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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism