The divide between professionals and amateurs in music is profound, but it gets crossed at Dartington: the Devon manor house where star performers, college students and the musical equivalent of Sunday painters coexist in harmony during the annual summer school and festival.
By night the stars give public concerts, but by day they teach, encourage and rub shoulders with a cultural democracy of several hundred people who are there to listen, learn and play. This year you would have found big names such as Alfred Brendel, Emma Kirkby, Judith Weir and Alison Balsom. But you’d also have discovered ad hoc string quartets formed by off-duty judges, politicians, housewives and the odd captain of industry, age range from 16 to a 96-year-old who had come to polish up his string technique. The concerts have a rapid turnover of three per night, and standards vary. But I caught a piano recital by Steven Osborne that would have won standing ovations anywhere in the world, especially for its Debussy: a composer Osborne plays with Presbyterian fierceness (you can tell he’s Scottish) rather than indulgence, but so brilliantly that it becomes an asset. I also heard the pianist Joanna MacGregor (who runs the summer school) playing live, laid-back and luscious jazz accompaniments to a screening of the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid.
But no less striking was a duo concert given by two student pianists from the Royal Academy. My love for two-piano concerts is equivocal. But the exuberance of Thomas Ang and Joseph Havlat hammering through Percy Grainger’s Fantasy on Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was unforgettable. Dynamic, stylish, smart, they were a great act that I’d happily sit through again.
Back in London, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra came to the Proms with its new chief conductor: the disarmingly youthful Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, whose petite appearance, female gender and unpronounceable name have won her instant media interest. Judging by the strong, controlled if soulless Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4 on the programme, she punches above her weight in every respect.
But when it came to charisma, Gražinytė-Tyla faced serious competition from Barbara Hannigan, the soprano soloist in the London premiere of a piece called let me tell you, by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. A song cycle for voice and orchestra that resurrects Shakespeare’s Ophelia from her watery grave, it speaks in enigmatic modern texts that take Ophelia’s individual words but reconstructed, like fridge magnets. As a literary exercise it’s empty. But as music it’s bewitching, with a fragile, spectral beauty. And as sung by Hannigan, with the compelling platform presence that has made her famous, it was stunning. One of the outstanding Proms experiences of the season.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.