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The crowd was going berserk. The disco lights were bouncing off the walls of the Royal Albert Hall. And the electropop pioneers the Pet Shop Boys were making their BBC Proms debut. The sense of anticipation was strong but this much-hyped event came as a shock to the system.
That’s because the evening’s earlier concert had brought the first of two works by John Tavener being premiered posthumously this season. And Tavener mixed with the Pet Shop Boys makes for a bizarre cocktail. “Gnosis” – meaning “spiritual knowledge” – is in many ways a typical example of the composer’s work. Its sense of ecstatic mysticism comes as no surprise, nor does the fact that it draws on elements of the Hindu, Christian and Islamic traditions.
But the ending is a shock: after several minutes of ethereal, sustained tones, occasionally interrupted by frenetic orchestral spasms, we are plunged into a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major, K453. It sounds like the punchline of a rather unfunny joke.
Nevertheless, as a whole, the piece makes for a meditative, if at times unsettling experience, particularly with the refined advocacy of mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and alto flautist Michael Cox. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiri Belohlavek, however, sounded more invested in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and Bartók’s 2nd Violin Concerto, in which soloist Isabelle Faust nailed the precarious balance between polish and primitivism.
Then came the Pet Shop Boys, and with them a very different kind of world premiere: A Man from the Future tells the story of Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer pioneer who in 1952 was “treated” for his homosexuality with chemical castration and was found dead two years later, aged 41. Dubbed an orchestral pop “biography’’, it combined the forces of the BBC Concert Orchestra and Singers under Dominic Wheeler, vocals from Chrissie Hynde, electronics from Pet Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant and his colleague Chris Lowe, and narration from Juliet Stevenson.
All very intriguing. And had the soupy score been less emotionally inert, the text less clunky, the electronic sound less dated, the idea might have worked. Instead, notwithstanding Stevenson’s impeccably timed narration, the result was a nonentity; a whistle-stop tour of Turing’s life, nestling on a sonic cushion that, ultimately, added little. Given the choice, I’d rather just read his biography.