July 16th, 2016


(Almost) Nothing we can't hum there

The First Night of the Proms is generally a popular affair, and this year it also had a popular programme, so it was no surprise that I found myself some way down the queue. The afternoon was passed with a mixture of reading and catching up with old friends; the weather stayed dry, though cool. The price of standing tickets has gone up to £6 this year, but they are also now accepting contactless payments. I found myself fairly centrally in the third row.

I had wondered, given the overnight news from Nice, whether there would be any alterations to the programme, so it was not an enormous surprise to me that Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra opened with La Marseillaise. Given the occasion and the resources available, I felt it was a more appropriate mark of respect than a minute of silence; it's also inevitably a rousing and defiant piece. Looking at the Proms Archive, it's interesting that it has been performed over 30 times in the Proms history - but all of those performances coming from the 1914 and 1915 seasons.

On then to the advertised programme, which began with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture, picked presumably as part of a Shakespeare theme in this anniversary year. Oramo drew out the emotion in the piece without overdoing it.

Cellist Sol Gabetta joined the orchestra for Elgar's Cello Concerto. For me this is a difficult piece to be enthusiastic about; I like the opening and closing sections, but it fades in the middle; additionaly its association with Jacqueline du Pré easily spills over into mawkishness. This was a successful performance, and it went down well in the hall. I hadn't really thought we would get an encore, but we did and it was sublime: Dolcissimo from Gramata Cellam by Peteris Vasks, in which the cellist not only plays the instrument, but later sings along hauntingly as well. If I hadn't heard the piece previously on Radio 3 I would have been completely thrown, wondering where the voice was coming from - or whether it was a voice at all, or a Theremin, or an effect from the cello.

After the interval, another First Night tradition: a large-scale choral work, this time Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. The orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus were on form. As with the Tchaikovsky, Oramo took The Battle on the Ice slowly, maximising the drama and tension and allowing us to pick out the orchestral details. Olga Borodina drifted onto the stage for The Field of the Dead, sung it with great sensitivity, then faded away. It was a stirring performance and makes me look forward to the rest of the season.