Party time at the Proms

alsop-last-night2Our 17 July blog made connections between some of the composers featured in the first four weeks of this year’s BBC Promenade Concerts. Almost two months on, and the world’s largest music festival is only now drawing to a close. The celebrated Last Night of the Proms will be held tomorrow, Saturday 12 August, with the concluding section of the concert beamed to a humongous audience around the world. Marked by eccentric fashion statements, brazen face-painting and some awesome community singing, it’s an occasion when party poppers are in, and party poopers are out. Naxos Artist Marin Alsop is on the podium again; in 2013, she became the first woman conductor to take the spotlight in the festival’s long history.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of zip sewn into the programme, with youthful energy and optimism as recurring elements. We focus here on composers and items preceding that moment in the Last Night’s home straight when matters turn distinctly British, with Sir Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory et al.

dmitry-maximMost items have a duration of single-digit minutes. One exception is Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major (8.553126). This was written in 1957 for Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, who gave the first performance of the work on his nineteenth birthday, and the work has a youthful appeal about it for performers and audience alike. Maxim is now aged 77; for the last forty years he has been championing, as a conductor, some of his father’s lesser-known works. He is able to recall how, as a four-year-old, he heard the first performance of his father’s devastating Symphony No. 7, ‘Leningrad’, a far cry from the joie de vivre of this piano concerto, with its out-of-kilter rhythmic romps and digs at Hanon-style piano exercises. Here’s a section from the finale.

Till-EulenspiegelA similarly perky aura surrounds the title character in Richard Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (8.550250). Eulenspiegel, a peasant reputedly born in 1300, uses an assumed simplicity to deflate authority of every kind. He receives a just reward when the locals, exasperated by his outrageous behaviour in matters pertaining to piety, pedantry and flirtation, sentence him to hang. Having duly expired with alarming musical realism, and after calm has been restored, the rascal leaps back to (fairy-tale) life, blows a raspberry and continues on his merry way.

james-price-johnsonThe first of three short items by American composers may be relatively unfamiliar: J. P. Johnson’s Victory Stride opens the second half of the programme. In fact, James Price Johnson (1894-1955) may be completely unknown to many, but he was a crucial figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz, and the founder of the stride piano idiom which pitted a solid, acrobatic left hand against a syncopated melody in the right. One of his most noted works is Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody (8.559647), a work clearly inspired by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (the two composers had met while cutting piano rolls for the Aeolian company around 1917). Premièred in 1928 in New York’s Carnegie Hall, it constitutes one of the first successful large-scale musical works by an African-American composer. Here’s an extract which briefly features that stride idiom.

Morton-GouldThe name of Morton Gould may be better known. His Boogie Woogie Etude (8.111121) certainly made its mark on the London audience at Shura Cherkassky’s 1993 Wigmore Hall piano recital, when the legendary classical pianist, clearly completely at home with its jazz idiom, rocketed through it as an encore. The 2-minute firework had been written 50 years earlier, but both composer + work took a while to impress themselves on the international mindset, longer than some of the other composers of that period, such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Gould’s light touch and lack of pretension, however, served him well through a long, varied and distinguished career: he directed his own orchestra, won a GRAMMY award for his conducting, and even led the London Symphony Orchestra through performances of some of his own works. Here’s his Boogie Woogie Etude played by Leah Effenbach (1915–78) and recorded at her 1947 recital in New York.

charles-ivesTo play us out today, the last in our trio of American composers is Charles Ives, whose barnyard banter I bought me a cat (9.70145) will probably encourage a bit of audience participation in tomorrow night’s concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. You can sneak in a bit of practice by crooning along with this extract.

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