fri 14/06/2024

Prom 1 review: Levit, BBCSO, Gardner - fizzing Adams finally ignites mixed First Night | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 1 review: Levit, BBCSO, Gardner - fizzing Adams finally ignites mixed First Night

Prom 1 review: Levit, BBCSO, Gardner - fizzing Adams finally ignites mixed First Night

Controlled premiere and subdued Beethoven redeemed by a choral blockbuster

Edward Gardner conducts John Adams’ 'Harmonium' at the First Night of the BBC Proms 2017All images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The ideal First Night of the Proms sets the tone for the season, perhaps flagging up some of the themes to be followed up later, offering a blend of novelty and familiarity, and preferably ending with a roof-raising choral blockbuster. This programme successfully ticked those boxes, but took until the second half to really catch light.

Unlike last year, which took place under the shadow of a terrorist in France, the 2017 edition could be more straightforwardly celebratory. And unlike the Last Night, although there are First Night conventions, there was no danger of the tail of licensed foolery wagging the musical dog.Tom Coult at the BBC Proms First NightOne tradition established in recent years is for the season to start with a new commission from a young British composer. Last night that opportunity fell to Tom Coult (pictured above with Edward Gardner and the BBCSO), a protégé of George Benjamin. His short curtain-raiser St John’s Dance was confidently scored – bravely starting with a solo violin harmonic – and fitfully energetic, without quite “spiralling out of control” as we were promised.

Igor Levit (pictured below) is a pianist of high reputation, and I was looking forward to hearing him live for the first time. In many ways I wasn’t disappointed by his rendition of Beethoven's third piano concerto: his playing was beautiful of tone, detailed and attuned to the character of the music. But I felt that he and the orchestra were sometimes on different pages. The orchestral opening was brisk and sharply defined dynamically. Levit’s playing, though, was more inward and contemplative. He made little accommodation to the size of the hall – the beginning of the second movement was nearly inaudible, just in the stalls – and he was sometimes outgunned by the band.

It may be that the majority of the rehearsal time was devoted to the other pieces, or it may be that this concerto – wonderful though it is – was not the right one for the occasion. Either way, for all the beauties to be found in Levit’s playing, the performance as a whole never quite took flight. Levit's encore was a treat: Liszt's arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", a nose-thumb to Brexit if the pianist's social media reactions and his European Union lapel badge last night are anything to go by, had a wonderful shape and symphonic piano playing.Igor Levit at the First Night of the PromsBut in the second half, occasion and repertoire found a perfect marriage. John Adams’s Harmonium, his breakthrough work of 1981, fizzed and roared, floated and smouldered, stuttered and blared its way through 30 short minutes.

One of the many reasons to be grateful to the BBC Proms is for being able to stage events on this kind of scale. In addition to the large orchestra there were some 370 singers taking up all the seating behind the stage, a terrific sight all in black. This choir was made up of the stalwart BBC Symphony Chorus but also the BBC Proms Youth Choir, featuring young singers from around the country. The Proms Youth Choir Academy, in its pilot year, brings in singers from a wide range of musical backgrounds, embracing those without previous singing experience, and those who don’t read music.

The Adams is not an easy piece to get them started on, but the six months of rehearsal were clearly well spent, as the choral sound was feisty, with bite when it was needed, but also subtlety in the middle movement. Credit must go to the chorus masters responsible, and particularly to Grace Rossiter for stewarding the Youth Academy. In the concert, conductor Edward Gardner (pictured below) did a fine job keeping everyone together with a clear beat and impressive communication with the singers, some of whom were about 30 metres away.Edward Gardner conducts the BBCSO at the Proms 2017Harmonium is extraordinary for what it achieves by using some of the materials of “classic” minimalism, but imbuing them with a decidedly Romantic sensibility. The opening owes a lot to Steve Reich, but the music develops in what has become a distinctively Adamsian way, with nods to Stravinsky and Wagner. There is a notable absence of melody, the music moving through blocks of harmony and texture, with the words at times incidental to the sounds the choir and orchestra produce.

Undoubtedly the highlight is the transition into the final movement – “Wild Nights” – where a massive orchestral crescendo climaxes with an ecstatic harmonic shift into the entry of the choir. I can only imagine the thrill for the young singers involved at this moment, and can think of no better advert for the Proms.

Because for all that we may have gripes about the scheduling overlooking this or that composer, the vacuity of some of the TV presentation, or whatever else, last night was a reminder that the Proms are a vital element of our country’s cultural life, and should be loudly celebrated as such.

'Harmonium' floated and smouldered, stuttered and blared its way through thirty short minutes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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