A giant soapbox

In the wake of extensive debate earlier this year, the pressure is on for Jay-Z at Glastonbury this weekend: detractors questioned the rapper's suitability to headline the Pyramid Stage this Saturday, which Jay-Z and others responded to by pointing out the thinly-veiled racism behind many of the comments. But he isn't the only artist hitting back at whinging festival-goers: the New York Times reports that Kanye West recently posted a response on his website to audience members at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, who booed him when he moved his performance back several hours so that it was dark enough to properly display his light show. Frustrated at waiting so long, the Bonnaroo audience reportedly scrawled anti-West graffiti and made makeshift placards, including the somewhat incongruous 'Kanye hates hippies!'. In a tone that sounds more hurt than vitriolic, West wrote in response:"call me...arrogant, conceited, narcissistic...BUT NEVER SAY I DIDN'T GIVE MY ALL!"

Elsewhere, the film director Pedro Almodóvar hit back at a piece in the Guardian that stated his dominance of Spanish cinema had hindered other Spanish films' chances with British audiences, writing "it is deeply unfair, and also rather silly, to blame me for an absence of Spanish films at UK cinemas", adding "please, ask British distributors why they aren't buying Spanish films." Guardian online film editor Catherine Shoard apologised for the misunderstanding the earlier article had caused, and stated "the only crime I believe the article accused Mr Almodóvar of was excellence."

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The latest work of art to fill Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth was revealed this week to be a giant soapbox, on which members of the public can do or say what they like for exactly one hour. The project, created by sculptor Antony Gormley, will begin next spring, and those who wish to participate will be able to apply online. Admittedly, the online applicants will be "vetted" before being assigned their hour on the stand, but the team behind the project have argued that this is simply to avoid speakers who would incited racial hatred or violence. The announcement of Gormley's project was met with the predictable criticisms that all proposals for the Fourth Plinth seem to face: one poster on the Times website snapped "we should leave the empty plinth vacuous as a tribute to the current state of British art"

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For a man whose career has so far largely entailed designing marble bathroom suites, Florence-based architect David Fisher seemed very confident that his skyscraper to be built in Dubai was structurally sound. His rotating tower will apparently involve individual floors spinning around a central core, offering each room a complete 360 degree view over a period of time. Although undeniably an innovative work of art, many have expressed their doubts as to whether Dubai needs any more lavish residential skyscrapers - while others expressed concerns over the fact that, according to Qatar Living, the rotation of most of the rooms will be controlled by the artist's laptop.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.