mon 22/07/2024

Prom 4: World Orchestra for Peace, Gergiev | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 4: World Orchestra for Peace, Gergiev

Prom 4: World Orchestra for Peace, Gergiev

International orchestra brings the light of hope in a very dark week

Gergiev: man of peace?Both images by Chris Christodoulou

This was a rare outing by the World Orchestra for Peace, which has performed fewer than 20 concerts since the death of its founder Sir Georg Solti in 1997. UNESCO had designated this BBC Prom as "The 2014 Concert for Peace", the definite article implying a uniqueness which - according to rumour - is because concerts planned for Munich and Aix failed to get beyond the planning stage. It drew a respectable house to the Royal Albert Hall, which looked about three-quarters full.

This has been a week in which world peace has seemed like a very distant ideal indeed, in which the news has been dominated by the reality, the turmoil and the tragedy of wars: Flight MH17 and the pitched battle in the streets of Gaza. The nearest that such current events got to this concert was that in the hour before the start there had been a protest unrelated to it, with Palestinian sympathizers driving along the main roads around the hall, hooting car horns.

The three works in the programme, by Roxanna Panufnik, Richard Strauss and Mahler, had no overarching theme, but in different ways were smart choices, working well as calling cards for an orchestra with a difference, and not getting lost in the cavernous and unforgiving spaces of the Royal Albert Hall.

Panufnik, Gergiev and the World Orchestra for Peace at the PromsThe opener was the second-ever performance of Roxanna Panufnik's 2008 piece Three Paths to Peace, commissioned by this orchestra. The idea behind the work, and of its precursor, a violin concerto entitled Abraham, was, Panufnik has explained in an interview, to “find and build musical bridges” between the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, and to bring out the "beauty in the cultures that these faiths inspire" (pictured above, Panufnik congratulating Gergiev and the orchestra). She wanted to develop the melodic similarities between Catholic plainsong and muslim calls to prayer. The piece is episodic, built of five movements, and steps back and forth from chamber formations to full orchestra. At a first hearing, I found it moved more in jumps, as dictated by the external narrative, rather than organically, but the sincerity and conviction behind it shone through.

Strauss's Symphonic Fantasia from Die Frau ohne Schatten was being played at the BBC Proms for just the second time. It's a fiendishly busy score where the whole orchestra swirls joyously. It also feels like a natural and very satisfying Royal Albert Hall piece, with an important part ideal for the Father Wills organ. The central episode, a massive trombone solo derived from an emotional duet at the start of the opera's third act, was taken with full tone and just the right lyrical fervour by Pierre Volders of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gail WilliamsThe orchestra, to my ears, sounded as if they and Gergiev had been able to commit enough time to produce a performance which was far removed from the nervy edge-of-the seat experience some might have expected. That came through above all in their Mahler, which had shape and heft. Gergiev's recorded Mahler Six is one of the most convincing instalments of his LSO cycle. The instructions zurückhaltend (holding back) and schleppend (dragging) in the final movement brought moments of rhetorical freedom of tempo, in which the orchestra gave Gergiev back exactly what he was expecting: a very clear shape and wonderful unanimity.

The orchestra is hand-picked from several orchestras worldwide, and there were some superb individual contributions. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's tuba principal Gene Pokorny gave gravitas and heft to the Panufnik, and anchored some key moments of the Mahler with true authority and massive tone. The principal horn in the Mahler, Gail Williams (pictured above left), who spent many years with that same orchestra, was impeccable. And some sections put in a strong showing too. If the double basses in the Mahler had spring and Schwung in their step, then that was at least in part down to the febrile vigour of their principal, the young and charismatic Sophie Lücke from Munich. Her energy brought the light of hope to what has been a very dark week. 

  • Recorded for television broadcast by BBC Four on 14 August.
The orchestra gave Gergiev exactly what he was expecting: a very clear shape and wonderful unanimity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Fair review, I'm sure, Sebastian, but the elephant in the room is how Gergiev remained the conductor of the World Orchestra for Peace for this concert when he is on film saying things like this on Eastern Ukraine: 'it is not a problem of Russia - Ukrainian people kill each other'. And this on Crimea: 'it was not annexation, people were voting to leave Ukraine. There were too many Nazi elements...Those who killed so many people in Kiev and burnt so many people in Odessa, the east calls them Fascists, we don't want to stay with the Fascists.' And this on Karita Mattila, who is one of the few artists decent enough to say that she won't work with Gergiev again while he holds views repugnant to her: 'she doesn't understand anything in politics, she has absolutely no idea what is happening in she will look into the eyes of mothers who had children killed - there are many children killed'.

No doubt. War's a hideous business and, yes, there are still some fascist elements  in the current, democratically elected Ukrainian government. But Russia was not defending its territory, it was transgressing territorial rights. It started the chaos, it was not trying to prevent it. Surely someone with a slightly more objective view on how peace might be achieved should have taken over the baton, especially in the light of this past week's catastrophe. Was anything said about the turmoil you mention? Did Gergiev or anyone make a speech? OK, it's about the music-making, but if no-one said anything, that also cancels out the ensemble's raison d'etre.

Just sayin', just askin'.

David you raise very good questions indeed, as ever. Last time The Arts Desk reviewed this orchestra, its director Charles Kaye was moved to make some constructive comments. He was able to give more of the specific context - because he understands it better than anyone. So maybe he will have more to say this time as well.

Why did it take the "arts community" so long (until October/November last year) to condemn Gergiev? Where was your condemnation when he flew the Mariinsky Orchestra to play the Leningrad Symphony (of all works...) in South Ossetia in 2008?

I don't know whose double inverted commas you're quoting re the "arts community", Nick, but whatever it is, it still isn't unanimous. FYI The Arts Desk wasn't around in 2008, though some of us did object to that triumphalist act and remonstrate with the LSO for welcoming Gergiev back so quickly. It wasn't pretty but it at least could be rationalised by Gergiev's Ossetian nationality. This situation seems obscene in the light of all that's happened recently.

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