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Friday, 19 July, 2002, 21:54 GMT 22:54 UK
Cultural collision at the Proms
Maxim Vengerov
Russia's Maxim Vengerov is an expressive virtuoso

This year's Proms season began as it means to go on - with a strong Spanish theme.

And, in the event, sultry Spanish weather.

That said, not one of the composers whose works were heard at London's Royal Albert Hall on Friday was actually Spanish, but three of the four showed the unmistakeable stamp of the culture.

Works by the 19th Century French Hispanophiles Chabrier and Lalo and the young Puerto Rican Roberto Sierra were followed by a British classic - William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.

Emmanuel Chabrier's Espaņa was intended, according to its composer, to create "a fever pitch of excitement" and Leonard Slatkin took the BBC Symphony Orchestra through it with verve and energy.

Willard White
Willard White: Presence and projection
Chabrier, self-taught, crowded impressions from a long trip to Spain into the six-minute work, which he wrote on his return to France.

Espaņa's galloping rhythms now strike the listeners as rather obvious - but the piece is gigantic fun and its thoroughness is a kind of integrity.

The next work, Fandangos, was a premičre for composer Robert Sierra, born in 1953.

For the work, Sierra has appropriated contemporary Latin-American styles to create a hybrid with European modernism - while drawing on the 18th Century work Fandango by Spaniard Padre Antonio Soler.


The composer has said he wanted the work to be a "tour de force" for the orchestra - and Slatkin pulled it off brilliantly, riding effortlessly through the piece's rhythmic shifts and sharp changes in tone colour.

This was the piece's UK premičre and I suspect we'll be hearing more of Sierra, who came out to warm applause from the Albert Hall crowd.

Then, in an odd piece of programming, it was back to the 19th Century for another French specialist in Spain, Edouard Lalo.

His Symphonie Espagnole premiered in 1875 - the same year as Bizet's Carmen - but it has little of Bizet's inspiration.

Guest violinist Maxim Vengerov attacked it with relish, but it suffered by comparison with Sierra's rather more authentic Spanish flavours.

William Walton's only obvious link with the Spanish theme would seem to be that he married the Argentinian, Susana Gil Passo, in 1948.


But his cantata Belshazzar's Feast provided a welcome change of pace and texture on Friday.

Introduced at the 1931 Leeds Festival, it is based on a text selected from the Old Testament by Osbert Sitwell and was immediately acclaimed as the most important English choral work since Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.

This rendition benefited from the tremendous presence and projection of American bass-baritone Willard White, who joined the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the BBC Symphony Chorus on stage.

Belshazzar's Feast is a mighty and demanding work, stylistically varied and by turns dramatic and reflective.

With a choir of hundreds, it is also a spectacle, much better heard live than on record.

This stirring reading was a warming reminder of the UK's own eclectic musical tradition - which will also be much in evidence in the coming two months of music at the Royal Albert Hall.

All Proms concerts are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. This concert will be repeated on Monday 22 July at 1400 BST.

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01 Jul 02 | Entertainment
19 Jul 02 | Entertainment
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