The whole prom was like Disney’s Fantasia for grown-ups, perhaps an odd choice for an avant-garde programme featuring so many premieres. As we were encouraged to sit, stand, or move around the brick cylinder of the Roundhouse, almost in complete blackness, projected images whirled around us, mixing with the often frightening 21st-century orchestral music on stage. For example, Greenwood’s pulsating “smear” was illustrated at the start with stone angels, accelerating around the curtain like a zoetrope. And then, as the arcade sounds of the two ondes martenots swelled, we found ourselves gliding through a CGI forest of luminescent trees against a black sky. The finale, Ligeti’s Ramifications, featured shadows of enormous spiders scuttling over a marble wall.
Millions of thick, heavy, white rubber cables swayed from ceiling to floor to form a giant 360° curtain around the centre. This is the Roundhouse‘s current installation, Ron Arad’s Curtain Call. After pushing through this rubbery cabled curtain in the dark, jungle-like, we were greeted by BBC Radio 3’s own Andrew McGregor on the stage (sporting a “Save Brixton Arches” T-shirt). Just like in Fantasia, McGregor affably guided us all the way through, introducing us to some of the composers and telling us what to listen out for.
The prom opened with Birtwhistle’s brief fanfare The Message, as large coloured circles popped and grew all around us. Haas’ Open Spaces II (a UK premiere) featured a duo of string and percussion ensembles opposite each other, outside the curtain and dimly lit, one a microtone lower than the other. The result was a frottage of regular and irregular harmonic pads that electrified the air, as a myriad of cymbals and gongs, sounding in reverse, ripped through the atmosphere one by one in surround sound. The main event was the premiere of Sawyer’s non-narrative tone poem for full orchestra, which seemed oddly powerless here, exploiting consonance amid the atonality, and regularly tuned. However, the rapid syncopated ensemble chords and the ferocious hunting brass made for a dramatic journey.
It’s difficult to know whether this programme suited multi-media performance, or whether it only served to colour and distract. I saw one child, who was covering his eyes by laying his head on his father’s lap, presumably completely overwhelmed. Without the visuals, the London Sinfonietta and McGregor’s enthusiastic presenting would still have made the music shine; with the visuals, it was perhaps an assault on the senses.