After a pleasant stroll through Hyde Park, I joined the queue at about 3pm. Many of the usual suspects were already there, of course; and since my current reading material is some of Boris Johnson's collected journalism, the afternoon could be described as balmy or barmy, take your pick. Nevertheless, arena ticket number 19 was mine, providing a quandary: to go for the rail (but at the far right) or to go right at the centre (but a couple of rows back). I opted for the latter, as it would give a better vantage point. I've been to the First Night of the Proms once before; it's one of the busier occasions and we were asked to move up a couple of times as the arena filled.
The opening piece, Mozart's overture for The Marriage of Figaro, seemed surprisingly heavy and lush to me. Perhaps I am somewhat used to hearing period instruments, and although technically fine, the timbre was rather like battery chicken compared to free-range organic. The two Mozart arias weren't especially my cup of tea, but seemed well sung by Barbara Frittoli. The orchestra seemed to have found a better balance, perhaps because a few members left the platform after the overture.
After further rearrangements for the larger 19th-century orchestral requirements, we moved on to Smetana's Vltava from the cycle Má Vlast. Jiří Bělohlávek was obviously on home ground here, and the sound he procured from the orchestra was beautiful indeed. It's amazing how much more you can hear when you are only 10 feet or so away from the performers.
Dvořák's Te Deum was completely new to me, but I enjoyed it. It's a remarkably upbeat piece, perhaps not surprising given its celebratory nature and history, but even in the darker sections, never sombre. Bass Sir John Tomlinson did seem to bark out his lines a little at a couple of points, but the chorus was consistently good. A small scattering of enthusiastic audience members without programmes produced a ripple of applause after the second stanza, unaware that the piece had not finished. Music does not have the same grammar as written language, and Dvořák and Tchaikovsky are particularly famous for having so many full stops at the end of a piece, yet one can still tell without too much effort when a piece is really finished.
The second half was taken up with the other anniversary composer this season, Shostakovich's Symphony No 5. Again, the orchestra was impressive, and particularly in the strings, I heard some glissando sections that just don't come through from a recording. Apparently some of those present at the first performance in 1938 feared they would be arrested, as this came at a time when the composer was distinctly persona non grata with the Soviet regime; nevertheless, by the end of the work, they felt they were at a celebratory Party Congress and the composer's rehabilitation was complete. Ever since, the work has defied those who would ascribe a commentary to its conclusion: real triumph or defiant, empty triumph? It's possible to assign either agenda to it, and I don't think we will ever really know. Ultimately, Shostakovich was a composer of absolute music, so arguably, it has no "meaning". But for Jiří Bělohlávek, there was no doubt: the triumph of the performance was real enough, and another season has begun.