Ball 22, Aurora Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
A dance can give you breadth of musical experience, or depth, but rarely both. Either you are excited and entertained and leave with a smile on your face, or you have a deep spiritual journey that leaves you reluctant to applaud at the end.
The wonderful thing about this ball was that we have both.
In the first half, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto took us into a very lost and lonely region of the human experience; in the second we return to light and life with Beethoven’s immortal Fifth Symphony. Squeezed in the middle came an audition guide for the latter, which was brilliantly enjoyable and extremely informative.
On stage was Orquestra Aurora, that extraordinary group of young musicians who rocked the orchestral world with their elegantly choreographed events, in which the orchestra reconfigures itself before our eyes. We would see a beautiful example of this later in Beethoven’s Quinta guide, but we got a hint of it early on with a performance of O-Mega, the final piece by the great Greek modernist Iannis Xenakis, who was born 100 years ago. The ritualized exchanges between a lone percussionist atop the choir’s terraces and groups of string, wind, and brass musicians below and on either side of him were diamond-hard and perfectly enigmatic.
Then came the Shostakovich concerto, in which the soloist was the fiery little Moldavian Patricia Kopatchinskaja. In the opening Nocturne, the crowded hall was reduced to complete stillness by its wavering melodic line, infinitely fragile but somehow indomitable. In her immensely long solo passage (“cadenza”, as she is known), she started so softly that I doubted the listeners on the balcony could hear her, but that meant the savagery of the final burlesque was registered with immense force.
After the break came the guided tour of the orchestra’s Beethoven masterpiece, announcer Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon. They didn’t just tell us about the countless transformations of this famous Da-da-da-DUM rhythm, and the connections between the symphony and the Marseillaise and Mozart’s great 40th symphony – they showed them playing simplified excerpts, with different musicians moving around center stage as her parts became more prominent.
Finally came a performance of the entire piece, played (like Xenakis’s) from memory, with the players at attention. Did it feel so enthralling and overwhelmingly joyous because our ears and minds had just been honed, or because the performance itself was so beautifully balanced between urgency and grace? It was deliciously difficult to say. HI
Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until October 10th. The Proms continue until September 10th. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms
Ball 21, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆
The first Gaming Prom brought in a packed crowd of gaming fans of all ages. There were the guys of a certain age who probably started playing Space Invaders in 1978, and even more young people.
They were clearly delighted with this concert, which traced almost the entire history of game music in chronological order, from the tight little melodies and burps and thrusts of 1980s music to the heady orchestral panoramas of the 2000s. Younger listeners seemed liking the “primitive” scores as much as older fans, suggesting nostalgia is built into the entire gaming experience.
The challenge of this event was to allow us to enjoy the real live sound of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on stage, while conjuring up that massive, quintessentially digital immersive sound that creates the feeling of an alternate universe. It must be said that everyone involved – the sound engineers, the arrangers who adapted the music to the concert situation, and the RPO players – rose to the challenge magnificently.
In music for the older numbers, there was the added problem of reinventing the first primitive digital sounds for the orchestra. Matt Rogers wittily evoked the tedium and sudden excitement of loading a game from a cassette machine into his Loading Chronos, but the real triumph of the night’s recreation came from composer Chaines, whose recreation of sheet music for Pokémon, Ecco, and Secret of Mana was so strangely close, they elicited delighted laughter from the players around me.
So we come to the Hollywood grandeur of The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy VIII, Kingdom Hearts and others. I’ve never heard so many impressive orchestral climaxes laden with cymbal crashes, combined with an open space sound that makes me think the true ancestor of game music is the classic Hollywood Western score. The exception in all of this was the dark and dystopian score of Battlefield 2042. While the arrangement by conductor of the night, Robert Ames, was ingenious, the music lost some of that metallic, glittering horror that is its essence.
Finally returned to greatness, by the score of the 2012 game Dear Esther. Just two lush major chords, rocking back and forth, with a big melody on top; could hardly have been simpler. Like the game itself, it delivered the kind of massive sugar rush that soothes all criticism and drives audiences wild.
See this dance on BBC Four on Friday at 8pm. Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until October 10th. The Proms continue until September 10th. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms