The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

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 lumiËre 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

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

BBC iPlayer


Claire Seymour

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.

image_description=BBC Proms 2018, First Night, BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo
product_title=BBC Proms 2018, First Night, BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Five Telegrams

Photo credit: Justin Sutcliffe