Prom 6: BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena – A Vision of the Sea & Inextinguishable Symphony – Nobuyuki Tsujii plays Rachmaninov

David Matthews
A Vision of the Sea [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.4, Op.29 (The Inextinguishable)

Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouOn its first outing, David Matthews’s A Vision of the Sea (2013) made a big impact. Impressively scored for a standard large orchestra, including harp and piano, this 22-minute symphonic poem is engaging on a purely musical level as well as a suggestive one. From its mysterious opening to a conclusion that seeks no easy resolution, leaving the listener (this one anyway) with the impression that dangers remain lurking in the depths, Matthews has filled his score with much engaging invention, sometimes with a nod (intended or otherwise) to Ralph Vaughan Williams; whether subtle and evocative, richly melodic, pictorial (including the onomatopoeia of gulls), or tempestuous, so lucid is its design that A Vision of the Sea could be described as a ‘symphony in one movement’; the trill-encrusted climax was thrilling. This first performance seemed wholly excellent, the composer, recently turned 70, and very much in the English romantic tradition, appeared very happy with the result.

Nobuyuki Tsujii performs with the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe 24-year-old Japanese pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii, has been blind from birth. Quite how he studies and learns the repertoire he plays, and also so effortlessly locates the keys he needs to negotiate, is to be wondered at. His opening solo of the Rachmaninov (so associated with David Lean’s film of Brief Encounter) was expectantly solemn, with no split chords, and he went on to give a sparkling, considered and very musical account, neither pushy nor dominant. He was sensitively and tactfully accompanied, save that the brass was often too loud, and the cymbals crashes in the finale were crude. (Les Siècles much missed!) Juanjo Mena was a caring steward when helping Tsujii to walk on and off the platform. The pianist offered an encore, a dashing and ringing ‘La campanella’, the third of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes.

Balance problems also blighted Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony, which at its brassiest (quite often) these instruments blared and obscured much detail from elsewhere in the orchestra. Although Mena (the BBC Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor) had worked things out painstakingly, his tempos proved too deliberate, undermining the music’s thrust. If there were some engaging moments – the woodwinds in the second movements, the solo strings in the third, and some splendid timpanists in the finale – a generally rather studied approach to the work made it less engaging than usual (and Nielsen 4 is a masterpiece), the implication being that Mena likes the music’s surface but is indifferent to the composer’s life-enhancing inspiration and indestructible intentions. Two years ago at this address, Sakari Oramo conducted the Stockholm Philharmonic in a fully identified-with reading that found the mind wandering back to then and to how engrossing and uplifting this music can be.

Prom 7: Gospel Prom

“What does gospel music mean today? The Proms explores this emotive and richly varied world – the meeting and mixing of musical styles of four continents. Leading vocal ensembles combine with community choirs and soloists to create a thrilling massed wall of sound for favourites such as ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and ‘O Happy Day’, interspersed with individual contributions. The British-Caribbean People’s Christian Fellowship Choir juxtaposes popular hymns with calypso choruses, while the London Adventist Chorale reminds us how African Americans turned to spirituals in their fight for freedom. Muyiwa & Riversongz bring West African highlife praise to another level, while the London Community Gospel Choir merges Caribbean and African traditions with new songs inspired by funk and rock.” [BBC Proms website]

London Adventist Chorale
Ken Burton

London Community Gospel Choir
Rebecca Thomas

Muyiwa & Riversongz

People’s Christian Fellowship Choir
Ruth Waldron

The B.I.G. Choir

Morley College Gospel Choir

UGCY Choirs [Queen Mary University London Unite Choir, Royal Holloway Gospel Choir, University of Surrey Gospel Choir]

The Gospel Prom Band

Pastor David Daniel – host

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Performers at the first ever Gospel Prom. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThere could be no doubting the fervour; nor the general reception to this, the first-ever Gospel Prom. There were some 200 singers, mostly dressed in black but with some shock of colour. Four Gospel Choirs were to the front, with the massed university choruses with Morley College and the B.I.G. Choir, organised by British Gospel Arts, arrayed behind. The programme had sensibly been divided into six sections, tracing the history of Gospel singing – Spirituals, British Caribbean Hymns, Traditional American Gospel Songs, British Contemporary Gospel Songs, African Praise Songs and Inspirational Gospel Songs – many of which featured solo choirs (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), before a massed medley.

