Music review: Prom 53 - Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Prom 59 - Hooray for Hollywood

Two of the Proms' annual fixtures set the Albert Hall alight.

Among the novelties of each Proms season - world premieres, new commissions, unusual concert programmes - are landmarks whose yearly return helps anchor the festival, allowing audiences to build an ongoing relationship with ensembles and artists. Two beloved fixtures of the annual calendar are the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the John Wilson Orchestra - groups whose repertoire, personnel and style couldn't be more different, yet who share that particular energy that can fill the Royal Albert Hall year after year.

Made up of Europe's finest young musicians (no player is over 26), the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is a thoroughbred among youth orchestras. Directed by Claudio Abbado, the ensemble balances the mature skill of professionals with the urgency that comes only from young musicians. While the symphonic repertoire shows off their full force (a 40-strong violin section sets the pace), it is more unusually as accompanist that the scope of their musicianship becomes evident.

Following on from their exquisite work with Christian Gerhaher last year at the Proms, the orchestra were this year joined by mezzo Susan Graham for Ravel's Sheherazade. All spice-scented breezes and diaphanous draperies, Ravel's orchestral writing embraces the unashamed Orientalism of Tristan Klingsor's verse, handling its images with lingering care.

From the keening oboe opening we were transported, carried aloft by Graham's silken legato and the delicate surging of the strings. Here was an orchestra sensitive not only to tempo and volume, but mirroring Graham's tone itself, shrouding their sound and warming it to help swell hers. As an exercise in orchestral technique it was supreme, as a musical encounter it was better still.

Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements is a mercurial creature, affecting to the grand passions and gestures of Hollywood one minute before undercutting them with a cynical musical shrug the next. Sir Colin Davis, ever precise, kept his musicians poised, flirting with the kitsch melodiousness of the Andante, and the feral bassoon-led dance, but never allowing full surrender. This was reserved for Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, whose big themes and bigger heart can too easily tip over into orchestral histrionics. Yet here the orchestra's emotional conviction invested all from the horn's chilling Fate theme to the little wind variations of the Scherzo with sincerity - a wide-eyed gaze into Tchaikovsky's fears and hopes.

Despite the showmanship and glossy trappings - the jazz hands, diamante sparkles and big-band swagger - sincerity was also the key to the John Wilson Orchestra's journey through the history of the Hollywood movie-musical. Their Hooray for Hollywood programme guided us from 1933's 42nd Street through to the 1960s and Hello, Dolly!, taking in the works of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Bernstein.

The orchestral arrangements (painstakingly restored and transcribed by the conductor himself) sing with the joy of spectacle and entertainment, bright with muted trumpet squeals and husky saxophone come-hithers. So lively was the characterisation from Wilson's band (showcased in the nostalgic delights of the opening montage overture) that the addition of singers seemed almost unnecessary, but soon the anguish of Caroline O'Connor's "The Man that Got Away" and crooning elegance (perhaps at times a little too understated) of Matthew Ford had got the audience thoroughly in the mood, and hits from Mary Poppins, Guys and Dolls and a staggeringly good "Serenade" from Mario Lanza vehicle The Student Prince had the audience twitching and jiggling in their seats.

If Wilson has a flaw it is perhaps an undue preference for ballads (clearly at a rather low ebb during the 1950s) over the up-tempo jazz numbers, which marooned us briefly on an emotional sandbank mid-concert, but with the deliciously acid "Triplets" from The Band Wagon we were underway again, powering on to the requisite big finale.

With the Proms diversifying ever further, the question of what makes (or might make) a successful Proms artist must surely be under constant revision. As events from the Comedy Prom, World Routes and the Spaghetti Western Prom have proved there is an audience for the full spectrum of genres and performers, but whether the artists offer up show-tunes and big-bands or a symphonies and an 80-piece orchestra, the criteria is the same. Excellence, and a hall-filling love of what they do make both the John Wilson Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester consummate Proms artists, year after year.

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear