wed 17/07/2024

First Night of the Proms, BBCSO, Stasevska review - fire and elan mark an evening celebrating freedom | reviews, news & interviews

First Night of the Proms, BBCSO, Stasevska review - fire and elan mark an evening celebrating freedom

First Night of the Proms, BBCSO, Stasevska review - fire and elan mark an evening celebrating freedom

A blazing launch to the biggest music festival in the world

Rage and dignity: Stasevska was the star of the eveningAll images by Chris Christodoulou

Even before the Just Stop Oil protesters hit the stage after the interval, this was destined to be one of the most politically charged Proms the Royal Albert Hall has witnessed for a while. The rousing cheer that greeted the BBC Singers was hopefully all the beleaguered BBC bosses needed to realise – after the ill-advised attempt to abolish them in March – what a key part of our music culture they remain today.

On top of this there was the programme, featuring two nationalist Nordic composers – one especially famed for his anti-Russian stance – and a contemporary Ukrainian, presided over by a Kyiv-born Finnish-national conductor. For some people the biggest surprise may have been that, once the Just Stop Oil protesters had been hustled off, Putin didn’t invade the stage immediately after.

Dalia Stasevska, Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, brought fire and elan to the action, taking the players from spun-glass delicacy to vigorous bellicosity. The opening number was Sibelius’s Finlandia, the tone poem written in 1899 that became a symbol of Finnish resistance to the Russian occupation lasting from 1809 to 1917. After the sinister call to arms of the opening brass section, the orchestra delivered a lyrical evocation of a landscape and people under threat before the sonorous agitation of the cellos heralded the emotional and political uprising. The hymn at the end, now an international symbol of dignified resistance, was exquisitely performed by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus  – the beatific restraint of the sopranos and altos underscored by the resolute gravitas of the tenors and basses.

The composer Bohdana Frolyak graduated from Lviv Conservatory in 1991 and still lives there. Stasevska was introduced to her work by her bass-guitarist husband, Lauri Porra, and the result was the first of this year’s Proms commissions, Let There Be Light. Paul Lewis plays GriegThe single-movement work opened with a sense of shivering, shimmering light heightened by bells and the harp, quickly giving way to soulful solos from the cello and violin. Then the trombones introduced a sense of turbulence and nightmare, with the music becoming steadily more dissonant, the dark closing in. Although in this instance the light returned, once more with the harp and bells, it was impossible not to think of the ravaged cityscapes from the news that remind us daily of how close the darkness is. Frolyak cites Stravinsky as an influence, yet this work also seemed to evoke Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, with its stirring sense of the primal forces that can make civilisations appear and disappear.

The centrepiece of the evening was Grieg’s Piano Concerto, here performed by Paul Lewis (pictured above), a pianist particularly acclaimed for his recordings of Beethoven and Schubert – no surprise, you might say, given that one of his teachers was Alfred Brendel. This was a fascinating performance, in which Lewis chose to tone down the thunder to deliver an interpretation of crystalline brilliance.

In a more intimate venue this might have worked superbly; in the Royal Albert Hall it felt as if it was lacking something. Though Lewis’s superb technical mastery was never in any doubt – the runs had the vividness of dancing fireflies and there was a real sense of the different textures in the music as he shifted between gossamer lightness and elegant muscularity. Stasevska deftly balanced the orchestral passages so that there was a sense both of power and sensitivity to this reflective, lyrical interpretation. The communication and empathy between her and Lewis was palpable throughout and there was a real sense of triumph at the ending. Lesley Manville at the PromsAfter the interval and the brief onstage appearance of the Just Stop Oil protesters – who received both boos and applause from the audience – the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus (pictured below) performed Sibelius’s Snöfrid. This musical setting of a poem by the Swedish writer Viktor Rydberg – with its spoken part stirringly translated by Edward Kemp – had been due to be performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 2022 but was cancelled because of the death of the Queen.

At the start of the performance there was a feeling of swirling, cyclonic energy, quickly succeeded by the chorale. Like Finlandia, this is essentially a summons to fight for freedom, here enshrined in a story in which the female protagonist Snöfrid calls on the warrior Gunnar. While the choir sang in Swedish, describing the temptations that could lure him from battle, Leslie Manville – dressed in a shimmering gold dress (pictured above)– delivered Snöfrid’s words in English. "Better to battle, poor but with honour, Than doze like the dragon hoarding his riches." At another point she declared, "Choose me, you choose the tempest." It was moment that was as riveting as it was powerful, adding to the sense of rebellious defiance that had built through the evening. First Night of the PromsThe final work was the eternal crowd-pleaser, Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell. The statement of the theme was stately and thunderous, then a dramatic diminuendo led into the witty games and virtuoso flourishes that mark the variations. The dancing agility of the flutes was contrasted with the comedic oom-pahs of the bassoons, while the pomposity of the trombones and tubas was swiftly followed by the farcical sequence of castanets, cymbals and the clapper in the percussion section.

It topped off a conceptually riveting evening, with the right amount of light and dark to keep everyone stimulated and happy. Stasevska – who over the last year has driven lorries from Finland to Ukraine with supplies for the war-torn nation – was in every sense the concert’s star, amplifying the sense of bravery and defiance that made it a memorable first night.


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