So far, so praiseworthy, but then the problems started. Centre stage was a rhythm and guitar combo (the Gospel Prom Band), which – of course – was amplified. All the choirs were heavily miked, and the resultant barrage of sound denuded the evening of any harmonic subtlety. Quite simply, this was like listening to a badly balanced recording – although that seemed not to bother the tightly packed front of the Arena, and equally well-attended Stalls and Boxes.

Pastor David Daniel at the first ever Gospel Prom. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouPerhaps appropriately, I am an alumnus of University College London (“the Godless of Gower Street”), so there was no way that this Prom was “preaching to the converted” as far as I am concerned. But I went with an open mind, especially as I had very much enjoyed the a cappella Spirituals in the current National Theatre production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, featuring none-other than the London Community Gospel Choir, whose members contributed to this Prom’s ‘Traditional American Gospel Songs’ and ‘British Contemporary Gospel Songs’ sections. But I’m afraid I was not a convert.

I wanted to hear the arrangements from such renowned ensembles as Ken Burton’s London Adventist Chorale (no stranger to the Proms), as well as for the first time African-influenced Muyiwa Olarewaju and Riversongz, who certainly whipped the willing audience to its feet, but at all points the amplification foiled any such thought of uncovering the vocal beauty of what I understood Gospel singing is all about. I fled the Royal Albert Hall with the thought that if God had wanted amplification he would have given Moses a microphone along with the Ten Commandments. This was the evangelical equivalent of “Hooked on Classics”.

So, I inadvertently arrived with expectations that were not met, and that if contemporary Gospel singing is so heavily augmented, then so be it. But we’ve already heard the power of the collected human voice, without the need for amplification – and over a full orchestra: Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony on the First Night. Why obscure the very nature of the instrument that is to be celebrated?Thankfully, we’d already had a miracle earlier on this evening – the extraordinary and uplifting Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto from blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. That was truly ‘inextinguishable’ from the memory, as was the appropriately titled Nielsen Symphony in the same programme. And, given the return to Proms form the following night, with Thomas Adès’s Totentanz, it may be that the devil (in the shape of death) really does have the best tunes after all.

Prom 5: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott with Arditti Quartet – Lachenmann & Mahler

Helmut Lachenmann
Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5

Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lucas Fels (cello)]

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Helmut Lachenmann (b.1935). Photograph: © by Astrid Karger, SaarbrückenThe 2013 Proms season promises its share of musical subversion real or imagined, but few pieces are likely to prove more subversive than Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (1980) which received its belated UK premiere here – at least to judge from the bemused demeanour of those members of the (mainly programme-less) audience in the left-side stalls.

In the (West) Germany of three decades ago, even to mention the ‘Deutschlandlied’ in the title of a work was to incite a politically charged response, yet Lachenmann goes several stages further in making this fabled hymn-cum-anthem all but inaudible for the greater part of the work’s 35 minutes. Sceptics might feel its claims to being a ‘Dance Suite’ are even more dubious, though the 19 movements – divided into five continuous sections – are predominantly dance-like in designation. Add to this the concrete formal design such as is a mainstay of this composer’s mature pieces – in this instance a sonata-rondo – and the trajectory between the meeting of one’s expectations and their confounding is potentially a fraught one.

Arditti Quartet. Photograph: Astrid KargerIt was measure of the conviction in this performance (given in the presence of the composer, born 1935) that such expectations were not only fulfilled but also wholly transcended. It helped that the Arditti Quartet met with ease the challenges – singular to be sure, though also highly systematic and never outlandish – of technical requirements which in themselves seek to go beyond, rather than merely denying or defacing, the supposed conventions of Western art music. As the ‘Preamble’ unfolded, it becomes clear that the give-and-take between these larger and smaller ensembles is precisely what the work’s subtitle ‘Music for orchestra with string quartet’ implies it to be. Jonathan Nott sustained an unwavering momentum across the whole, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra players managing effortlessly the alternating passages of greater and lesser activity – through to a ‘Coda’ whose laconic reiteration of inert syllables is the more affecting for its very restraint. The judicious use of the requested amplification for the string quartet vividly separated and opened out the interplay of sound sources to make explicit in space what was occurring over time.

Jonathan Nott. Photograph: © Thomas MüllerFrom music which questions the audience’s very purpose to that which has, albeit unwittingly, become a means of said audience celebrating the cult of itself. Now among the most played works in the repertoire, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1902) was given a reading that, though it did not strive to present the piece afresh, brought out its combative interplay between convention and reinvention along with those formal and expressive subtleties which are too often at a premium nowadays. The opening ‘Trauermarsch’ had a keen yet also supple intensity, its impassioned development and baleful coda made the more meaningful for their understatement, while the ‘Stürmisch bewegt’ movement that (rightly) followed attacca was more than usually an extended sequence of variations on its predecessor’s main ideas – such passages as the sustained span of polyphony for lower strings and the fragmentary coda being persuasively as well as precisely rendered.

Nor did the central scherzo outstay its welcome, Nott finding ambivalence to offset the blitheness of the main Ländler sections, and though the principal’s horn’s occasional unsteadiness may have been occasioned by his standing up for the duration (the horns were at stage-right to balance the double basses to the left), his solos going into the trio – given with delightful lilting rusticity – did not lack eloquence. Although not the heady intermezzo it can (again) sometimes be, the Adagietto had passion as well as poise – Nott lingering over the return of the main theme (benefitting from antiphonal placement of violins) without indulgence, then securing an unbroken transition into the finale where physical energy and dexterity of phrasing were effortlessly combined on the way to a fervent yet never overbearing peroration.

A fine showing then for the Bamberg Symphony and for Jonathan Nott – who, having recently completed his thirteenth season with the Orchestra, will soon be adding principal conductorships of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and the Tokyo Symphony to his portfolio. If no longer a ‘prophet without honour’ in his own country, his visits here are not so frequent that they can be missed.

PCM1: Vilde Frang & Michail Lifits – Ravel, Mozart & Lutosławski

Sonata in G for Violin and Piano
Sonata in G for Piano and Violin, K379

Vilde Frang (violin) & Michail Lifits (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 15 July, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Vilde Frang performing Mozart's Violin Sonata in G. Photograph: BBC Proms 2013 websiteThe BBC Proms Chamber Music recitals (every Monday lunchtime during the season) commenced in refreshing style, in both performance and atmosphere. The cool and light space of Cadogan Hall was the very antidote to the gruelling heat of the first weekend in the Royal Albert Hall base, and this recital delivered music-making of beguiling intensity.

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang’s Proms debut was ample proof of her abilities. In Ravel’s late Violin Sonata, she revealed lucid depths and brilliant clarity, and her long-standing partnership with Michail Lifits felt instinctive and communicative. Ravel toiled long and hard over this work, but Frang and Lifits brought flashes of spontaneity that belied the composer’s arduous effort. Michael Lifits. Photograph: Felix Broede Frang was not quite at ease with the ‘Blues’ idiom of the second movement, seeming more comfortable with spiky interplay with her partner and the ‘Perpetuum mobile’ finale featured some brilliantly conversational exchanges.

The duo located the Mozart firmly in the tradition of the Romantic era, making no concessions to ‘period’ practice and ringing the grand opening movement for all its proto-Beethovenian worth. It was all the better for it, with sections richly characterised and each of the finale’s variations considered as a fresh image. Frang let the piano lead the way – after all, this is a Sonata for piano with violin accompaniment. Lifits responded with playing full of weight and colour, producing a wonderfully involving performance.

The programme was completed with centenarian Lutosławski’s Partita, composed in 1984 for Pinchas Zukerman. As with so many of the extended forms of this composer, Partita’s gradual accretion of momentum and rage was plain to hear, and was all the more affecting for Frang and Lifits’s expressive directness, the violinist displayed a dizzying array of colourful effects and the pianist drawing startling volume from his instrument. Together they were terrifically incisive.

