Cohen at The Big Chill

At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Q

Big Chill Blog - Sunday 3 August 2008

On Sunday, it's hard to think past the fact that the mythic Leonard Cohen, will be serenading the crowd
tonight. But there are plenty of other worthy acts vying for our attention on this final day of the festival, and we have to do something to bide the time. Saturday's bountiful sunshine has been kidnapped by a dirty swathe of cloud, not that this is going to faze Big Chill stalwart Norman Jay, whose Sunday lunch feel-good groove DJ set is a regular festival fixture.

After only 15 minutes on the Castle stage, it all feels a bit tired, and when Jay spins 'Love the Sunshine', despite the fact there clearly isn't any, the crowd's indifferent response is both surprising and embarrassing.

Hopefully this will force him to remember that you can't fake festival feeling, and that he will need to come up with a more imaginative set list if he's to remain King of the Decks next year. By contrast, it's impossible to feel grey watching Orchestra Baobab over on the Open Air stage. They layer Congolese rumba and bossanova beats, with a West African vocal style and haunting, bluesy guitar. On the dance numbers, finger-picked guitar passages and a time-perfect brass section makes for music to burn away the cloud.

It's easy to stick to the main festival stages but part of the Big Chill's appeal is that it offers more than just musical performance and five kinds of falafel. Over in the Words in Motion tent, "recovering brand addict" Neil Boorman is offering a timely answer to dealing with the credit crunch, and reads from his recent book which details how he ceremoniously burnt and battered all his branded possessions and TV to oblivion, in order to break his consumerist addiction.

He's an engaging reader, but unfortunately this kind of event only attracts the ready converts. (The brand bunnies are out on the plains supping Tiger beer in their Cath Kidston wellingtons). Boorman may appear logo-free, but he still looks as though he's stepped straight out of a Shoreditch Saturday night. And as he answers revellers' questions post-reading, he smokes a Marlboro Light, despite having related the moment he decided to give up consuming any labelled substance, tobacco included.

Back on the Open Air stage, the Imagined World are trying to warm the ever-dampening crowd with their 10-piece best of British folk collective. Led by Martin and Eliza Carthy, and featuring the Copper family sons, this is voice-quavering, fiddle-playing folk at its best.

The highlight is a modern reworking of a traditional song, 'Tam Lyn', which features Benjamin Zephaniah narrating the tale on video, to a drum and bass beat and flagrant violining from Eliza Carthy. It works brilliantly, and Imagined World turn out to be one of the unexpected festival highlights.

Only one more act before Mr Cohen - and it's a test of our love for Leonard that we stick it out to ensure a prime spot infront of the stage. The cloud has lifted, but Camille is the French bansheeing Bjork imitator up next, and as much as I try to appreciate her post-feminist dress over the head,'Why do you call me a slag' shrieking, it's pretty self-masturbatory stuff.

Camille is at her best when she and the rest of her collective leave off the teenage offence and switch to close-harmonied, high-energy beat-boxing. But forcing the audience to conspire with her mock-psychotic cabaret is the height of performative egotism, and she finishes the set with a gimmick which speaks volumes - turning her back to the audience to reveal a dress cut so low it reveals most of her bottom.

And so to the act we have not dared to anticipate. At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Quite simply, he doesn't. Instead, he surpasses them and proves himself a septagenarian dark saint, with an impossible sex appeal, and a humble sincerity of performance that makes him sound as though he bleeds and burns every word he sings.

Most of the favourites are there; 'Tower of Song', 'Suzanne', 'Goodbye, Marianne', 'That's no way to say goodbye', 'Dance me to the end of love', 'Bird on the Wire', and a soul-soaring version of 'Hallelujah' which has the unusually tuneful crowd serenading Cohen himself with the chorus.

His delivery of 'I'm your man' is so erotic, he could still have his pick of the female audience (and probably some of the male), irrespective of age. Cohen the man may have an ego, but Cohen the performer certainly doesn't. And it's this generosity, this willingness to share his capacity for rendering human experience in lyrical song that makes for an utterly spell-binding performance and the unquestionable highlight of the Big Chill.

Nichi Hodgson is a 25-year-old Yorkshire emigree working as an Editorial Assistant on an Arts Database. She freelances on arts, culture and gender issues

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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.