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Reviews

BBC Proms 2018, First Night, BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo
15 Jul 2018

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

BBC Proms 2018, First Night, BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Five Telegrams

Photo credit: Justin Sutcliffe

 

But, this year’s Proms will also mark two political events of 100 years ago: the end of the First World War and the 1918 Parliamentary Act which granted suffrage to women over the age of 30. And, both season-strands were present at this First Night performance given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo, with works composed at the start of the century by English composers placed alongsideFive Telegrams - a new work by Anna Meredith in collaboration with 59 Productions which was jointly commissioned by the BBC Proms, 14-18 NOW and Edinburgh International Festival.

The ‘elegiac’ side of things was confined to the first half of the concert. Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, a setting of text from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, was first performed in 1918, though not heard at the Proms until after the Second World War. Presumably the composer was drawn repeatedly to Whitman’s poetry - in the Sea Symphony and Dona nobis pacem, for example - because of the American poet’s blend of pseudo-religious mysticism and humanistic values. The opening lines were sensitively sustained by the BBC Symphony Chorus, every word carefully declaimed. Oramo kept things moving along and build with grandeur but avoiding triumphalism towards the massive hymn-like climax, encouraging a blossoming swell of sound from his singers. It was resolute but not too nobilmente, the emphasis on song and spirit in the final floating cry: ‘Equip them at last, them to fulfil, O soul!’

Oramo strove for similarly restrained sentiment in Holst’s The Planets, though he allowed his two timpanists to propel ‘Mars’ from dark beginnings to a thunderous tumult, their menacing rhythm pounded with unrelenting insistence, as trombones and horns snarled, and the woodwind sneered. The horn solo at the start of ‘Venus’ sounded a little tentative, but there was much delicacy and sweetness in this movement, not least some lovely string playing enhanced by gentle solos from leader Stephen Bryant. ‘Mercury’ was fleet but sharply defined, a whirl of colour and nuance.

I’d have liked the syncopated motif which introduces Jupiter’s ‘jollity’ to have had a bit more bite and tension, but again Oramo had a good eye for the long-range target, steering fluently through the triple-time accelerando and then easing up, but not too much, for the ‘big theme’. The lack of sentimentalism didn’t stop from one of the audience members seated just behind me from joining, rather untunefully, however; and another small gripe was the applause which punctuated the first few movements. But, the final movements proceeded segue and the compelling momentum which Oramo had formed carried us convincingly onwards, culminating with Neptune’s mystical cry from other unknown regions, as the female voices of the National Youth Choir receded into silence.

The performance had been ‘complemented’ by pulsating colours and lights along the frieze behind the orchestra and the illumination of the Hall’s heights in hot red and cool emerald - a sort of cosmic light-show which anticipated the Son et lumière which was to come.

The concert had commenced at the rather unusual, and not particularly convenient, time of 8.15pm, and after a disproportionately long first half it was 10pm before we had the opportunity to hear the first of this year’s Proms commissions, Anna Meredith/59 Productions’ Five Telegrams. Meredith is one of twenty-two women composers championed by the Proms this summer, with Roxanna Panufnik receiving a commission for the Last Night and eight other women contributing world premieres to the Proms Chamber Music series.

Each of the five movements of this twenty-five-minute work explores one of the forms of communication employed on the Front Lines, and between the war-front and those back home, and is accompanied by a ‘light-show’ which projects a flamboyant and flashy array of colours, patterns and motifs around the auditorium. Meredith has employed big forces, the BBC Symphony Orchestra being complemented by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble - its 10 trombones, four euphoniums, six trumpets and battery of percussion ranged along the bottom of the choir stalls - and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. And, the work’s statements are bravura. Meredith has explained, ‘We were clear that we didn’t want to create a sepia-toned, lone-bugled kind of piece. No poppy petals gently falling.’

What we have instead is a firework display of illumination and colour, and there’s no denying it was impressive, but often the mood created felt rather too celebratory and frivolous. I’m sure many found the blend of sound and music interesting or stimulating, perhaps even inspiring, but for this listener the incessant abstract swirling and sputtering, floating and flashing was something of a distraction. At times there seemed to be recognisable visual motifs: flames, water, telegraph wires, search-lights perhaps. But too often music and image seemed unconnected.

Meredith’s genre-bending part-pop, part-minimalist idiom was well-suited to the mechanistic quality of the visuals, particularly in ‘Codes’ where patterns and abstractions flickered and flew around the walls of the RAH to the accompaniment of brutal percussive stamping. In ‘Spin’, too, Meredith conjured an impressive weight from the brass, but she showed she could use her forces selectively, as the concluding ‘Armistice’ hesitantly communicated the confusion and uncertainty which sits alongside cessation of conflict. The singers whispered fragments - “I am quite well” - from the Field Postcards that the soldiers were permitted to send home, but which were heavily censored.

There were pyrotechnics of an aural kind at the start of the concert, in the form of a commemoration and celebration of the life and work of Oliver Knussen who sadly died last week. Scheduled too late for inclusion in the programme booklet, the opening bars of Knusssen’s Fireworks with Flourish may left those listeners anticipating Vaughan Williams a little bemused initially, but their ears were soon pricked by Knussen’s characteristically colourful palette and combination of intricate restlessness and painterly refinement. The storm clouds may have broken that evening over the streets of South Kensington, but inside the Royal Albert Hall the 2018 BBC Proms season kicked off with a sparkling fanfare in all senses of the word.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC2 and Radio 3 and can be accessed via BBC iPlayer .

Claire Seymour

PROM 1: Knussen - Flourish with Fireworks, Vaughan Williams - Towards the Unknown Region, Holst -The Planets, Anna Meredith/59 Productions - Five Telegrams.

Sakari Oramo (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra National Youth Choir of Great Britain (Ben Parry, chorus master), BBC Symphony Chorus (Neil Ferris, chorus master), BBC Proms Youth Ensemble; Royal Albert Hall, Friday 13 th July 2018.

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