There followed a gentle and starry encore, Jascha Heifetz’s arrangement of Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita.

Prom 3: Doctor Who … Two

“In its 50th-anniversary year, Doctor Who returns to the Proms with a spectacular concert featuring Murray Gold’s music for the series, plus pieces by Bach, Bizet and Debussy, and a special performance of one of the most iconic theme tunes in television history. Performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ben Foster, the Prom includes a host of alien friends and foes plus a very special appearance by Matt Smith.” [BBC Proms website]

Matt Smith (The Doctor – 011)
Jenna Coleman (Clara)
Neve McIntosh (Madame Vastra)
Dan Starkey (Strax)
Peter Davison (The Doctor – 005)
Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman, The Doctor’s granddaughter & first companion)
Daleks, Judoon, Ice Warrior, The Silence, The Vigil of Akhaten, Cybermen, Oods, Whispermen, Vampire Girls, Silurians (including Masked Warriors) and Weeping Angel

Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) & Allan Clayton (tenor)
Kerry Ingram (singer)

London Philharmonic Choir

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ben Foster

Reviewed by: Henry Bisset [15 years old]

Reviewed: 14 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Doctor Who Prom 2013 [Prom 2]. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouEven before we had left the tube station to walk to the Royal Albert Hall, I began to hear people talking about the upcoming event with great anticipation and excitement. As we approached the great building, I saw more tweed jackets, bow-ties, Tom Baker scarves, and fezzes, than I’ve seen in a long time. After we collected the tickets and programme, well produced by Gemma Doyle in the shape of the TARDIS with an opening front to reveal the console, we made our way to our seats and watched the screens as the spotlights and cameras picked out a variety of Doctor Who fanatics, including one man who tried to stop every monster that entered the pit.

Then the house-lights when down and the Orchestra came out and tuned, along with conductor Ben Foster, Neve McIntosh (Madame Vastra) and Dan Starkey (Strax), who co-presented the morning very well. The event started with a short specially filmed sequence in which Matt Smith’s Doctor and Jenna Coleman’s Clara get into the Royal Albert Hall by using a ticket which allows them to swap places with two other people already in the event, and they materialise not in the audience but in place of a pianist and a cellist. After Matt’s humorous intro and the revealing of the sonic baton, Foster was left to conduct “The Mad Man with a Box” by Murray Gold, the composer of most of the current Doctor Who music.

Doctor Who Prom 2013 [Prom 2]. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe arrival of Peter Davison and the very first companion, Carole Ann Ford, halfway added a notable 50th-anniversary dimension. It was nice to see a past Doctor from, as he put it himself, the “classic” times, as it all started 35 years before I was born. For the last generation and even the generation before, I imagine that it brought back fond memories of hiding behind the sofa. The music was a good mix of Gold and classical, which was mostly accompanied by video, either extracts, or compilations from classic and modern episodes, shown on screens situated around the Hall. As well as these pieces, there were also two pieces written by the “Create a Soundtrack” competition winners, which were written as accompaniments to an excerpt from the Christmas special, “The Snowmen”.

The event climaxed with a moving and emotional summary of the Companions of the last seven series, and some older ones as well. Finally all those who have been Doctor Who, eleven actors in total, were introduced – to the original theme tune performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales and two members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In fifty years, we’ve come a long way from a door-key on piano strings, which was the inspiration of the Tardis’s appearing and disappearing noise.

Prom 4: Lully, Rameau, Delibes, Massenet, and the 1913 Rite of Spring – Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth

Le bourgeois gentilhomme– Overture and dances
Les Indes galantes – dances
Coppélia [selections]
Le Cid – ballet music [selections]
The Rite of Spring [“re-creation of the score as heard at its 1913 premiere; UK premiere in this form”]

