Proms: Chen Yi ‘Olympic Fire’, Duke Ellington ‘Harlem’

Returning from my wonderful Italian jaunt (see earlier post) I was expecting to find my Prom season ticket waiting on the doormat – but it wasn’t there.  Huge thanks to Sheila at the Albert Hall Box Office for sorting out a replacement and personally delivering it into my hands!  (Let’s hope the kleptomaniac postman is enjoying the Proms, along with my missing Glyndebourne programme, not to mention the undelivered rude letter from the Bank…).

Only two days into my Prom-going, and last night (Friday) I was knocked off my feet by two stunning performances which must surely be highlights of the whole season.  First of all came Chen Yi‘s Olympic Fire, commissioned – not surprisingly – to celebrate the opening of the Beijing Olympics.  I must admit I was expecting some spineless ‘Yellow River‘ piece I would dutifully have to endure before the evening’s main menu of Rachmaninov and Vaughan Williams… but no, this was a knockout.  Chen Yi (previously unknown to me, I confess) was born in 1953, studied in China and the USA, and now divides her time between posts in Kansas City and Beijing.  Her music is a fruitful creative fusion of Chinese and Western influences: Peking Opera and regional folk music and instruments, side by side with Stravinskyan orchestral glitz and glitter.

Hotfoot from watching TV coverage of the Olympic opening ceremony and the lighting of the flame, I felt ‘Olympic Fire’ was perfectly in tune with the occasion – plunging headlong into tremendous energy and excitement, taking no prisoners, stretching all players (especially the brass) to the limits of their technique but not beyond;  a gentler middle section brought lyrical string writing and one of those Chinese cymbals that change pitch after you hit it (how do they DO that?).  The end of the piece erupted in an astonishing timpani ‘break’, a moment of glory for Matt Perry among all the glories of the RPO.

Leonard Slatkin has frequently been criticised for his limp or ineffectual conducting, but here he seemed to be absolutely in command of the challenging score (unlike the succeeding Rachmaninov Paganini Variations, where he seemed to be constantly on a razor edge trying to guess what, if anything, the glamorous but wayward Russian pianist Olga Kern was about to do next).

Amid storms of cheers and applause, a reluctant figure was brought forth:  Chen Yi turned out to be a tiny, shy, bespectacled roly-poly figure in a woolly cardigan, beaming broadly. 

There was one shout (‘FREE TIBET’, I think), which was received in puzzled silence.  I think 5,000 people realised that politics had nothing to do with the case (despite memories of the famous ‘Freedom for Czechoslovakia’ shout at the Prom in 1968 – but that’s another histoire…)

By the nature of the commission, I fear that opportunities to hear Chen Yi’s piece will be limited, which is a shame;  I can’t wait to hear it again (in a live performance, to get the full effect).  The Prom is repeated on Radio 3 on Wednesday 13th, in the afternoon.

* * * *

Then the Late Prom ended (at around 11 pm) with Duke Ellington‘s ‘Harlem’, a 20-minute single movement for symphony orchestra with big band elements (saxes, percussion and kit drummer, featured solos for trumpets, trombone and clarinet), written for Toscanini (!) in 1950.  It was another knockout, which had me wondering why we hear Gershwin’s concert works but not this?

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was conducted by Kristjan Järvi – latest member of a conducting dynasty – who danced, grinned, posed and jumped his way through it, and got the audience clapping.  He conducts without a score – no mean feat in the rest of the programme (Torke, Adams, Bernstein) as well as this piece.

The final encore, with jamming solos from all around the band, just about raised the roof of the Albert Hall.  The atmosphere was on a par with Gustavo Dudamel‘s amazing Venezuelan Youth Orchestra Prom last year – terrific.  And I’ve rarely seen so many smiles in an orchestra!

A great start to my Prom season!  Those two performances are going to be hard to beat…


photo from Theodore Presser Company at — thanks!

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9 Comments on “Proms: Chen Yi ‘Olympic Fire’, Duke Ellington ‘Harlem’”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Yes, it was “Free Tibet” (and not “Remember Tibet”, as reported in the Grauniad), shouted by a man in a silly hat standing not far from me. The remark generally received the silence (plus a few quiet, scornful groans) that it deserved.

    Overall it was a good Prom, the VW symphony was the only part I didn’t enjoy, but that was down to the music not the performance.

  2. Ms Lisa Berrington-Smith Says:

    Thank goodness someone is speaking up for good sense, Jonathan. I too was standing not far from that man in the “Free Tibet” hat – and can confirm that he did indeed shout precisely what was on his head. I must say I, and several of those with me, were rather alarmed by the incident – most relieved that nothing violent or otherwise awful ensued (I don’t know – perhaps that goes with Tibetan philosophy?!). I heard a woman nearby thank and make some absurd supportive remark to the man – something like “You had the guts to say what many of us wanted to say” – no doubt she was some Grauniad reader, opposed to fox-hunting, GM food, etc., believer in global warming and the rest. (The oh-so-logical Guardian writer on this prom notes the Tibetan folksong influence assimilated in Olympic Fire – by which we are presumably meant to see some political connection!)

