Proms 2010: Jonathan Dove – A Song of Joys (World Première)

by 5:4

i think Tom Service put it best, a few years ago, when he described the Last Night of the Proms as a “calcified cadaver”. It is, there’s no question: beneath the merriment and the klaxons lies an occasion that died many, many years ago; it’s a concert in aspic, filled with a misfitted agglomeration of works that culminate in a trio of singalongs which have at least made the transition from jingoistic anthems to party favourites. It’s almost as bad as Choral Evensong, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, turning away from such blatant party poopery for a moment, it does at least promise something new each year, and last night the opportunity fell to housewives’ favourite, Jonathan Dove, whose A Song of Joys was given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlávek, starting the concert.

Dove has turned to that most ambitious of poets Walt Whitman for his text, lines from the poem whose title Dove has borrowed for his own. And it’s a big text; the scope of Whitman’s vision is akin to that of Psalm 8, conjuring a vista of creation from the vantage point of song. Such epic scope as this makes it all the more disappointing that Dove’s response to the text is so simple and unimaginative. Dove probably wasn’t allowed longer than his 5-minute duration, but did he really have to move through the text in such a perfunctory way? One phrase dutifully follows another, never really bringing alive the words or tapping into their vision, still less presenting one of Dove’s own. It’s all terribly functional: loud and light, with lots of big tunes—but not a hint of the genuine, deep excitement from which Whitman’s words no doubt sprang. In fact, the choral evensong analogy remains apt; what Dove has composed is a secular but unavoidably John Rutter-esque anthem that would sit perfectly comfortably within an edition of Songs of Praise. So, was it suitable to start the Last Night of the Proms? with Tom Service’s description of the occasion foremost in mind: yes, absolutely.

Which brings to a fizzling end the series of premières at this year’s Proms. According to the statistics, based on which of these articles you, the readers of 5:4, have been pointing your browsers, the work that by far generated most interest this year was the London première of Cornelius Cardew‘s Bun No. 1; no doubt due in part to the rarity of performances of this fascinating, elusive piece. Personally, i wouldn’t yet call it a favourite, but it’s certainly growing on me. If i had to choose favourites from this year’s premières, i’d pick James Dillon‘s La navette, Tansy DaviesWild Card and Huw WatkinsViolin Concerto, all pieces that both tantalise on first experience and yield more and more on repeated listenings. But beyond the premières, the contemporary piece that struck me most forcefully this season was without doubt Luke Bedford‘s Or voit tout en aventure, one of the most exquisite pieces i’ve heard in a long time.

It seemed such a simple little idea, back in July, to review all the Proms premières on 5:4, but it turned out to be a more ambitious project than i realised. But equally—no, much more so—it’s been a rewarding one; i’ve never enjoyed a Proms season better than this one, so i suspect this won’t be the only year 5:4 fixes its attention on the Proms. Many thanks to everyone who’s read these articles, downloaded the music, and written comments in reply (or rebuke)—that, too, makes the experience yet more interesting and enjoyable. Keep the comments coming (which was your favourite?), they’re very much appreciated.

Programme Note

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Thanks Cliff, thanks Andy – it was a lot of fun, & it's great others have found it interesting & useful •

You did a great job in this. Hope you continue in keeping the people updated. Thanks much.


Many people appreciate the effort you've put in to keeping us up to date with the new works at the Proms. It must feel like a labour of love but your criticism and recordings have definitely helped me into several of those works.

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