Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has come a long way since he and Edward Said created it in 1999. The original idea was nothing so grand as an orchestra for peace, despite its being labelled as that: ‘it’s not a love story’, Barenboim insisted, nor even a peace story, ‘because it’s not going to bring peace, however well it plays’. It was, he said, ‘a project against ignorance.’ He wanted to create ‘a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives’.
Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of philosopher Ludwig, was quite a guy. His response to losing his right arm in World War One was not to wallow in self-pity, but to work like crazy on his left-hand technique, and commission left-hand concertos from the best composers of the day. But if he didn’t like them, he didn’t play them: he never played Prokofiev’s. When Ravel played him the solo part in his own concerto, Wittgenstein disliked that too, and though he later softened towards it, he insisted on playing it in a way Ravel didn’t like.
Prom 34 juxtaposed three works all composed during the last twelve months of the Second World War: Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’, Korngold’s Violin Concerto, and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, and the contrasts could not have been greater.
Recent attempts by British directors to stage Monteverdi’s Orfeo have all ended in disaster: what a relief to get a concert performance – plus delicate hints of staging – by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of that veteran Monteverdian Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Talk about memory is currently much in the air – getting it, improving it, losing it – and Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra entered this debate with their bold decision to join those musicians who play without the assistance of sheet music, by delivering Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony without that support.
Vaughan Williams was fonder of his Sancta civitas than of any of his other choral works, perhaps – as Malcolm Hayes suggests in a felicitous programme-note – because of its problematic unveiling, and the rarity of its performances.
While some continue to wring their hands over the challenge of attracting a younger, more diverse audience to classical music, others are exploring ways of doing so - and creating exciting concerts for all in the process.
Valery Gergiev loves the flashy gesture, and it was certainly flashy to programme all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos in one evening, with three hot-shot Russian-school pianists doing the solo honours supported by the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev’s protégé Daniil Trifonov played the first concerto with the airy brilliance we now expect from him, and Gergiev, on the podium, let his interpretation of this youthful, ardent, nose-thumbing work flower as it needed to.
Composed in 2001, Qigang Chen’s Iris devoilee has now made it to the Proms, and it still comes over with marvellous freshness. Chen’s back-story is typical of his generation: born into a cultured family in 1951, he saw his parents sent to a labour camp in the Cultural Revolution, and he himself underwent ‘re-education’; he was one of the first students admitted when the Beijing Conservatory was reopened; then he went West, studied under Messiaen, and settled in France.
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