Proms Out + About – 27 June

Fanfare for the Common Man [brass/percussion]
Romanian Dances (selection) [strings]
Harry Potter – Nimbus 2000 [woodwind]
Rumble [percussion]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine [full orchestra – breakdown of themes between orchestral sections / audience participation]


Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Harry Potter – Hedwig’s Theme
Peter Grimes – Dawn (Four Sea Interludes)
West Side Story – Mambo [played twice]
Romeo and Juliet – Death of Tybalt
The Firebird – Infernal Dance

Rita Ray (presenter)

Richard Frostick & Paul Rissmann (animateurs)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 June, 2003
Venue: Carling Academy Brixton, London

With music education as part of the mainstream school curriculum in such a parlous state, how do you get kids interested in classical music? Somewhat late in the day, the world’s greatest classical musical festival – the Proms – has dipped its toe in the water to find out. Given the resources of the BBC that could be put behind such a project, this concert at Brixton Academy reinvented the format like probably no other concert. The sterling work by other orchestras in the capital (the LSO gave another family Discovery performance on the following Sunday afternoon) are, of course, invaluable – and the LSO’s fabulous new educational resource at St Luke’s allows its educational initiatives a lot more flexibility. Yet hardly can there have been any occasion for an orchestra to take over a defiantly non-classical venue and literally take the orchestra apart and put it back together again in front of an eager audience. Moreover, this event was free.

And, yes, it was a huge and enjoyable success. The first half worked best. The concert over-ran and, given that the second half was just a listening experience, there was a growing hubbub of not so much disinterest but general distraction amongst the ample audience at the back of the hall (those cross-legged at the front were more attentive to the end). And, of course, the first half was the one in which more happened, with the orchestra de-constructed and involving audience participation.

Brixton Academy is an extraordinary venue. It was built in 1929, opening on 19 August with Al Jolson in the talking movie “The Singing Fool” and a variety show which featured not only the Astoria Orchestra, with George Pattman at the Compton organ, but also the likes of Winnie Melville, Heddle Nash, Derek Oldham and Fred Kitchen, while amongst the audience was one Alfred Hitchcock (this information comes from the history pages of the venue’s website – Perhaps most extraordinarily, the last 40 minutes of the variety show were broadcast live on the BBC. The only difference this time, with an orchestra entering the magnificence of this one-time cinema, was that the concert was not recorded. Yet the might of the BBC allowed broadcast technology to be used to the full in re-envisaging the concert format, with cameras zooming in on players and audience, the pictures beamed to large screens on either side of the auditorium.

On entering the building (with bemused-looking burly bouncers admitting that it wasn’t the venue’s usual clientele!), one spotted BBC crew wearing blue T-shirts announcing ’Proms Out + About’, while the auditorium – with two extra stages on either side of the main one, itself built up so that the normal stage became an extension of the auditorium floor – was filled with brass players wearing yellow T-shirts, woodwind red, percussion lime-green, and strings blue. Wearing black were the two animateurs, Richard Frostick and Paul Rissmann – both resplendent with just their first names on the back – and John Adams, who had ’Conductor across his.

Rita Ray was the ’presenter’ interacting with the audience. I wondered if she was better known to the youngsters (target age 6-12s) than to me. She is a DJ, musician, authority on ’afrobeat’ and a World Service presenter (she has co-hosted Radio 3’s World Music awards), and – as she readily admitted – she doesn’t know too much about classical music. Followed around with a camera (although, perversely, no lights), she interviewed musicians and John Adams with, to my taste, an over-enthusiastic manner that meant everything was ’fantastic’ or ’tremendous’ – to the point of overkill. Not everything was fantastic. Chris Stock’s Rumble is probably the least interesting percussion work I have ever heard, which – inexplicably – made drumming boring!

My lasting concern was that although the project had been conceived really well, young audiences members who have been encouraged to go to the Proms may be disappointed, because not everything (for which read ’nothing’) is as flexible as this Brixton Academy gig. More of this anon.

