Leader: Summer loving

Enjoy the warm, bright days while they last.

The start of the Ashes Test series between England and Australia coincided with a period of sustained warmth and bright sunshine. In the wonderfully fluctuating opening match at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, Ashton Agar, a little-known 19-year-old debutant who was not included in the original touring squad and who until recently was playing club cricket for Henley, made 98 glorious runs in the first innings. He rescued Australia from a perilous position while making the highest ever score by a No 11 in a Test match.

Suddenly, it seemed as if every second person you met was talking about the cricket, just as they were in the summer of 2005, when England and Australia contested the closest and most gripping Test series in many decades. That was the last Test series to be broadcast on free-toview terrestrial television. Soon afterwards, the England and Wales Cricket Board sold the TV rights to Sky.

In his poem “Mother, Summer, I”, Philip Larkin writes of how his mother

Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there . . .

Certainly in these islands, and especially after the long stretch of wet and floodwrecked recent years, we have become used to dark clouds in summer. No doubt they will return soon enough, so enjoy these warm, bright days while they last. Autumn – and the return of money-mad football – await us.

Brighton Beach on 14 July 2013. Photograph: John Connor Press Association Ltd / Rex Features

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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.