There's no point in accusing the Proms of dumbing down: when it comes to the toe-curling music of Eric Whitacre, everyone is at it. For the second time in three years, the Proms has given this Nevada-born, London-domiciled composer and conductor a concert to himself, but then the entire music industry has been indulging him for some time. Choirs, orchestras, major record labels and magazines that ought to know better have all cravenly bought into the slick yet hollow package.
As we were reminded by the first of his pieces in this concert, The River Cam, Whitacre is also composer in residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. (Words fail me.) Scored for cello and string orchestra, it achieves a level of muzak pleasantness that the soulful, warm-toned soloist Leonard Elschenbroich worked hard to project. But even this short piece overstayed its welcome, a little like those people who work in cafes all day on free wi-fi; come to think of it, this was the sort of music Vaughan Williams might have composed in the Cambridge branch of Dunkin' Donuts.
Whitacre knows how to write for choirs, and he knows how to give those formulae a clever twist. In his early Cloudburst, the sound of falling rain is effectively evoked in the clicking fingers and then clapping hands of massed singers (here the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus). But the smoothness of his writing de-natures some haunting lines by Octavio Paz. His new Deep Field (which received its European premiere here) is inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and towards the end of this long exercise in sonic paint drying the audience is invited to join in by activating the ambient shimmerings of a special smartphone app. Whitacre joked that his latest version of Equus, this time for chorus and orchestra, sounds like "Carmina Burana on steroids"; summoning up the the energy of a running horse, it also brought to mind a well-known equine waste-product.
Two American classics leavened the programme, though Whitacre's conducting of Copland's Quiet City failed to find the atmosphere in this Edward Hopperesque urban nocturne. At least Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue gave us the Proms debut of last year's BBC Young Musician: joining the Royal Philharmonic, the pianist Martin James Bartlett brought maximum feeling to the music and played with astonishing delicacy and punch, but he really deserved the support of a proper conductor.
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