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10 August 2015

Proms 2015: How I learned to stop worrying and love Eric Whitacre

The American composer wins over a sceptical NS critic.

By Caroline Crampton

As I took my seat for this Prom, I thought I knew what I thought of Eric Whitacre. I felt secure in my opinion of the hugely popular American composer, who is best known for choral compositions like Sleep and Lux Aurumque, which use dense harmonies and swooping dynamics to create the very definition of what we think of as “easy listening”. Seeing him take to the podium in the Royal Albert Hall, with his shoulder-length blond hair and his well-fitting tailored grey jacket, I thought I had him pegged. When he picked up a microphone and in his so very West Coast accent expressed his pleasure at being back at the Proms, I thought: Yes, I know what I think of you. He’s a showman, alright, but he also seemed to be something else I like less – smarmy.

The way he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Jonathan Newman’s explosive short piece Blow It Up, Start Again confirmed my assumptions. He was all casual wrist-flicks and syncopated hip-pops, and he even bounced on the balls of his feet like the frontman of a rock band when a particularly emphatic series of beats lead into a crescendo or a climax. It’s charming, engaging even, but it’s also distracting – I remember very little of Newman’s piece, now, because Whitacre was in the way. The same was true of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Quiet City later in the programme – despite some vigorous and appealing playing by the orchestra and soloists, guided ably by Whitacre, I never quite shook the sense that there was really only one man on that stage.

When he’s conducting his own work, though, the fact that Whitacre is compelling to watch works very much in the music’s favour. His 2010 piece The River Cam, for orchestra and solo cello, is not stunningly memorable in itself, but its swooping, emotional lines glowed under Whitacre’s hands. The simplicity of it, as well as its swelling, textured strings, made it sound like a film score in want of a film – whether that is a good or bad thing, I’m still not sure.

Following it was 1991’s Cloudburst, one of Whitacre’s more famous choral compositions, and I think this is where my mind was changed about him. The stage was very poorly lit, and owing to the size of the orchestra, the choir was quite a long way away from him. Yet his connection to them was absolute and the sound was utterly focused and compelling. In the latter stages of the piece, when the clouds have indeed burst and Whitacre turned to the audience to invite us to join in with the choir’s percussive finger-clicking and thigh-slapping, people did so without hesitation – such is his charisma and control as a conductor that he can override even the most British audience’s reluctance to participate. The sound of thousands of gently clicking fingers against the choir’s chords was beautiful and so evocative that the rainstorm could have been in the hall with us.

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The BBC Singers in the hall during “Deep Field”. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

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Newly converted to Whitacre-ism, I found his two pieces in the second half all the more astonishing. All ready to sneer at the faddism of his inviting the audience to play samples from a special app on their phones during Deep Field, I was in fact very moved by the eerie, gentle sound it created. The piece, written as a response to images of deep space taken by the Hubble Telescope, was receiving its European premiere here. With the choir standing in the stalls of the hall and the twinkling lights of a thousand smartphones around them, it was quite a sight.

The work that really confirmed my total change of heart, though, was Equus. Whitacre described it himself as “Carmina Burana on steroids”, and there is something of that in its louder and more epic moments. But it’s also an experiment with minimalism and form, with repeating motifs in both the orchestra and chorus and fiendishly complicated interlocking rhythms. It’s overblown and exaggerated – I imagined it soundtracking a kind of intergalactic chariot race or similar very well – but all the more wonderful for that. In his introduction, Whitacre said of its difficulty that “when I wrote, it I never thought I would have to conduct it”, yet once again it was his stage presence that held the whole thing together in a triumphant blaze of sound.