Prom 22 was definitely a surreal evening of music. The programme was centered around the UK première of Russian-born American composer and poet Lera Auerbach’s large-forces work The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was accompanied by the Crouch End Festival Chorus under the baton of Edward Gardner, with violinist Vadim Gluzman and five vocal soloists led by countertenor Andrew Watts.

Edward Gardner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Edward Gardner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

As many of the poems in Auerbach’s work took their influence from the Mother Goose fairy tales as a starting point, it seemed appropriate that the evening commenced with Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. After a slow unravelling, the piece came into its own when the orchestra united in gamelan inspired harmonies. It is easy to forget that this work was written so long ago as it sounded just as new as Auerbach’s modern take.

At forty-minutes long, The Infant Minstrel stood its ground and Auerbach must be commended for creating such a bold and witty work, even though it was sometimes awkward in its treatment of the libretto. The choral part and vocal and violin soloists felt like extra additions with the central focus being on the orchestra. The fantastical qualities of the fairytales and nonsense verse structure dictated that the work should be listened to with a pinch of salt and a sense of humour. The farcical nature of some of the percussive moments combined with some solo moments played on the saw, harp and violin were comical and clown-like but with dark undertones of stark contrasts and musical shocks.

The saw (Ben Nordby) and harps (Sioned Williams and Manon Morris) had a fundamental role in the structure of the music and were used as linking instruments between larger orchestral parts linking the rhymes. The melodies on these instruments were slow and lyrical in contrast to the violin. Violin soloist Vadim Gluzman had a hard task on his hands to perform the summoning solo in the role of the ‘Child Bard’. His part was relentless, often playing in a high octave with an insistent, repetitive melody. The power of Andrew Watts’ range in his vocal performance made for a moving experience alongside the notable soprano Nina Bennett. 

David Temple (chorus master), Lera Auerbach, Vadim Gluzman, Edward Gardner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
David Temple (chorus master), Lera Auerbach, Vadim Gluzman, Edward Gardner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The musical language took on a style that could be likened to a Danny Elfman score, who has composed much of the music for Tim Burton's films. There were many flavours of Danny Elfman’s music that could be heard in Auerbach, such as the use of twinkling percussion with a similar feel to Edward Scissorhands particularly in "Promenade Two". In "Lament for a Common Corporant", the brass rolled their notes into the choir’s crude, childlike singing, here sounding similar to the musical songs written for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The dissonance was sometimes relentless but the rhythms, percussive interjections, pitch bends and glissandos kept musical interest in the score and stamped Auerbach's individual identity firmly on the work. The set words are credited to the composer herself (under the pseudonym ‘Erroneous Anonymous’) and she makes a tongue-in-cheek satirical reference to Donald Trump in "Who Plays my Drum?" as ‘the little husband’.

A small programmatic interjection referenced the Shakespeare anniversary, with the rarely performed "Fanfare d’ouverture" from Debussy’s King Lear providing a short break between the longer works. It was great to hear this piece performed, and though it didn't really match musically with the rest of the programme, it had the sense of being a one-of-a-kind work, albeit one that tends to feel misplaced. Edward Gardner shone in an outstanding rendition of Debussy’s La Mer which was easily the highlight of the evening. The opening was a little weak in the same way that Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite had been, but the final movement of the "Dialogue du Vent et de la Mer" herded swells of harmony into the big wave crashes of cymbals and brass into a climactic triumph of a finish.