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.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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