REVIEW: PROM 58 – The Sound of an Orchestra (RPO / Weilerstein)

PROM 58 The Sound of an Orchestra
Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou


PROM 58 – The Sound of an Orchestra
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein
(Royal Albert Hall. 26 August 2018. Review by John L. Walters)

Orchestration, the craft of combining two or more instrumental sounds, is of vital interest to all kinds of musicians and listeners, from jazz arrangers to remix engineers. And it is an art that reaches its most nuanced and complex form in the symphony orchestra, as you can hear by downloading the BBC Recording of Prom 58  and listening from 1:32:00, the start of the second half.

The title, ‘The Sound of an Orchestra’ was taken from Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated 1965 Lincoln Center TV broadcast [LINK], and the event was part of the Bernstein centenary celebrations at the Proms this year. (Prom 6, which I reviewed (HERE) for London Jazz, was also part of this strand.) This half of the concert was a kind of live playlist, showcasing a wide range of orchestral textures. The six pieces, occasionally punctuated by spoken-word recordings, were played in roughly reverse chronology.

The sequence began with the glittering sonorities of Elizabeth Ogonek’s All These Lighted Things (first movement only), which featured multiple Burma bells in the percussion section. Then we were whisked back two generations to Leonard Bernstein’s vaudevillian Wonderful Town overture (1953) and György Ligeti’s magnificently abstract Atmosphères (1961). Conductor Joshua Weilerstein then twisted the brass dial of his time machine back another half century for the third movement of Debussy’s La Mer (1903-05). The concert came to a pleasing end via the astringent sweetness of Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin (1846-48), which led to the stomping, bracing bravado of Beethoven’s Egmont overture (1810). The RPO played Egmont with gusto and (I suspect) huge relief after this demanding and ambitious evening.

Joshua Weilerstein and th Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou


If the second half was an inspiring playlist, the first half was a dispiriting mash-up. It comprised 75 passages from famous orchestral works, sometimes as short as one chord, like selections in a sample library. These fragments were punctuated by disembodied voices that boomed imperiously across the Albert Hall, while screens displayed slow-motion clips from Bernstein’s broadcasts, composers’ portraits plus names and titles in condensed capitals. Some voice-overs were funny and/or illuminating, like magazine pull-quotes, but ultimately there was too much (over-amplified) talk, which, as Duke Ellington memorably stated, ‘stinks up the place’.

The programme note (by creative director Gerard McBurney) rather defensively stated: ‘This is not a lecture!’ as if nervous of trying to meet the high standards set by Bernstein. Yet the performance actually came to life when Weilerstein talked to the audience. He didn’t attempt to ‘do a Bernstein’, yet his explanations, such as demonstrating the way Tchaikovsky interleaved first and second violins in the Pathétique Symphony to create a composite melody – were warm and clear.

As orchestration history goes, the timeline was somewhat skewed. After Ogonek (b. 1989), the youngest of the 37 composers featured was Ligeti (1923-2006).

However I hope the first half of Prom 58 doesn’t discourage festivals such as the Proms (or orchestras such as the RPO) from trying such experiments again. Bernstein’s ‘The Sound of an Orchestra’ was daring, funny and sharp, provoking the audience to listen critically. This project needed collaborators with a similar attitude, with more spirit, certainly more of a budget. It needed thoughtful image-making, typography and sound design that matched the innate qualities of the chosen composers and of the RPO.

One can imagine a creative team with an artist and a writer (Andy Martin and Ian McMillan spring to mind) alongside an art director and a musical director. The right mix of sounds, words and images could make a mash-up as inspiring as the natural artistry and drama of a living, breathing orchestra.

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