Thing of the Day

The Rite of Spring at tonight's Proms

July 19th 2011

So you think the Proms is all about that last night flag waving nonsense? No, forget that, forget the Last Night, and get what the Proms in all their brilliance are, celebrate Henry Woods and his vision of music for the people.  

And tonight, at the Royal Albert Hall in West London, part of the programme is a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite Of Spring.  When this was first performed as a ballet in 1913 it caused riots… These days, you're more likely to see a big posse of longhairs and avant rock t-shirts wearers in the queue at the back of the Albert Hall for the annual orchestral performance - might even be turning into the other Proms tradition. 

 Why Stravinsky? Here's an Organ article (about Dominique Leone's amazing recordings and forthcoming performance of Les Noces) with a few pointers: organthing194

 Or just trust your ears:

Exerpt of the Joffrey Ballet re-creation of the original performance (the one that caused the riot):

:Igor Stravinsky ,The Rite of Spring - Sacrificial Dance

Rare footage of the man himself conducting Firebird…

A previous Organ review will explain why you deserve to go Promming:   

JOHN ADAMS / BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA - Royal Albert Hall, London, 21st Aug 2007 
Off to the Proms and the glorious, grandiose Royal Albert Hall then. How many Londoners take advantage of this treat on their doorstep? Only five pounds to get in to the standing ‘promenade’ area if you take a risk and just turn up beforehand - just get in the queue and hope there isn’t a thousand in front of you.  
Everyone should try it at least once in their lives - it is only live music after all - just live music and no one is going to bite you (might just get hooked though). Robert Newman and Henry Woods’ vision, you see: a season of concerts with the intention of opening up the possibilities of classical music to a wider audience.  A tradition started some one hundred and eleven years ago and still going strong.  However much the more expensive tickets for a Proms performance maybe in demand and indeed sold out, there’s always some one thousand very reasonably priced five pounds standing tickets available to those willing to turn up and queue on the day. That’s how it has been since 1895, that is the Proms.
A last minute shall we go for it rush down to Kensington on the 52 bus. John Adams is always worth checking out, rewardingly avant yet very easy to flow with, not awkward just for the sake of it, always slightly different. Vivid contemporary colourful intricate harmonic highly charged classical/operatic music is what American composer John Adams has for you. Oh yes, John Adams is always worth checking out (you post-rock magpies could’ve ‘borrowed’ a hundred cool riff ideas tonight!). We make it in with minutes to spare, thankfully less than a thousand have taken advantage of the Henry Woods legacy tonight, a rush around to the side door and we get our Proms tickets - last in and politely hurried to take our place in front of the orchestra just before John Adams walks out, in white jacket, to respectful cheers and enthusiastic applauds. The rest of the hall is pretty full, politely comfortable in the standing promenade area - and far less stuffy and formal than you’d imagine it would be. All you have to do is keep quiet during the music. No dress code, bring a cushion, stretch out on the floor if you like - this is going to be fun.  

Albert hall

A Copeland piece first then, conducted by John Adams. The Billy The Kid Suite - you may not think you know Aaron Copeland’s music, but you do. Copeland pretty much is the first half of the 20th Century as far as American orchestral music goes - you’ll know it when you hear it, so instantly recognisable and unmistakable - such an influence. You really do feel you are listening and viewing in letterbox Big Country widescreen. It really is something special to be standing there with a full orchestra in front of you - you just don’t get the sensation or the (relatively quiet - well, to this metalhead anyway) power when you’re sat at home letting a television editor select your views for you - this is brilliant!  The unified movement of an eye-level string section really is something to behold. Copeland’s scores flow, they float, they tell stories - somehow, he captured both the sense of hope and optimism of pioneer America, and the physical bigness of the landscape.    Billy The Kid is a ballet score based on the life of the cowboy outlaw - a wide open expansive piece and the sound of the great American West - and there goes a delightful slice in 5/8... others have imitated but the source sounds incredibly fresh.

A short break for breath (and polite coughing) and John Adams is back, still in his white jacket and ready to conduct a thrilling piece of his own called Century Rolls. Impressively delicate almost mechanical notes open and lead us into a piece that features an absolutely mesmerising Finnish pianist called Olli Mustonen - how on earth does he play like that? How does he hit the right notes with those expansive arm movements? Those fingers come from such a height. The main body of the orchestra looks - to this untrained eye - to be pretty conventional, save for the array of strange and rather impressive percussion - giant Chinese gongs, tubular bells... We’re talking warm inviting math here, a bright rhythmic alertness and once again that captivating coordinated arm movement of the string section that occurs just above the standing heads of the crowd - a sea of violins, arms moving like waves. All kinds of classical references to Twenties and Thirties jazz and bebop - drifting into dreamy passages and never for a moment letting you out of its grasp. It's incredibly detailed, dense, often with layers and layers of fast notes weaving together to make a shimmering texture. It seems ridiculous that he was lumped in with minimalist composers like Philip Glass at the start of his career: this couldn't be more of a contrast, and not for nothing are people bandying around the phrase 'maximalist'.   Thirty-one wonderfully captivating thrilling sometimes very delicately gentle minutes - and all with that amazing piano.  

The thing about John Adams is that you don’t feel that he’s isolated and closed to outside influences - he’s of a generation that has naturally absorbed all kinds of music, which means, even thought he’s incredibly complex and full of detail, it makes perfect sense to our ears - just down to earth, emotional and human yet rewardingly avant garde at the same time.  It's only 'challenging' if you're a musician - for all the super-complexity of the rhythms and melodies Adams' music is incredibly human and incredibly easy to digest.  Century Rolls is based around the style and animation of 20th Century mechanical player-piano music - hence passages which sound brilliantly like analogue sequencers burble away, but weirdly infected by human feeling. Century Rolls' final section, cheerily titled Hail Bop, has even more references to avant player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow (Adams is much nicer to listen to, apparently), and concludes to joyous applause and cheers.  

Second half of the evening is taken up by the (much anticipated) world premier of a new symphonic version of a 2005 John Adams opera, the original three-hour score stripped of narrative and compressed into the Doctor Atomic symphony. A thirty-five minute piece in four parts, it revolves around Robert Oppenheimer, the moral dilemma of nuclear invention and the creation of the atom bomb.  Things get off to a dark and rather intense, almost heroic start: the race to create the bomb that will save the world... or destroy it; the personal conflicts of the people involved - quite a musical contrast to Century Rolls. This is imagination-firing stuff... Not as easy to grasp as the previous works tonight but moments burn into the memory, especially passages heavy on percussion that are indescribable in the acoustics of the Albert Hall, and probably impossible to capture on record.  Which brings us back neatly round to why you have to give this experience a go - stuff a fiver in your pocket, find the little door and the friendly people round the back of the Albert Hall, bring a cushion and some ears - no flags required - although at time of writing you've only got a week of Proms left - check the listings for what's on.     

   Modern orchestral/contemporary classical music lives behind a big scary invisible wall; the likes of us get glimpses of delicious sounds but haven't the foggiest where to start.  Adams may well be the best to begin with: for all the depth and subtlety and multi-layered meaning and harmonic complexity in his work - it rocks.   Edgy story telling music, connected with what's going on with the world, deeply emotional, shape-shifting, avant and complex yet never willfully hard to listen to... this is the music of now, of our time and place.  Listen for yourself, the concert is up on line for a week - or explore John Adams via his website -

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