There isn’t much to ‘Strike up the Band’, really, but all the same, it was a lovely rousing welcome to the Prom that really made me hear the roar of the greasepaint. It brought back vivid memories of my first ever visit to a provincial circus big top when I was a little boy—it would look much smaller than many a PR bash marquee I’ve been in since, I suspect, if I saw it now. A clown in desperately sad makeup (it had frightened me a little) took me round the back of the caravans and generators to see what, until he cheered up a little in the ring later for his spell in front of an audience and produced some very hammy snarls, looked like an even more unhappy tiger.
Both are probably long dead, neither I imagine guessed, any more than I, it would lead me to a fascination with both theatrical and musical performances, let alone to the backstage of theatre for a while when I grew up, and I have felt sorry for them both, as well as grateful, all these years. But I was just as bouncily happy, and just as expectantly on the edge of my seat, when Charles Hazelwood and the BBC Concert Orchestra struck up their overture as I was when that tiny five-piece circus band struck up theirs then and I was hoping to see ‘my’ tiger happy too.
The BBC Concert Orchestra, is not a ‘light’ orchestra and certainly not a lightweight one. They excel at twentieth century music like this Prom’s, and, as we have heard at previous Proms recently in other 20th century repertoire you might think more the province of the BBCSO or even the London Sinfonietta. And so they did in Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto with Michael Collins on clarinet. “Full,” he said it was, of rhythmic complexity and incredible colours.” And under Hazelwood’s direction, pared down to almost Weill-ian spareness and rhythms, every strand counting, so, so clearly, it was.
This was not Benny Goodman’s Ebony. Nor Woody Herman’s, of which, apparently, Stravinsky said all he could remember was the cigarette smoke: “They didn’t blow horns, they blew smoke . . .” Perhaps because smoking is completely banned in public buildings (one day I am going to get pneumonia through being forced outside with my cigarette) this was not a performance in a smoke-filled club. It was cabaret—and Cabaret—and aware of the desolate dawn hours when the audience has gone, the floorboards are sticky with spilt liquor, and the bleak unenticing 40-watt bulbs have replaced the glamorous glare of the spotlights and coloured floodlight gels.
I daresay you may think I have an overactive imagination—but isn’t music supposed to stimulate the imagination, unless it emanates from Darmstadt or IRCAM?—and I’m harping on this sort of thing too much, but this was not 1945, assuredly not Hollywood, but in its darker tones the pre-war decadent Berlin clubland of Christopher Isherwood. With the SA inside titillating their warped libidos, and outside drunkenly ready to smash windows and start fights. Very like our own dear London clubland in 2008.
Quite often, a Proms season develops an ethos around some works, quite independent of the different orchestras, conductors and soloists, and so one has developed this year. I have begun to feel this, and tried to express it, in more than one of the concerts recently. It must be some kind of influence in the atmosphere; I am sure the conductors don’t get together with the Proms director and discuss their interpretations in advance, nor with each other, but nonetheless it does happen.
So the second ‘blues’ movement, lightly syncopated, just off-the-beat, was edgier than the New Orleans funeral march superficially it might have appeared. There was a nervous, fractious Mac-the-Knife sharpness to it that might have been the sound of jackboot s and marching, and red flags tearing too.
And so, in the last movement as the clarinet darkened ominously, after the almost elegiac and sombre beginning somehow the Ebony Concerto found itself, finally, in New York, not in Harlem, but somewhere under the night-time shadow of the Chrysler Building and the lights of the Empire State. (With a suggestion King Kong and Fay Wray might be on top, if you could only see through the rising steam from the sidewalk grids.) it was firmly rooted in the jazz inventors and all their migrations to and from Louisiana, Chicago, and New York in those fifty preceding years.This was a unique performance.
Though when Collins said “we should hear more of it” he meant the Concerto itself (and I have loved it for years—I discovered it via jazz, not classical music—and felt the same, and never understood why we don’t) he wasn’t expecting us to come back again to his, the BBCCO’s and Hazelwood’s, I shall.
I can’t really take Bernstein’s ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ on any level other than as a jeu d’esprit combined with a sort of ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Jazz Age”, and again, that confounded ‘Stripper’ sneaks in . . . I’d either forgotten, or others fade down the spotlights for those bars, but perhaps they should have thrown it a dressing gown or something and rushed it off stage.
But the BBCCO managed to combine, again, a touch of Weillian sparseness in the ‘prelude’ (brilliant, risky, use of mutes, and the hell with the size of the Albert Hall and whether the people up in the gods would have heard that at all!*) with vivid colours in a really glorious ‘fugue’, joyous ‘riffs’ and an incredibly spirited no-holds-barred big-band ending. Superb performance: it came closer than I ever imagined to conning me into taking it as real jazz in places.
Over Gershwin’s American in Paris, I shall not be shamed. Why shouldn’t I love it? Pace David Gutman’s notes it is a little shining diamond, still shiny after 80 years—80 years!—and diamonds can be flawed and still worth showing off, can’t they? The notes, by the way—it’s a bit of a cheat, really, but it is handy—quote Gershwin’s own ‘programme’ for it, so I’ll steer clear of that.
Despite a vivacious ‘Moulin Rouge’, beginning, there were some horrid blunders in it, and it took quite a few bars for the band to recover and get a grip again. (See my note at the end of this piece**.) Like true pros, they did, however, with the soloists doing a very ‘jazzbo’ job of it, the band even allowing themselves an utterly unashamed blatant (you could see Katie Courie’s lower lip wobbling) sentimentality in the ‘homesickness’ part. It might get it sneered at in some quarters, but it was honest. No clever-clever irony here: there’s none in the score, after all.
If I’m going to be honest too, and I suppose I’d better be, it was a rather ‘Barnum and Bailey’ piece of musical theatre. But I did end up wanting to dance around the flat waving a feather boa (I’m a cripple now, so I can’t really, any more) but at least I could tap my feet, shake my shoulders and click my fingers in delight, and in time, all through the closing section. And as the horn’s last notes died away, my lower lip did a little Katie Courie wobble, I admit, until the band successfully got me grinning again with their hectic ‘mad-taxis-round-the-Arc de Triomphe’ ending. A lovely close to this ‘jazz age’ Prom.
Prom 31: Gershwin: Strike up the Band; An American in Paris; Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto; Bernstein: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.
* Actually, I’m just pandering to outdated prejudices, which some visiting conductors, soloists and orchestras still hold, despite, I presume, the Beeb’s engineers telling them it’s different now. They would have. Since the minor relocation of the flying saucers, the quietest ppp an orchestra is capable of can now be heard clearly up there, and pretty well everywhere else. Gerghiev,I think, was the first to make a trial of that in one concert. (He’s said to take an interest in the technical aspects, unlike many.) I wouldn’t have believed it (it would have been on the threshold of audibility anywhere) if I hadn’t been there.
**Sometimes, my theatrical past atavistically arising, I wish the BBC would borrow some West End stage hands. Some nights, like tonight, the stage-shifting (or rather instrument and music-stand rearranging) can be interminable, and it seriously damages the atmosphere. And, I think, can also unsettle the players, which might explain a few terribly clumsy bars in the American in Paris when the players lost it almost as badly as the audience had earlier which really made me wince.
Also tonight a producer’s worst nightmare came true. Somebody (who no doubt is still sobbing in chagrin in a dark secluded corner of the Albert Hall’s basement, and like Gerghiev when he disappears down there—apparently he’s got a passion for exploring the bowels of the place during the intervals—may not be retrieved for ages) left the soloist’s score backstage before the Ebony Concerto . . .
If you’re interested (but I dare say you aren’t) a good many years ago, I think in the 70’s, there was a discussion in Hi-Fi News about which recordings of An American in Paris had the most authentic period Parisian taxi horns. (I was reminded of this by the presenter telling us that the percussionists did a good impersonation of Parisian drivers, waving their horns volatilely in each others’ faces.) The answer, I seem to recall, was the Cleveland/Maazel on Decca. I couldn’t vouch for their authenticity tonight, I’m afraid, but they sounded OK to me.