The venerated BBC Proms turns 125 this year, an occasion that also marks the 150th birthyear of its founder, the British conductor Sir Henry Wood, whose bust behind the stage (appropriately in wood) imperiously stares down over the festival’s only venue, the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. Historically intended for popular audiences and unfolding over eight weeks each summer, the Proms usually features a theme that unifies a fair number of its performance programs. With the two anniversaries in mind, this year’s focus is on “novelty,” including reprises of famous works that Wood introduced to British audiences for the first time, and a healthy dose of world premieres. Since we are also in the fiftieth-anniversary year of the first moon landing, works addressing the earth’s largest satellite, and outer space generally, occupy a notable place in this summer’s repertoire.
The concert of August 8 balanced old and new in a rather disjointed way, with the season’s lunar theme presiding over the newer works presented in the first half. The program opened with the Japanese composer Tōro Takemitsu’s thirteen-minute Twill by Twilight, a haunting one-movement orchestral piece dating from 1988. Its shimmering strings attempt to capture the nebulous moment between twilight and darkness, when the moon rises in all its mystery. Takemitsu, who came of age in the late 1940s under the influence of Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky, authored over a hundred film scores (including that of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran), and his orchestral corpus, like so many recent works of classical music, did not quite escape the film genre. Twill was diverting, perhaps, but left no memorable melody.
The Welsh composer Huw Watkins made a more vivid impression with the world premiere of his BBC–commissioned The Moon. Composed for orchestra and chorus, it sets three evocative moon-themed poems—by the British poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin and the American poet Walt Whitman—in a modulating ode that intends to capture not merely how humans perceive the moon, but also how the earth may be illuminated by it. Shelley’s “To the Moon” meditates on the moon as a weary body, a wasted feminine figure whose deathly pallor arouses only sympathy. The choral mood introduces a mournful harmony that forms Watkins’s principle theme. An interlude then introduces Larkin’s lines, which were written during World War II and invert the direction of lunar observation to imagine the moon’s light as a stark beam exposing the loss of comrades who have fallen in combat, never to return. Lines taken from Whitman’s Drum-Taps, a collection of American Civil War poems, seemed to revel in a frenzied and rather indulgent movement that was dominated by violins before it resolved to the original harmony that introduced Shelley’s poem. The BBC National Chorus of Wales, reinforced by the Philharmonia Chorus, gave a moving vocal account that impressed on account of its sheer immensity. But one wondered whether the moon might deserve jauntier music or a more profound study of its appealing contrasts. Watkins, in any case, was on hand to celebrate the premiere and soak in the applause.
To the palpable satisfaction of much of the audience, the second half of the concert returned to the traditional classics in the form of two Russian selections. It is unclear why they were paired with the first half’s lunar-themed compositions, but their familiarity alone offered a reasonable sense of balance. Sergei Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells (1913) was composed in Rome at the suggestion of an anonymous letter that turned out to have been sent by an admiring music student from Moscow. Embracing the pronounced, if now rather forgotten, popularity enjoyed in Russia by Edgar Allen Poe, whose works responded to the symbolist ethos that permeated the final decades of the Russian empire, the piece features lyrics from his poem, “The Bells” (known to the composer through a rather free translation by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont). The arc of the life cycle depicted in the piece is nearly apocalyptic in trajectory, leaving an effect that has been palpable since the work’s premiere under Rachmaninov’s direction in St. Petersburg less than a year before World War I sent the country spiraling toward ruin (and Rachmaninov into permanent exile). Displaying the composer’s creative powers at their height, the work draws from Russian Orthodox Christian liturgical traditions. In the second movement, labeled “Mellow Wedding Bells,” the silvery soprano Natalya Romaniw gave a sensitive and almost seductive account of a bride anticipating marriage. Secular artistic adaptations served Rachmaninov well as effective models for later life stages. The third movement, “Loud Alarm Bells,” resounded with terrifying reflections of the Coronation Scene in Modest Mussorgsky’s quintessentially national opera Boris Godunov. The finale, “Mournful Iron Bells,” departs from Poe’s doom and gloom, which ends in the cold finality of the grave, and allows Rachmaninov to end on a soaring note of luminous harmony, suggesting that redemption is, in fact, attainable. The tenor Oleg Dolgov and the baritone Iurii Samoilov did well in their respective parts.
The concert concluded with the famous “Polovtsian Dances” from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Left unfinished at the time of the composer’s premature death in 1887 (perhaps, ironically, after dancing), the opera recounts the earliest written tale of Russia’s medieval past, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign. Indulging in the modish orientalism of the final decades of Russia’s imperial era, Borodin’s opera straddles the East–West distinction typical of the debate about the nature of Russian society in relation to the rest of the world. As the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a Russian peasant woman, Borodin personified this divide, and his opera stands as one of its most powerful and enduring artistic expressions. Defeated by the Polovtsian Khan Konchak, Prince Igor finds in his conqueror a delightful host who hopes to embrace him as a friend and ally. The “Polovtsian Dances,” famously choreographed in a set piece for the Ballets Russes by Michel Fokine, serve in the opera as a lavish entertainment for the captive Igor to observe the Khan’s power and to appreciate the bounteous wonders promised by his slave girls. The piece is, of course, best enjoyed with a full corps de ballet, but it is important to recall that its first outing came in concert form at a Moscow performance in 1879, years before it reached the operatic stage. (Henry Wood conducted the dances in London’s first performance, in 1897.) Here the full forces of the National Welsh and Philharmonia Choruses blasted away, this time with excellent Russian diction. As in the other pieces, the maestro Tadaaki Otaka led the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with true dynamism and admirable authority.