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Prom 1, BBCSO, Oramo review – spectacular First Night of the Proms | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 1, BBCSO, Oramo review – spectacular First Night of the Proms

Prom 1, BBCSO, Oramo review – spectacular First Night of the Proms

Dynamic but sensitive Holst, multi-media show high on spectacle but low on substance

Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra: Incisive and dynamicBBC/Chris Christodoulou

The First Night of the Proms is always a tricky one to programme, bringing together themes of the season, perhaps a new work and, most importantly, a grand finale. This year’s Prom No. 1 ticked all the boxes, and without feeling like pick-n-mix.

It was an all-British programme, with Vaughan Williams and Holst in the first half, both excellent choices given conductor Sakari Oramo’s track record with this repertoire, and a second half devoted to a new work by Anna Meredith, bringing some grandeur to the occasion, not least with its spectacular light show.

But before all that, a hastily added memorial to Oliver Knussen, who died this week. Knussen was a regular at the Proms, so it was fitting to mark the occasion. In the event, his Flourish with Fireworks would have been the ideal concert opener, with or without his untimely passing. The piece is based on Stravinsky’s Fireworks and similarly short and punchy. It is more varied too, the flourishes of the title coming across as brief asides in different tempos and textures. The ever-prepared BBC Symphony took it all in their stride, with no hint of rushed preparation.

Toward the Unknown Region opens in a darker place, Vaughan Williams setting Walt Whitman, and both in sombre, funereal mood. The BBC Symphony Chorus were on top form here, giving us suitably dark and focussed choral textures, but also clearly articulating the words – just as well as there were no texts provided. Oramo marshalled his large forces efficiently and dynamically, suitably emotive but never sentimental. Sakari Oramo at the First Night of the PromsSo too with Holst’s The Planets. Oramo’s tempos were generally brisk, and transitions often startlingly abrupt. But all of this felt very much in the spirit of the music, which, he demonstrated, has much to benefit from incisive rhythms and dynamic pacing. “Mars” was percussion heavy, with the timpani hammering out the downbeats obsessively. The brass sometimes lost tonal control as Oramo sought ever-louder dynamics – already battling the acoustic, so early in the season. The woodwinds were similarly emphatic in “Venus”, but not to a fault: The music retaining its balmy pastel hues. The ensemble in “Mercury” left something to be desired, but “Jupiter” fared better, the sort of movement that brings out the best from Oramo, clean, upbeat textures, a joyous sound. Some excellent tonal control in the quiet later movements, “Saturn” and “Neptune”, the dynamics here still enough to fill the hall, but the round, warm tone, particularly from the horns and trombones, creating a completely different atmosphere. The ladies of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain sang the ending from backstage, and to suitably mystical effect.

The Anna Meredith work was entitled Five Telegrams, and was written in commemoration of the centenary of the ending of the First World War. The work is a collaboration with 59 Productions, who provided a spectacular light projection, covering the stage, organ, choir stalls and all the space above, right up to the gallery (pictured below by Justin Sutcliffe). Projections by 59 ProductionsThe work’s five movements are entitled “Spin”, “Field Postcard”, “Redaction”, “Codes”, and “Armistice”, but beyond that, Meredith and co. took a highly abstract approach to their subject. Meredith’s music here is tonal and repetition-based, although not to the point of minimalism. She was also writing for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, a group of teenaged brass and percussion players, some in the choir stalls, others positioned around the hall. And most effectively, one movement featured a choir of euphoniums, playing mellow chords up in the gallery.

The light show, all computer generated effects and patterns, sometimes including a single evocative word, was skilfully integrated into the architecture of the hall, illuminating the ranks of pipes inside the organ and, in one movement, transforming the arches of the gallery into huge turning cogs. The overall effect was grand, and perhaps a little upbeat given the subject. Meredith’s music was a component in this multimedia work, and the synergy between the light show and the music was close indeed. More substance might have tipped the balance better towards the musical side, especially to the contribution of the orchestra, but it all served its purpose: A memorable start to the season ahead.


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