Prom 52: An excellent evening of innovation from Elder and the Hallé

Prom 52 saw Sir Mark Elder’s excellent Hallé join forces with Gerard McBurney and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s acclaimed Beyond the Score® series, which weaves performance, unique projections of moving and still images, actors, soloists and narration into presentations which set composers and their masterpieces into an artistic, social, political and cultural context. The subject in question was Antonin Dvořák’s ever-popular Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.”

Archive footage opened the evening before passing the relay baton to the orchestra in the form of an upbeat military march. An interesting new concept, designed ostensibly to draw new and more diverse audiences to classical music concerts, the production aimed to tell the story of how Dvořák came to travel across the great ocean to New York City (Dvořák himself was something of a home bird and required the unanimous persuasion of his entire family to make the journey and accept a musical post in the New World.)

Five narrators strategically spaced out across the orchestra related the tale which was something akin to a group of actors delivering a read through of their lines ahead of a forthcoming play. Credit must be given to the excellent Henry Goodman, who took the role of the composer and delivered his lines with theatrical gusto and panache. Snatches of melody were aired by the orchestra to correspond with comments made, emotions felt or places seen by the composer himself, running the emotional gamut from homesick isolation to child-like wonder at various discoveries in his new surroundings.

What became clearer as the story developed is the heavy influence that Dvořák drew from American Indian folk music and tribal dances, not to mention brief nods to the Scotch Snap. The composer went on to lobby that, in his opinion, the future of American music should be “founded on Negro melodies”. The contemporary climate of prejudice manifested itself in a series of protestations and dismissive remarks from those in positions of influence within the musical establishment at such radical declamations. Dvořák was revealed to be considerably open-minded for the standards of the era, possessing a mindset ahead of his time.

One of the actors then went on to perform sections of plantation songs, which the composer greatly admired and used a well of inspiration. These vocalisations really brought the presentation to life; even more so selections from the plantation songs which segued smoothly into excerpts from Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony – revealing in true clarity just how much inspiration was derived from these ancient spirituals. Studying the sepia tinged portrait of Dvořák whilst basking in these glorious vocal recitals, one couldn’t help but feeling that this was a man with a deep and empathetic soul.

Did the concept work? Partially. While initially it felt as though the content was more primarily tailored to American audiences, a fidgety and (slightly) restive crowd soon came around and warm applause closed the parable before the interval.

Having digested the contents of the first half, all that remained was to sit back and enjoy an unbroken performance of the “New World” Symphony. The Hallé is my local orchestra and the strings were lush as ever, the brass sharp, the woodwinds evergreen and sprightly. The first movement was allowed to build in a measured fashion – nothing was rushed and the phrasing was expertly crafted. All sections of the orchestra seemed to be in perfect balance, synchronisation between sections was virtually flawless. Elder’s conducting style is warm and inclusive. One gets the impression that he is liked and admired by all of his musicians. His gesticulation is not exaggerated, but he has subtle means of coaxing out specific responses when desired.

The gorgeous cor anglais solo in the famous second movement was rendered faithfully and the Hallé gave a delicate interpretation of its many tonal colours. Particularly impressive was the orchestra’s ability to play ppp and yet maintain absolute control – seriously impressive stuff.

Nothing was out of place in the third movement, from where we dived straight into the rousing finale, the brass loudly and firmly declaring the closing theme, the Hallé expertly navigating the complex web of themes before arriving at a suitably serene conclusion. There was a great deal to admire in this performance which provides further evidence of the continuing excellence of Elder famous Manchester orchestra.