BBC Proms 2019 - Prom 56: Henry Wood Tribute - Concert Review

September 1, 2019, 11:36 PM · I've had a great first week at UIUC, starting to teach Music Theory and Aural Skills! I'm focusing more on composing and not in any ensembles at the moment - I just pulled it out the other day to play through the violin parts of my high school string orchestra piece I am currently finishing for a concert in March at my old high school. However, tonight I don't want to really focus on UIUC - I want to focus on the broadcast I just finished listening to from BBC Radio 3: BBC Proms 2019, the 56th Prom, an 150th anniversary tribute to Sir Henry Wood!

Henry Wood was the man who is best known for putting together these Proms concerts, starting in the Queen's Hall in 1895. Henry Wood was a great conductor, as well as a fantastic orchestrator (though I still am a bit biased towards Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition...) and all of the pieces in the concert I listened to tonight have to do with his great legacy.

Speaking of Ravel, the concert was bookended with him! His Rhapsodie Espagnole to start, and finishing with La Valse, which Wood premiered in London at the Proms in 1922 when Ravel had published the orchestration of the piece after World War I. Both pieces are wonderful in their own ways; I always love returning to Ravel's more Spanish/Basque sound world, and ending with La Valse brought me back to the concert I saw in 2016 in Vienna, where they to ended with La Valse (look back in June 2016, I think). Ravel's mastery of orchestration was a nice theme to tie this topic as there were also four of Henry Wood's own orchestrations played in the second half of the program, but we'll get back to those later.

John Ireland's Piano Concerto was next, performed by Leon McCawley. Written in 1930, this piece has all the flashiness of a concerto while mixing in with some of the most delicate moments of chamber music, such as in the second movement with the piano playing alongside a solo flute and solo violin. I fell in love with this piece's fresh yet very 30s Hollywood style. The pianist Leon McCawley was saying in a brief recording before they played the piece how it was popular in the 40's and 50's, and has had a large gap since the 90's of not really being performed or known about. Go check it out - two movements are in score format on YouTube if you're reading this post after October when the Radio 3 link to this concert has expired. It's annoying the BBC does that, and I'm not allowed to watch any concerts or anything on their site if I'm not in the UK! Man...

Anyways... After the interval, where they played a recording of Sir Henry Wood speaking in 1943 and conducting several works, including Vaughan-Williams' London Symphony (mvt. 3), Handel's "Hornpipe" from Water Music, and a rehearsal of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the second half opened up with this really fascinating premiere of a piece by the BBC Concert Orchestra's composer-in-residence, Dobrinka Tabakova. Her piece, entitled "Timber & Steel." If you have been keeping up with my blog posts since I started on this website, you might know how much I have enjoyed discovering the different types of wood my violin is made of, and so filing the orchestra into woods and metals in this way is such a neat idea in this piece - it starts with xylophone hits for the wood sound (I was half-expecting pizzicato strings too!). These two forces don't seem at odds with each other at all; they are in harmony. I think she mentioned coming up with the title from Henry Wood's time, where he would have been in the midst of factories of London, alongside serene nature of parks and that. I like that image a lot too, and it reminds me of my favorite game series I've mentioned before, Animal Crossing, and its sense of a wooden, cozy village alongside urban buildings. (This whole concert in fact, picturing being in the Royal Albert Hall, felt very cozy to me tonight too in a similar way!)

So: the four Henry Wood orchestrations came next. Debussy's La cathedrale engloutie, from his Preludes: Book 1 (which I studied at Augustana in my freshman composition class), was really quite wonderful. 9 percussionists went up to the balcony in the Royal Albert Hall to play on bells, which really helped create a sense of atmosphere for a cathedral that the piano couldn't quite match. The winds actually created an upper-register sustain in the first few bars, and the strings had the melody, which was an interesting choice but really gave a sense of style to it. Wood of course went for the fortissimos with the big, grand orchestration that reminds me of the final movement of Pictures, how he and/or Ravel would have orchestrated it. I also remember Debussy had written p and pp towards the end of the piece but Wood took a few extra bars to really get to a softer dynamic, allowing the orchestra perhaps to resonate a bit more before the music went back to its calm opening.

Granados' Dance no. 5 from his 12 Danzas espanolas ("Andaluza"), of course brought back the concert-opener with a Spanish flavor, but this time it was more of a Marquez or a Moncayo sort of sound. It reminded me of just why I love music so much - I dunno, it was easy to listen to and it was just a fun piece. As much as I love listening to my favorite composers and complex music for my own compositional inspirations, I do enjoy the lighter "popular" music too! The Grainger orchestration that followed reminded me of Leroy Anderson and that "light orchestra" music that was considered pop music in the early 20th century (Handel and the Strand). The original piece had piano, and a solo fiddle, bass-fiddle, and alto-fiddle, which Wood realized as solo violin, viola, and cello, just for one point in the score, which was cool - I loved how the rest of the orchestra (pretty much winds) carried on with their faster music during that one part.

In-between those two lighter pieces was Wagner's "Traume", originally for singer and piano, later Wagner himself orchestrated it for solo violin and orchestra, and then Wood's version used a slightly larger orchestra. ("Compensating for something?" :P) It was honestly a nice piece, with 6-5 suspensions and unresolved dominant 7ths similar to Tristan or in the Ring cycle which I have studied, but in a miniature form, as it wasn't terribly long - just slow.

So yeah! It was a wonderful evening of music, and this gets me prepared for my plans for Labor Day: 100% (or as close to 100% as I can) composing! I am working with my new composition teacher this semester (not on trimesters anymore, that's kind of strange!) on an Octet for Winds. I mentioned a string orchestra piece I am finishing up, so now I want to focus on my wind writing for a little bit, especially since this teacher I am working with has more knowledge on wind instruments than the techniques of string instruments. Take advantage of opportunities I can while I have the resources! I hope this will help my orchestra writing as well in the future. I haven't nailed down instrumentation or anything yet, but I'm sure I'll discuss this piece in the future. I'm excited to go for a long morning composition walk probably sketching for the piece. Perhaps I'll start making parts for my strings piece, I'm probably going to write each part in 2 staves since I've pretty much used divisi for the entire thing...

Anyways, I should probably end this little concert review here before I ramble on... Thanks for reading! I'll probably do a post later this month specifically on my first few weeks at UIUC (University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign), so let me truly get adjusted to my new teaching job here and exploring the campus and everything, and I'll be ready to reflect a little on starting my Masters degree. For now, have a lovely rest of your Labor Day weekend - or day, you know, whenever you are reading this. :)

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