  3. jonathanburton Says:

    the Jonathan above is Jonathan Rawle — — not me! Thanks for your comments. Though as an occasional Guardian reader I’ll keep my mouth shut.

  4. Edina Lumley Says:

    My experience of this first prom of August 8th was rather different, it seems, to those whose views have been expressed on this website so far. I deeply enjoyed the performance of Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony – a well-executed rendition of what, to my hearing and feelings, is nothing less than one of finest symphonies ever composed: an awesome masterpiece which for me, despite the composer’s own objections to such interpretation, so evokes the fiery fury as well as the desolate coldness possible of war, along with how these may be in some way transcended, humanly balanced, or at least survived. VW’s folktune-collecting friend and colleague Holst had already come to mind hearing Yi’s Olympic Fire – specifically Holst’s War from the Planet Suite. To my ears, Yi’s piece was evocative of domineering, militaristic and somewhat mechanical forces, subsuming diverse influences and, as you put it, Mr. Burton, ‘taking no prisoners’. That image is an ironic and disturbing one, of course, if one considers some of the realities of modern China: the human rights abuses of its own citizens; its military contribution to the situations in Burma and Darfur; its rape, torture, murder and imprisonment without trial of Tibetans and others. Yi’s Olympic Fire is arguably a masterpiece in so well conveying the character of how the contemporary Chinese state is so shamelessly propelled. If relatively few seem aptly intelligent to those realities, still fewer have the courage to challenge them.
    The composing, the performing and the receptive experience of music are never essentially separate from the contexts in which these take place. If we are blinkered in our views of history and current affairs, we will be hard of hearing to elements that may be ringing between the lines of musical expression. So far as one is alive, the global will intersect with the personal.

  5. jonathanburton Says:

    Thank you for those thoughts.

    Listening to the Radio 3 repeat (with my brother), I could hear that Chen Yi’s piece could seem repetitive and ‘militaristic’. I could only comment on my ‘live’ reaction to the live performance in the hall, in the light of the excitement of the Olympic opening ceremony. I still think it was a great piece for the occasion, and as the fruit of a successful synthesis of Chinese and Western (specifically American) modes of composition.

    In no way would I wish to be ‘blinkered’ in my views of history or current affairs, but I listened to the music ‘as music’ and not as being about anything other than itself, to paraphrase Stravinsky. I am not deaf or blind to the ‘contexts’ but that wasn’t what the concert. or my response, was about.

    Anyway, we’ll all have to wake up to the realities of China soon enough.

    And a concert hall is not an appropriate place for political heckling, any more than it was in 1968 — that’s just rude to the performers and the audience.

    (A thought: if it had been by an American composer, would we be simliarly queasy about its politics? Shouts of ‘Troops out of Iraq’ perhaps?)

  6. J Long Says:

    You could think here of an old saying, with variations to the effect of: “Evil will triumph when good people do nothing.”
    “Free Tibet” was not shouted when the music was actually being played, but during the silence following applause. Not so rude to the performers or audience. Would it have been rude to shout it when the troops were actually marching in? Rude or not, certainly dangerous.
    Yes indeed, “Troops Out Of Iraq” might well be shouted, whether the composer be American, British or other. But might it possible to build some robust peace-keeping infrastructure before that?!! If China left Tibet, Tibet would be fine – not to mention massively relieved. If US/GB etc military left Iraq right now, it surely wouldn’t be so straightforward a case – as it wasn’t when these went there in the first place. Unlike China’s invasion of Tibet.

  7. Jonathan Says:

    Chen Yi isn’t a representative of the Chinese government. China’s policy in Tibet is nothing to do with her. The piece was commissioned by the BBC, not as Communist propaganda. I see no connection between Dr Chen and Tibet other than that she happens to be Chinese, which in my opinion makes the shout bordering on racism. If it was the Chinese president or a military officer on stage, that would be a different matter. If Dr Chen was a well-known supporter of China’s policy, again that would be different.

    If people were to shout something every time they disagreed with an aspect of the policy of that person’s country, someone would be shouting after almost every performance. Should pro-abortion campaigners shout at every Irish or Polish musician they go to see? How about people against nuclear power stations heckling a French pianist?

    Let’s not punish people just because of their nationality or ethnic origin – isn’t that exactly what “Free Tibet” campaigners accuse the Chinese of doing?

  8. jonathanburton Says:

    (that’s the other Jonathan again)

    Thank you for that balanced view! Indeed.

  9. J Long Says:

    The focus seems to have drifted blinkeredly onto personalities and ethnicities; seems to have been forgotten that the piece – “Olympic Fire” – was about the hosting of the Olympics. China was awarded this on the understanding that it would improve its stance and actions in respect of human rights. This it blatantly failed to do.

    It is hardly reasonable to regard Chen Yi as having been ‘punished’, as suggested in the note of Aug 17th above – as if her treatment were in any way comparable to that of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese state.

    A French pianist performing an “Ode to Nuclear Power Stations” might, of course, reasonably expect to raise a few hackles.

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