Anna Meredith's extraordinary 'Five Telegrams' opens the BBC Proms

p06bn2b5.jpg
Five Telegrams, Anna Meredith’s extraordinary collaboration with the film company 59 Productions has opened the 2018 BBC Proms to enormous acclaim.
 
The 24-minute work for choir and orchestra launched in the Royal Albert Hall on 13 July with Sakari Oramo conducting the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Accompanied by mesmeric digital projections onto both the outside and inside of the building, Five Telegrams is both a sonic and visual feast and was broadcast live on BBC 2 TV and BBC Radio 3.
 
The work draws on communications sent by young soldiers in 1918 and was jointly commissioned by the BBC Proms, the Edinburgh International Festival and 14-18 NOW, it opens the Edinburgh Festival on 3 August, with visuals projected onto the Usher Hall.
 
View the whole piece on YouTube now:
 
‘… the highly elaborate lighting plot — the work is a collaboration with 59 Productions — was trained on the exterior of the celebrated building. For the Friday concert, it enveloped the amphitheatre, and the organ in particular, and with a lambent magnificence certainly needing to be seen to be believed. How such colours, ever-changing, could at one point align so precisely with the construction of that immense instrument astonished me. At other times the organ ran with flame. And the thought that it was all done with computers took no jot of the magic away.
 
The purpose of this not actually hedonistic display was the somewhat esoteric one of evoking, like Meredith’s music — devised for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and Proms Youth Ensemble, as well as the BBCSO — the communications systems used during the First World War, including soldiers’ “field telegrams”. The centenary of the Armistice is a theme this season, as is women’s enfranchisement, hence commissions from women composers in all eight Cadogan Hall lunchtime Proms. Meredith’s substantial five-movement (22-minute) score for the First Night united them…
 
More than substantial, Five Telegrams came over as monumental in its deployment — very deft — of a minimalist repetitive tutti manner. The music, violent, brassy, percussive, had a block-like, even granitic quality, in contrast to the restlessly darting lasers, intent on transforming solid materials into another element. The odd caption flashed into view, to remind us the production was about war, but it was easy enough to take the piece neutrally as a son et lumière, one in which sheer impact was everything, excluding all other expressive modes. The young musicians, dotted round the hall, performed from memory and had no objection, presumably, to being bathed in remarkable extravagances of light…’
The Sunday Times (Paul Driver), 22 July 2018
 
'… Meredith uses these considerable forces with great restraint and economy, in what is an exploration of the ways of communication during the first world war, and how they could be controlled and manipulated. Each of the five short movements deals with a different element – fake news and propaganda, censorship, redaction and codes, to the rather hesitant unbelieving way in which news of the final armistice was conveyed back to families and friends…
 
The lingering images come from Meredith’s music – the clashing, grinding riffs, and occasional moments of tender intimacy; shorn of cosmetics, it’s strong enough to stand on its own.'
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 13 July 2018
 
‘Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, a dazzling son et lumière collaboration with 59 Productions, proved a powerful, often surprisingly upbeat, commission…
 
Meredith’s use of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in that Field Postcard movement was highly effective, layering the anodyne multiple-choice vocabulary from which the soldiers were forced to use to mesmerising effect.
 
Five Telegrams is no sombre, sepia lament, but a vibrant shot of colour. Meredith writes for huge orchestral forces – the battery of percussion including a thumping scaffolding pipe – but she deploys them deftly. “Spin” has a pounding, mechanistic groove, a suitable partner to Holst’s Mars, harbinger of war, as does “Codes”, reminiscent of 1920s Soviet “machine music”. Brass and percussion from the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble bolstered the decibel count. “Redaction” opens with a jaunty pizzicato strings and steel pan bounce, echoed in bold blocks of colour projections, before tam-tam strokes find black strips wiping them away. The solo cello opening “Armistice” provided a rare moment of reflection before a clangorous ending, with something of the hollow victory I find at the end of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
 
Depending on where you were sitting, the awkward shape of the RAH limited the impact of the projections. I was in Kensington Gardens the previous evening, when the exterior of the hall was the canvas for a quite stunning display. Five Telegrams is a powerful work and one that surely has a life beyond this centenary year.
Bachtrack (Mark Pullinger), 14 July 2018
 