We started with a rousing performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man: brass (in yellow, remember) lined up in front of the strings across the main stage, the (lime green) percussion to Adams’s right. (Blue) strings were next, with three of Bartók’s Romanian Dances whose rhythmic niceties were made less effective by a still-settling audience and because the sound was swallowed-up in the cavernous back-stage area, which would become a problem later. The woodwind (red) scored perhaps the biggest ’hit’, as every kid in the audience recognised John Williams’s theme from the Harry Potter franchise describing the top-notch Nimbus 2000 broomstick. I have been disappointed with the film scores in the cinema, but taken out of context I was struck by the expert intertwining of themes.

Chris Stock’s Rumble attempted to essay a slow build-up on four drums; it was slow progress and lacked the excitement normally engendered by that most thrilling of orchestral sections. The wood-block achieved prime focus in the most engaging part of the early-evening event. It gave out the constant tick-tock rhythm for the dissection of Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Hearing wind, percussion, strings and brass in turn, the audience was then encouraged to join in, first split into two sections by animateurs Frostick and Rissmann, then into four. Of the four chants (with actions) I can only remember three (so busy was I trying to remember the first one, I completely ignored the next that another group was given!). A basic “Vroom, Vroom, Zoom, Zoom” repeated a steady rhythm. The others were more elaborate, with dactylic properties: “People, Rush Past, Oh!” and “Tight Corner, Keep Control, Now”. Our various calls were finally added to the orchestral sections to send us noisily into the interval, during which the additional stages were swept away.

We arrived back to find the orchestra set up as normal for some orchestral excerpts, starting with a complete performance of Short Ride in a Fast Machine, without the audience’s Herculean efforts this time. More Harry Potter followed, but after that the music began to lose its magic. Laudable though the inclusion of Britten’s Dawn was, the restlessness of the youngsters began to rise, not perhaps those at the front, but certainly to the back.

Some surreal moments will stick in the memory – particularly during Dawn when the young daughter of a distinguished contemporary music programmer (and no mean educator) dropped her skirt and repeatedly threw it up in the air, blindly disregarding her mother’s attempts to calm her down. Not quite Britten’s idea! Later, a slightly older girl (perhaps 3 or 4) was dancing almost continually to Bernstein, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and displaying a fine sense of rhythmic nuance; a ballet dancer in the making. For the most though, as the music was not as physically as close anymore and, with a traditional concert formation, concentration was slipping fast.

So, a concert of two halves, with Brixton Academy’s cavernous back-stage area swallowing up too much sound in the second part. It was not visceral, exciting or simply loud enough. All credit to the organisers for not opting to amplify any of the music, but I wonder whether the second half could have accommodated the orchestra in the centre, which would have held interest better. The use of the technology was impressive, with two large screens relaying high-quality pictures of the players in action. I especially liked the crows-nest viewpoint allowing vertiginous birds-eye views of the orchestral layout – the operator was pretty unobtrusive. Could this be used in more standard concerts, I wondered.

And there’s the final rub – will the hundreds of children, parents and teachers (the mix, I’m told, was about half-and-half between school children bussed in and families), who enjoyed the evening, find the normal concert format rather boring? Especially if they’re not that close and don’t have large video screens to watch. The problem with innovative concert formats is that they are in danger of misleading as much as encouraging. Regular readers of this site may have noted my scathing comments, and those of my co-reviewers, about the ineptitude of introducing colour washes to enhance TV viewers’ enjoyment of the Proms in recent years.

I don’t suppose there are any easy answers, but I regard the BBCSO’s attempt as hugely successful. How about a regular Saturday morning series of events which can teach children much more about all facets of music in, this, one of the capitals most amazing venues? Then perhaps a real future audience could be established who could then make the transition to the Proms. It was great to see a member of the Government’s Department for Culture present, as well as Nick Kenyon, Roger Wright and Paul Hughes representing, respectively, the Proms, Radio 3 and the BBCSO. However, if the initiative ends there, so much opportunity and creativity will have been wasted.

Time will tell…

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