Well known for their genre-busting and boundary-defying music, Bang on a Can delivered an Late Night Prom of modern works by its founding composers, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang, celebrating the 30th birthday of the unique New York collective. Together they pride themselves on exploring instruments in contemporary classical music such as the electric guitar, amplification and electronics.

Members of the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble perform <i>Big Space</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Members of the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble perform Big Space
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The world première of Gordon’s BBC commission Big Space was the evening's central focus. Eight groups of instrumentalists were spaced in the round above the top of the stalls in the Royal Albert Hall, with brass and percussion performed by 24 members of the BBC Proms Youth ensemble conducted by Rumon Gamba from the centre of the hall. This piece was almost electronic in its sound world and utterly fantastic in conception. Metallic objects were struck in succession around the hall like ringing bells in immersive sonic waves. This created an unsettling spiral of tonal rhythms that was contrasted by Bang on a Can on stage playing percussive interjections, not too dissimilar in style to the final piece of the night, Louis Andriessen Workers Union. Gordon created a perpetual motion, moving clockwise around the hall, overlaid with wailing glissando brass echoing the sound of sirens. The fragmented nature of Bang on a Can’s interjections progressed into more tonal ideas and there were some quieter moments of pulsing and vibrato cello and clarinet melody near the end that were very memorable. This moved towards a final pulsing drumkit with an infectious beat. It truly is a brilliant work and progressive in terms of Bang on a Can’s socio-political message to break up defining groups.

Julia Wolfe’s Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary, more reactionary in its political conception, was written in reflection of 9/11 attacks in New York. A tremelo opens the piece with a deep pulsing bass clarinet that has little percussive builds on a bass drum. The lower instruments, bass clarinet and piano, descend into longer flurries of notes. About halfway through, the bass clarinet was switched for a standard clarinet. This changed the energy of the piece quite significantly, where suddenly the playing of clarinettist Ken Thomson came into the foreground. Her piece focuses on the clarinet as did David Lang’s Sunray, receiving its London première, though it was more delicate in contrast to his two peers. The piece opened with a lilting clarinet melody, shifting to electric guitar and underpinned by plucked strings. This grew in each section of the piece, always progressing towards a more forceful sound in the sense of theme and variations representing different physical manifestations of the sun. As in Big Space there were some clarinet and cello melodies towards the end, this time underpinned by drums and the continual ostinato melody from the opening.

Bang on a Can All-Stars © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bang on a Can All-Stars
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Philip Glass’ Glassworks – Closing was arranged by Michael Reisman specifically for the Bang on a Can. This provided a calm moment in an evening of very intense works. The vibraphone worked particularly well in this piece where it was met with piano and cello. The amplification was a bit out of balance where amplified guitar and vibraphone ideally needed to be louder, but it was still beautifully presented in an elegant performance with the cross-rhythms and melodies pulling through just at the right times.

In absolute contrast to Glass was the political piece by Louis Andriessen Workers Union, which was written for any loud-sounding group of instruments. The rhythms are provided for the performers but not the actual pitches. Perhaps a bit too heavy coming at the end of the other four pieces, but echoing the sentiment of Big Space, the performers climbed to an explosive finish in a fury of knocking and cymbals and a comical exclamation on clarinet. The intensity of the works were perfectly suited to a shorter concert in an outstanding and memorable evening of music that was easily a concert highlight of the year.

*****