'It was a big bold statement, involving two choirs as well as a BBC Symphony Orchestra heavily reinforced with extra trumpets of the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, and moving imagery projected onto the curved walls and hanging mushrooms of the Albert Hall by the co-creators of the piece, 59 Productions…
 
The title is a reference to the various ways soldiers at the Front were permitted to communicate, which were few and subject to strict censorship, or minced into coded form.
In the process the human content of the message was muted or even obliterated - that was the message of this bold and imaginative piece…
 
… one was aware of brutal mechanisms at work, as in the fourth movement Codes, where morse-code patterns in brilliant colours chased around the curved walls, while Meredith’s chordal shapes were savagely ‘rubbed out’ by the massed percussion. 
The visuals were mostly abstract, but here and there one caught a hint of something more concrete, a suggestion of maps and gun placements in one movement, a tangle of lines suggesting messages running down telephone wires to the front.
… a spectacular and brilliantly conceived start to the season.'
The Telegraph (Ivan Hewett), 14 July 2018
 
'The pièce de résistance was the premiere of an extraordinary new work by Anna Meredith and 59 Productions entitled Five Telegrams. Their poignant inspiration was the multiple-choice postcard which soldiers in the First World War trenches could fill in and send home: ‘I am quite well/ I have been admitted into hospital/I have received no letter from you…’
 
While 59 Productions manically projected illuminations round the auditorium, Meredith’s score sought to reflect five modes of communication, from propaganda, redaction, and codes, to news of the cessation of hostilities…
 
… one had to admire the precision of the performance by 26 young brass and percussion players of the Proms Youth Ensemble, who added their exhilarating sounds to those of National Youth Choir. Each of this work’s five sections was a clearly-defined sound-world…'
The Independent (Michael Church), 16 July 2018
 
‘… the centrepiece was a new commission, Five Telegrams, by Anna Meredith, in collaboration with 59 Productions, who dazzled all with an integral light show, also seen outside the Albert Hall the night before in a unique Proms curtain-raiser. Its subject matter was soldiers’ methods of communication from the front.
 
Meredith has skilfully transmuted raw actuality into a distilled, at times near weightless elegy: no naive pretence that, a century on, we can or should recreate that suffering but an invitation to meditate and remember. The delicate plucked strings and harp of Redaction, with hushed sputters of steel pan, was especially effective, with the spiky, brassy angularity of Codes following in urgent contrast. Bringing together several musical ensembles as well as the BBCSO, Meredith has made within it a radiant choral piece for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain that could stand alone, son without lumiere. Repeated at the Edinburgh festival, co-commissioners, on 3 August.’
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 22 July 2018
 
‘A memorable start to the season ahead.’
The Arts Desk (Gavin Dixon), 14 July 2018
 
‘It is a massive sound-and-light work (for full orchestra, chorus, augmented brass and percussion and organ) in five short movements that puts the listener through an emotional wringer.
 
The opening ‘Spin’, explodes like a piñata: massive streamers of light accompanied by vibraphone, ostinati trombone clusters, distant trumpets and banging chords from full orchestra. ‘Field postcard’ is largely choral, the overlapping melodic fragments, summoning the truncated and formulaic nature of the delete-as-appropriate telegrams, and leaving the listener in no doubt as to Meredith’s minimalist influences. The third movement’s title – ‘Redaction’ – is illustrated through the metallic twangs and sinister chords that gradually obliterate the sad little 6/8 underlay in the harps.
 
The busily moving blocks of colour for the breathtaking ‘Codes’ are accompanied by insistent machine-code ostinati in a movement that culminates in the brass bands either side of the stage blurting out massive chords. Illustrated by projections of maps and compass-bearings, ‘Armistice’s’ yearning cello tune broadens to a massive full chord, before closing in a suitably dramatic susurration of choral whisper. This year’s Edinburgh Festival will also see a performance of this intelligent and affecting work.'
musicOMH (Barry Creasy), 15 July 2018
 
'Meredith’s Five Telegrams, composed to mark the centenary of the end of the first world war, belongs in a line of Proms commissions specially designed to live up to the massive scale and unique physical surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. A practical composer responds with simple ideas, huge forces and an ambition to make a splash, all of which Meredith delivered.'
Financial Times (Richard Fairman), 15 July 2017