The Berlin Staatsoper may have been in town doing Wagner’s Ring but on Thursday the Spanish took command of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall
The Berlin Staatsoper may have been in town doing Wagner’s Ring but on Thursday the Spanish took command of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and – my oh my! – what an impression they made: half-naked dancers doing the fandango in 30-degree heat. I don’t think anyone knew they were in for such an erotic treatment at Prom 17.
First was the premiere of John McCabe’s latest composition commissioned for the Proms. Influenced by the cacophony of slot machines at a Japanese gaming hall, Joybox is a cleverly layered piece: starting with a repetitive beat of a tenor drum, jingle upon jingle is layered alongside the strings; pulsating percussion, woodwind, piano, an effervescent piccolo and an excitable brass section culminate in a outburst of a slot machine win.
This short yet exciting piece captured the spirit of our noisy contemporary world with melody and humour. Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena (pictured below) nimbly darted from his podium to run up and congratulate McCabe, who is terminally ill with brain cancer. It was a touching moment.
Next was Beethoven’s Seventh, suiting the programme with its dancing rhythms. I had seen exactly the same symphony last year at the Proms conducted by Barenboim and although it is harsh to compare, it is inevitable.
Mena is a thoughtful and endearing conductor with a gentle manner and he certainly embraces the spirit of Beethoven but I found the symphony rather tame and light in its treatment. The Seventh is a symphony full of hope for a troubled Beethoven, who was making a temporary recovery from the ill health that plagued him; you can hear a sense of renewed hope in the rhythmical orchestration and the dancing fugues.
Mena took the second movement at a hell of a lick but as far as dynamics, he doesn’t take the risks that Barenboim takes. He did, however, conduct without a score and I’m always impressed when a conductor goes scoreless.
Mena was much more at home in his native Spanish repertoire and in the wake of the train disaster he dedicated the concert to the victims of the crash.
We were in Andalusia with the opening bars of Manuel De Falla’s ballet the Three-Cornered Hat; mezzo-soprano Clara Mouriz sang expressively despite some glottal attacks which made her sound older than her years. I also don’t understand why she was placed at the back of the orchestra among the percussion section. It seemed a little cruel and I wanted to see more of her.
The overwhelming colour and passion of the Antonio Márquez Company dominated the extended stage, delighting us with the tale of the miller’s daughter, her husband and the local judge in a comical love triangle. This was more than flamenco: classical dance, sevillianas, mime and folklore were merged in a superbly choreographed mélange of traditions.
The tour de force of the soloists Antonio Márquez (pictured above) and the delightful Sara Chamorro was entrancing despite the cello section being sprayed with sweat as he manfully pirouetted and flicked his dark mane.
Complete with castanets, flamenco, toreador cape swirling, colourful costumes and lots of macho prancing, this was a hugely entertaining second half. It makes me wonder why we don’t have more cross-genres at the Proms, for there are certainly many wonderful scored dances and ballets.
Of course, the evening wasn’t complete without Ravel’s Bolero, a piece I utterly detest but which thankfully took second place to its erotically-charged dance, which saw the temperature rise even further, making Torvill and Dean look even more Nordic than usual.
Complete with solo encores in the Spanish tradition (where Monsieur Legris astutely commented it is near impossible to get dancers off the stage), I could feel the panic from the BBC Radio 3 box as we ran overtime. By now Antonio Márquez had his shirt off and was strutting in nothing but heels and black velvet trousers. And everyone loved it. Catch it on the BBC iPlayer if you can.
I’m a sucker for flamenco and Mr Legris was so taken by the performance he started mentioning trips to Spain for a quick break in September. With this subliminal messaging in place I think I’ll find a Caribbean evening to go to in November.