Les Siècles
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

François-Xavier Roth conducts Les Siècles at the BBC Proms 2013. Photograph: BBC/Sisi BurnAn instrument for every occasion! On Bastille Day, Les Siècles (a French orchestra with its French founder-conductor) brought along various such apparatuses from different centuries to match the music that its members were playing, culminating with The Rite of Spring, not only with the ‘right’ instruments, similar to those that informed the premiere in Paris in 1913, but also with François-Xavier Roth’s forensic examination of Stravinsky’s original manuscript and contemporaneous two-piano version, compared with subsequent revisions, and taking us back to what the divided-in-opinion first-night audience heard on 29 May in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

The Baroque part of the concert included music by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87). Roth recreated Lully’s banging a cane on the floor to keep time; thankfully he didn’t replicate the composer’s fatal stabbing of his toe! Les Siècles (woodwinds standing) gave us some vital music-making, with pizzazz, and also style and unanimity, with some tinkling and skin percussion for added value. At the opening of ‘Cérémonie pour les Turcs’ (the finale), the darkness of lower strings and bassoons really caught the ear. The dances by Rameau (1683-1764) proved more elegant and sweeter-sounding; the lyricism and exuberance was infectious.

François-Xavier Roth conducts Les Siècles at the BBC Proms 2013. Photograph: BBC/Sisi BurnWith a change of string instruments, and bows, it was then to later, Romantic, scores and two masters of their craft. The snippets from Léo Delibes’s Coppélia ballet (1870) proved quite delightful with the varied and noticeably different instrumental sounds, pertinent to this period of French composition; so warm and well-balanced; not a strident note. The ‘Waltz’ and ‘Mazurka’ both had swing, and good to see a distinction made between pairs of cornets and pairs of trumpets. The ballet music from Jules Massenet’s opera Le Cid (1885) is a gem (a shame we were denied all of it, though). This was a perfectly judged and affectionate account, full of life and detail, on a par with Jean Martinon’s marvellous Decca recording with the Israel Philharmonic (and there is no higher compliment).

And so to The Rite of Spring. It was the same … but different; the score was immediately revised after the first night, Stravinsky handing changes to conductor Pierre Monteux for the second. And we got a bassoon similar to that in use at the premiere; thus the opening solo had a nuttier hue; beautifully played, too. And from there followed numerous subtleties of detailing and dynamics that sounded afresh, novel, the occasional extra bar, the odd rhythmic dislocation. But it was also the superb playing that counted for much; this is an orchestra of great players who bring notable musicianship, virtuosity and deep-seated commitment to everything they do. So too these particular instruments, more colourful than their modern counterparts; less blatant, with greater character; brass that doesn’t blare or dominate (trombones spicy rather than harsh) and a bass drum that cracks rather than thumps, and it was also a notable addition, often off the beat, in the music leading up to the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’, itself with fascinating aspects that Stravinsky deleted, such as a cymbal clash on the final chord. With nothing forced or gratuitous, made for dancing, but remaining Russian and ritualistic, this was a thrilling and revelatory Rite, one for all seasons.

Prom 2: Doctor Who

“In its 50th-anniversary year, Doctor Who returns to the Proms with a spectacular concert featuring Murray Gold’s music for the series, plus pieces by Bach, Bizet and Debussy, and a special performance of one of the most iconic theme tunes in television history. Performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ben Foster, the Prom includes a host of alien friends and foes plus a very special appearance by Matt Smith.” [BBC Proms website]

Matt Smith (The Doctor – 011)
Jenna Coleman (Clara)
Neve McIntosh (Madame Vastra)
Dan Starkey (Strax)
Peter Davison (The Doctor – 005)
Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman, The Doctor’s granddaughter & first companion)

Daleks, Judoon, Ice Warrior, The Silence, The Vigil of Akhaten, Cybermen, Oods, Whispermen, Vampire Girls, Silurians (including Masked Warriors) and Weeping Angel

Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) & Allan Clayton (tenor)
Kerry Ingram (singer)

London Philharmonic Choir

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ben Foster

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Doctor Who Prom 2013. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWe’ve been here before – in 2008 and 2010 – when two of the BBC’s biggest brands, the Proms and Doctor Who, collide together in the Royal Albert Hall. In 2008 David Tennant had to beam his presence in from Stratford (where he was under contract with the RSC as Hamlet). New Doctor, Matt Smith, popped up for 2010. This year – celebrating the 50th-anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who (23 November 1963 – the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination) – we had two Doctors as, greeted by an audible gasp of recognition from a packed Hall, Peter Davison was a surprise guest.

