Proms 2009: It was a balmy night in Athens

Jennifer Koh
London Evening Standard

By Barry Millington

On Tuesday night the chill winds of the Hebrides blew through Peter Maxwell Davies’s account of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture.

Last night a balmy Athenian breeze warmed the same composer’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was difficult not to feel that Jiri Belohlavek’s handling of the latter was the more sympathetic to Mendelssohn’s style and aesthetic.

Partly through his ability to phrase affectionately, and partly through his sensitivity to texture, Belohlavek succeeded in conjuring the imaginative world of lovers and fairies.

His lightly sprung rhythms and the feathery sonorities he drew from the woodwind and strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra all contributed to an ingratiating reading.

The subtitle of American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Third Violin Concerto, Juggler in Paradise (a BBC co-commission, receiving its UK premiere), is apparently metaphorical. Relating to the interaction of soloist and orchestra, it hints both at the athletic part given the solo violin and the almost celestial regions inhabited by the orchestra.At the start of the work it is the violin that establishes that sphere, though it is soon surrounded by an aura of bell-like sounds produced by harp, celesta, vibraphone, glockenspiel and indeed tubular chimes. Before long the soloist has embarked on her juggling act, a pointillistic technique in which a nervous, spiky effect is ameliorated by the soft plops of marimba and crotales.

There are few if any grand statements by the whole orchestra: more in the way of mini-discussions among groups of instruments, with a gathering of forces for a brief exclamation before a return to the rarefied spheres high above the stave.

Soloist Jennifer Koh, comfortable at the top of her fingerboard, brought a sweet tone and secure technique to the latest offering from this prolific American composer.

And finally back into the woods, or at least the countryside, for a leisurely stroll through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. There was some neat brookside bird imitation, with lovely woodwind playing from clarinet (Richard Hosford), flute (Daniel Pailthorpe) and bassoon (Graham Sheen), and a not-too-violent storm. No subtext, no frills, no revelations.