In the Critics this week

Hari Kunzru on the American new left in the 1970s, Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Irish banditry in South Af

Hari Kunzru reviews an insider's account of the 1970s left wing Weatherman movement in America, whilst Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the anti new media figurehead Evgeny Morozov in "The Books Interview".

Amanda Craig admires a very frank baby boomer memoir from Jane Shilling. Geoffrey Wheatcroft is intrigued by a fascinating account of Irish banditry in nineteenth century South Africa.

Leo Robson finds a history of the Victorian fascination with murder offers more to researchers than readers. Sarah Churchwell is not overly impressed by Jay Parini's imagined life of Herman Melville.

Our Critic at Large this week, Alex Danchev, looks at the legacy of artists' manifestos in the 20th century. Ryan Gilbey is simultaneously enraptured by the cerebral violence of Peter Mullan's latest film Neds and dismayed by the mindlessness of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan.

Rachel Cooke enjoys BBC4's Hattie, a biopic of the actress Hattie Jacques, whilst Alice O'Keeffe thinks Gilbert and George might have broken one taboo too many in their new exhibition of postcards at the White Cube.

Antonia Quirke is moved by a Radio 4 documentary on going to the cinema, and Will Self rounds up this week's section with a not entirely flattering review of Gourmet Burger Kitchen.

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.