Posted tagged ‘Duke Ellington’

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

August 9, 2008

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.

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Then the Late Prom (more…)