The last concert for the BBC Symphony Orchestra prior to its Last Night festivities, featured three talented Americans: composer Missy Mazzoli, whose Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) was given its European première, pianist Jeremy Denk who played the fiendishly difficult Bartók Second Piano Concerto with precision and panache, and conductor Karina Canellakis who kept everything together with warmth and style.

Karina Canellakis conducts the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Karina Canellakis conducts the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Mazzoli’s piece was an atmospheric and easy-to-the-ear opener. Although she usually gets grouped in the Minimalist camp, her music doesn’t have the typical pulsating rhythmic constancy; rather, more evident is her love for “harmony and stacked chords”, which she talked about in the pre-concert Proms Extra event. In this symphonic version of Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), originally written for chamber orchestra, she explores unusual harmonies, textures and timbres mostly with conventional orchestral instrumentation, but with the help of eight harmonicas (performed by the woodwind players) and some pre-recorded electronics right at the end. The way Mazzoli stacked the chords reminded me of the sound world of a Japanese “sho” (mouth-organ) which gave the work the otherworldly feel. Also I detected influences of Britten’s nocturnal music in the string writing, especially in her use of double bass glissandi. It was heartening to see the work very enthusiastically received (which is not always case with Prom premières).

Missy Mazzoli after the Proms première of <i>Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Missy Mazzoli after the Proms première of Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major must be a really difficult work to pull off in the Royal Albert Hall, because so much of the work is a dialogue between the pianist and the brass/percussion, and the hall is notorious for its weird reverberations. However, neither soloist Jeremy Denk nor Canellakis showed such anxiety and right from the word go, Denk led the way boldly with brilliance, and Canellakis controlled everyone together with a superb grasp of the rhythmic intricacies of the work.

It was interesting to read in the programme that Bartók himself premiered this work at the Proms in 1936 (during the Winter Proms at the Queen’s Hall). Listening to Denk’s performance, I was reminded what a virtuoso pianist Bartók must have been. I’m sure he would have approved of Denk’s masterly, yet cool-headed performance, getting totally inside the music but always aware of his part in the ensemble (especially in the chamber-like concertino sections), and never wearing the fiendish virtuosity on his sleeve. The woodwind and brass sections of the BBCSO played with alertness and rhythmic brilliance, and the strings helped create a darker atmosphere in the second movement. Beyond the light and virtuosic exterior of the concerto, Denk and Canellakis hinted at the darker times to come.

Jeremy Denk plays Bartók © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jeremy Denk plays Bartók
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Finally in Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony in the second half, we were able to fully savour the talents of Canellakis as conductor. A much-loved work at the Proms, I still fondly recall Mariss Jansons’ warm and flowing performance back in 2004. Canellakis gave a much more straightforward and rhythmically articulate reading, mostly avoiding conventional rubato in the phrasings and gestures, but adding some characterisation of her own. In the first movement, she brought out the contrast between the opening mournful melody and the subsequent con brio section which moved forward with energy. In the second movement she showed more fluidity in the phrasing– such as small tempo manoeuvres in the dialogue between flutes and clarinets. The third movement was indeed grazioso, although I felt she could have articulated the folksy off-beat rhythm a little more in the trio section – it felt a bit square. Still, she polished off the coda with brilliance, leading straight into the finale. I loved the way she highlighted the militaristic character in the C minor episode. Throughout it was clear that she had a larger picture of the movements.

Canellakis displayed good control of orchestral sonority too, and managed to pull out all the stops from the BBCSO. In the big tutti moments, she let the brass play with gusto – but always with warmth – and as a result the strings did at times get a little overwhelmed, but the brass was on top form. There were also some outstanding woodwind solos and ensemble playing: in particular principal flute Michael Cox, who managed to make his bird call solos sound so fresh and spontaneous each time. Perhaps the performance lacked slightly the rustic charm of Dvořák’s music, but on the whole, it was a sophisticated reading of the symphony and an impressive debut from Canellakis.