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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
Proms: Happy Prom goes a cappella

by Andrew Walker
BBC News Online

Prom 64: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/McFerrin, 7 September.

Perhaps best known for his hit single Don't Worry, Be Happy, the multi-talented Bobby McFerrin beguiled the Royal Albert Hall with his conducting and virtuoso a cappella singing.

Immersed in jazz, folk and classical music, McFerrin's reputation as an all-rounder goes before him as does that of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Proms 2003 at the Royal Albert Hall
The Proms end this week
The opening work, Prokofiev's First Symphony, exhibited the panache and seemingly effortless co-ordination we have come to expect from this orchestra.

This was followed by a subtle rendition of Mozart's Symphony 25, greatly aided by McFerrin's lightness of touch on the podium.

Next up, McFerrin provided an a cappella backing to Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Cellos, with soloist Tamas Varga. This affectation left me cold, though the vast audience gave it rapturous applause.

However, MacFerrin's next move, singing solo a cappella, provided one of the strangest, and most exciting, moments of this whole Proms season.

Armed with only a microphone, he conjured up a whole landscape of sound: multiple harmonies, drum and bass backing, saxophones and even the the Beatles' fabled blackbird.

When the whole audience joined him in a rendition of Ave Maria, the effect was both moving and uplifting, receiving an all-round standing ovation.

After the interval, McFerrin took the podium again, providing a charming, sometimes frightening, rendition of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice before closing with Ravel's bolero and an outrageous a cappella William Tell Overture, gamely performed by the whole orchestra.

A hugely entertaining afternoon was had by all, made possible by a great orchestra and one vastly talented performer.

Prom 49: Mahler Symphony No 6/European Union Youth Orchestra/Haitink, 26 August.

Under the watchful eye of the UK's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the European Union Youth Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink, gave a mature rendition of Mahler's striking Sixth Symphony.

With its existentialist heroics and the renowned 'hammer blows of fate', Mahler's Eighth Symphony - The Tragic - is widely-regarded as his finest work.

Tonight, the cream of Europe's young musicians conjured up a feast of suitably epic proportions.

As with much of Mahler's symphonic work, the Sixth opens with a march. The orchestra - many of whose players looked as though they were up past their bedtime - was immediately into its stride, bringing suitable clarity and bounce to the movement.

On the podium, Haitink, a long-standing exponent of Mahler's work, was at his magisterial best: every inflection of baton, arm and eye driving the orchestra on.

Though the delicate, understated, passages which characterise much of the second movement were, perhaps, not best served by too much brightness from both horns and woodwind, this was still a rendition full of both dignity and humanity.

The spiritually-charged slow third movement featured wonderful interplay between harps and flutes: Mahler's cowbells, a homage to his native Austria, providing a moving interlude.

The orchestra captured the initial heroic, brash, optimism of the finale, its sudden souring and tragic denouement.

Mahler's themes - fate, death and the futility of existence - are difficult ones: it is to this young orchestra's great credit that it captured them with confidence, intelligence and panache.

Prom 44: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, 22 August.

This was a night to inspire and thrill, a night on which the hairs on the back of the neck stood on end.

Barenboim and his orchestra in Chicago in 2001
Barenboim's youthful orchestra thrilled the audience
Daniel Barenboim's groundbreaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of young Jewish and Arabic musicians from Israel, Palestine and Egypt, brought the Royal Albert Hall to its feet with a delightfully-executed programme.

Although the symbolism of the performance was lost on no-one in the audience, it was the sheer quality of the ensemble work which made the evening special.

It opened with a spirited rendition of the two completed movements of Schubert's 8th Symphony, the Unfinished, in which poignant cellos provided a perfect counterfoil to the horns and woodwind. The effect was tragic, moving and glorious.

Next up was Mozart's Concerto for Three Pianos. Barenboim was joined by the young Israeli and Palestinian pianists, Shai Wosner and Saleem Abboud-Ashkar, in an intricate, and powerful, rendition.

Mature performance

Barenboim generously allowed his two young colleagues to play the more difficult parts.

It was apt that a night with so many political overtones should include that apotheosis of the symphonic ideal, Beethoven's 3rd Symphony - the Eroica - originally produced as a paean of praise to Napoleon.

The West-East Divan Orchestra belied its youth - its players range in age from 13 to 26 - with a mature, informed, performance.

This was most apparent in the stately final movement, where the orchestra and conductor revelled in a reaffirmation of life, humanity and hope, even in the darkest of times.

The audience's reception left both orchestra and conductor looking delighted, surprised and slightly bemused.

Two encores, of works by Schubert and Rossini, ended this extraordinary occasion.

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