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Thursday brought one of the “double Proms” that director Nicholas Kenyon has been cultivating for some years: Ivan Volkov conducting his BBC SSO at 7pm, and at 10pm an excellent ensemble performing early Steve Reich, the famous American minimalist. I listened to it all on BBC Radio 3, on which most Proms are better heard, frankly speaking, than in the monstrous Albert Hall, which is really suited only to large choral works.
Under Ilan Volkov, the BBC Scottish Symphony took us through the early En Saga – “a fairy tale” – of Sibelius, which sounded appropriately starkly Finnish and granitic. (You expect Scots to know about that.) Their major offering, however, was the world premiere of a BBC commission from the Scottish composer James Dillon. His Andromeda is a kind of piano concerto in 15 compact sections, here with the clean-fingered Noriko Awai as soloist. The concerto is continuously interesting, effective, concise. Each lapidary section told sharply, thanks to Miss Awai’s articulate sensitivity.
Dillon’s music, always formidably intelligent, has thinned down from the daunting density he gave to some of his earlier pieces. Now he concentrates expression in diamond-cut phrases, whose precise burden must be sensitively calculated by the conductor and above all the soloist. I thought Awai beautifully equal to her role, and Dillon needs to be better recognised in the UK and not just abroad (as he is), as a master among middle-aged British composers, fiercely original and prickly. We need him.
Volkov and his orchestra concluded with the original, ballet-driven score of Stravinsky’s Firebird, not just one of the later “suites” that so enhanced the composer’s bank- balance. Those, generally re-orchestrated (the great ballet-impresario Diaghilev’s budget didn’t run to large orchestras), are what we usually hear, and they obscure the traditional Russian character of young Stravinsky’s score.
The late-night Prom was devoted to the 70-year-old Steve Reich, whose repetitive “minimalist” music almost 50 years ago had an unexpected effect on both musicians and popular audiences: it brought them together. Here we heard four works, some of which stretched beyond the popularist idiom. His Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ is seriously beautiful and original, and we must hope eagerly for further undoctrinaire music from this clever old composer, whose once-trendy stuff, especially Drumming here, betokens a man who has always known exactly what he is doing for popular audiences. No rebuke intended. ★★★★☆