Thursday 30 August 2012

Prom 62 - Eric Whitacre @ Royal Albert Hall

The American composer Eric Whitacre has become something of a phenomenon over the last few years, as boasted in the programme and in Louise Fryer's introduction.  With his expressive conducting, hip wiggling and floppy blonde locks, I suspect much of the audience weren't just there for the music.

Yet musically, this was an evening that comprised a surprising amount of invention, sung by a choral combination of the BBC Singers and the Eric Whitacre Singers.  At the centre of the concert was Whitacre's Higher, Faster, Stronger commissioned by the BBC for the Olympics.  This piece calls for the choir to be split in three and arranged as on a medal stand, each labelled 'higher', 'faster' and 'stronger' (the Olympic motto).  After a serene middle section, the piece culminates in a race to the finish between the three choirs singing various nonsense syllables, accompanied by piano and percussion to hold the music together.  Though certainly virtuosic, this was predominantly a piece of interesting experimentation.

This was followed by another new work, The Listening Chair written by popstar Imogen Heap, allowing for considerable pop-classical crossover.  Inspired by an actual chair in which people were asked "what is the song that still needs to be written?" and their responses were recorded, Heap composed a piece divided into five one minute sections that each represent seven years of her life.  The contrasting sections clearly develop from childlike to increasingly complex.  However, the purpose of this piece is storytelling and, although aided by microphones, the acoustics hindered the performance with Heap's lyrics getting lost in the huge space.

Before these two pieces was a performance of Bach Again arranged by Edwin London.  This takes a chorale of the performers' choosing and stretches the music out with elongated chords.  The audience is hit with a wall of sound, the piece exploring a timeless sonority as the harmonies gradually evolve like an amoeba.  Though a difficult piece performed well by the choir, this remains an odd experiment.

It was Whitacre's own pieces that really shone.  Following a fun performance of Bernstein's Warm-Up were Whitacre's Alleluia (with beautiful melismatic lines laced with suspensions) and Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, written with contrapuntal Baroque textures but retaining modern harmonies as the choir call out "Leonardo".  Cloudburst was a real highlight.  Inspired by a thunderstorm, this incredibly evocative and illustrative piece sees the choir playing handbells, clapping and clicking as well as singing, accompanied by thunderous percussion both on stage and off.  Final piece Sleep lulled the audience into a peaceful journey home with a stunning rendition.

All these pieces received their first performance at the Proms and Whitacre's work especially is likely to become a firm audience favourite.  Heart-wrenching, dissonant clashes and emotive melodies are beautifully arranged, proving there's plenty of talent underneath that floppy hair.


Listen: Whitacre's latest album 'Water Night' is available now.