August 2008

Prom 27: Bananas, Belle Epoque, and Waterlilies

I think I can predict most reviewers' reactions* to this Prom's Bolero, that is, if any bother to do any more than dismiss it in a couple of lines. So I shall try to get my retaliation in first. Tonight's performance had much more substance than a mere ice lollipop handed out to the audience on a hot stifling evening to thank them for sitting (or standing) through the serious stuff.

It actually made, as these programmes sometimes (and sometimes very mischievously) do, connections (musical, I mean, not ideological) with what had gone before that you don’t expect: most obviously in a kind of temporal or epochal consanginuity with the Stravinsky, but also with Benjamin’s own piece which I'll write about later. His decision to follow the Pavane pour une infante defunte directly without a pause, which might have appeared whimsical, actually did make contextual sense.

Benjamin set that neatly in a pre-war decade, before the world lost both its innocence and its money for the first time, or so people once said, as it has again all too many times even in George Benjamin’s lifetime.

It was clear that he and the BBCSO were mentally and emotionally in France, and not even within sight of the Spanish border. There was nothing of Velasquez here; there was the delicate colouring of a Monet watercolour in the strings and the harp, backlit with flashes of the richer colouring and fleshiness of a Renoir nude in sometimes very darkly coloured strings.

This, you had the feeling, was une infante who had an inkling she was destined to become defunte later in that equally drug-riddled, psychologcally edgy era of the kind we think we’ve invented that was also the belle epoque—and was dancing away her last years of adolescence. It was a very stylish, beguiling, knowing, cleverly constructed performance.

And now forget (please, it’s about time we, or at least we the Brits did) that ice skating Bolero that’s blighted the poor orphaned thing again for the last umpteen years. Benjamin’s was well into the post war belle epoque this time, but with the crash impending any moment: no flossy evocation of prancing wasp-waisted, slim-hipped matadors, this was cigarette factory sex, bosoms, Josephine Baker and sultry dancing in skirts made of bananas.

At times it was so sensuous, thanks to the swaying smoky jazz cafe woodwinds with their clever touch of syncopation, you could have rolled cigars on its thighs. It was the jazz era hitting Paris—as interpreted by Gertrude Stein.

Robert Maycock of the Independent wrote in the notes “all that happens in Boléro, apart from the big harmonic surprise close to the end, is that a pulse continues unchanged, and alternating melodic lines return in changing orchestral colours. On another, Ravel lavished all his sophisticated skill on making a substantial, perfectly timed form out of these few dimensions. You just try making a crescendo build for 10 minutes.” Benjamin had no diffculty at all with that; he made it sound simple.

And it was tense, a tension that increased relentlessly almost bar by bar until its climax. And, probably, had they heard this performance, also that of both Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein.

But it was the jazz-influenced orchestral colours of both the woodwind and the brass that made it sound as though there was a lot more happening than usual; some of those melodic lines suddenly and unexpectedly growling threateningly and anguished out of the brass section like a very big Parisian Apache with a knife looming out of the back door of a subterannean club in a dark Parisian alleyway . . . There was a strong hint of that dark underbelly of the period that Cocteau lived in in that.

Someone, whose name I missed because I had my head in the fridge looking for some ice for my whisky, commented in the interval that George Benjamin has an impeccable sense of pace, and doesn’t he just. It must be the envy of a good many far more experienced conductors.

And that, if you want to get back to the way Ravel probably thought of it at the beginning before he practically obliged himself to disown it, is just what the Bolero must have as a base to lift it from the banal rigmarole it so often has become. No way would Ravel have made the complaint he did to Toscanini that it was too fast. The acceleration was perfection.

You can tell me I’m just a kid still, if you want, I don’t damn well care, but I found tears of sheer joy running down my cheeks listening to this Bolero, and I'm not at all surprised that both the audience and the conductor were wearing grins as broad as Josephine Baker's hips when the applause and cheers erupted.

It was one of those prom endings that sends you away happier, or at least reassured, with life; even when, as with tonight’s other pieces either side of the interval, you have also felt the fingers of its traumas counting down your vertebrae and pausing ominously one handspan to the left, and wonder what it’s all really for. Even the weather gods must have felt something of all that; in the minutes after the concert ended the darkening violet London sky over Kensington was lit up with vivid flashes of lightning.

There is some Messaien, like some Boulez, I just cannot manage, try as I might, and believe me, I really have tried over the years. The orchestral L’Ascension is one I’ve had to give up on. It struck me that Benjamin was conducting it more as a pupil of Alexander Goehr than as a Messaien accolyte, but other than that I will leave it to Evan at PromsAmerica, Classical Iconoclast or Boulezian to give you a better insight than I can into how it went.

The Prommers (and the BBCSO through the season) have a few conductors they fall in love with and hug to their hearts. When you’re in the hall, the feeling is tangible even before the concert starts; and if you listen to the broadcast recording, you’ll sense it even in that, because George Benjamin is one of them. John Adams, any American readers might be surprised to hear, is another.

(I do hope I don’t get into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner with my cigar-rolling metaphor or Gertrude Stein. . . If you don’t believe me about this, and I can tell already you probably don't, you still have six days to catch this Prom on the iPlayer. Listen to it all the way through, but ignore the couple of accidental squeaks from the horns in the Bolero—it was a hot, humid, muggy night and the stage lights would have been very hot on them by then, none of that good for horns—in one bar, they don’t matter.)

* My predictions don't always come true.  At least Andrew Clements in The Guardian didn't write it off, and nor did Neil Fisher in the Times, so  there's hope yet. . . My  crystal ball must have gone out of tune. I did use an A=440 tuning fork last time, didn't  I?

(R3 relay)

Prom 27: Ravel: Pavane pur une infante defunte, Bolero


Anonymous said...

JIWON: I know this is my second time... just let you know that I usually read all the comments, but this time I am too tired... I just left my Barenboim-message in all of Proms-comments. Sorry if it bothers you. I promise not to destroy your blog again.

Prommer said...

It doesn't bother me. But I would like people to comment on what I'm writing too. It feels lonely sometimes . . .

Anonymous said...

Hope others think like you. Well… I couldn't survive without terrific comments from private bloggers, but I’m afraid that I am soon going to quit this work. I know how lonely it is for I was doing this work for more than ten years with all professional music critics, who pretended not to know me but actually wrote for me. If… if you ever feel pity on my life, could you please tell all your friends to visit my blog? Thank, really.