We saw all eleven doctors (or even twelve, of which more anon) on the many screens dotted around the hall – each cheered to the hilt, depending on your favourite (I joined in for Patrick Troughton), and both a tribute to his most recent companions (since the 2006 revamp) and also various references to what Davison tells us we can now refer to as the “Classic Series” – that is from the first twenty-six years, and Doctor Who The Movie from 1996 (with Paul McGann as his sole outing as the eighth Doctor – or 008, in the new parlance). (We shouldn’t forget Peter Cushing, an earlier celluloid Doctor, if not part of the BBC’s clan.) A less-recognised guest, given that it’s nearly fifty years since we’ve seen her, was Carole Ann Ford, who played William Hartnell’s – the first Doctor – granddaughter, Susan, his first companion. She quickly won the audience over with the revelation that when the original cast was introduced to the Daleks for the first time, they were only the bottom half of the metal monsters, and that they should not be used as dodgem cars, as there was no money for replacements.

Doctor Who Prom 2013. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAnd then there were the monsters. For us veterans of Doctor Who Proms we knew what to expect, but the power of his enemies is just as rejuvenating as The Doctor himself. New this year were The Whisperers, with their white faces and ghostly gaping mouths; The Silence, which featured throughout Matt Smith’s first series, who frankly makes The Whisperers seem normal; and an Ice Warrior that broke out of its frosty cocoon in the Arena. That subterranean opening also disgorged slinky, reptilian Silurians, first seen on a spiral wrought-iron staircase that was important to the Christmas show where we met The Doctor’s latest companion, Clara; a Weeping Angel (don’t blink!); and, of course, a master Dalek … not forgetting the rhino-like Judoon, Cybermen, Vampire Girls (from Venice), with audience squeals as the monsters approached.

The audience was not to be outdone: amidst a plethora of Doctor Who T-shirts (including my vintage 1991 MOMI exhibition one – as far as I could see, unique in the Hall), there were plenty of Matt Smith lookalikes (one with sonic screwdriver outstretched to ward-off an approaching Cyberman, and quite a few – adorning older fan’s necks – Tom Baker-style long scarves (how they coped in the heat, I’m not sure).

Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman in the Doctor Who Prom 2013. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou But there was one major difference to the previous two Doctor Who Proms – this contained only music that had appeared on-screen. Yes there were classical pieces – ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s Carmen (from Asylum of the Daleks, this last series), J. S. Bach’s (if written by him!) Toccata (only the Toccata, no Fugue) from BWV565, in Stokowski’s orchestration (Colin Baker, in 1985, managed to transform the Tardis into an organ, on which the Bach was played – perhaps incongruously in Attack of the Cybermen), and Debussy’s ‘Girl With the Flaxen Hair’ (from Book I of the piano Préludes) originally re-imagined by Dudley Simpson – in the audience – and Brian Hodgson, for 1977’s The Robots of Death with the longest-serving Doctor, Tom Baker – 004) – but all but two pieces of the remainder of the programme were from Doctor Who’s house-composer Murray Gold.

Gold is a master of soaring, anthemic miniatures, which can fill universes with majestic timbres, and dark, brooding, scary soundscapes. There’s humour too, and it works incredibly well with the images seen across the Hall. For fans of the show these specially edited montages are thrilling (even if the visuals keep you staring at the screens rather than watching the BBC National Orchestra of Wales). To be honest, the final piece – Song for Fifty – receiving its world premiere – was a bit of a dirge, especially as it was meant to be a birthday-tribute to the series, and was not accompanied by images. There was a Handelesque reference at “marvelled at, wondered at”, but of the quality of a Purcellian ‘birthday ode’ this was not. Allan Clayton and Elin Manahan Thomas were the vocal soloists, along with the London Philharmonic Choir in Song For Fifty, with Thomas and the Choir adding eerie vocalise to many other pieces.

Doctor Who Prom 2013. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouClayton (in full costume as a disciple of Akhaten – from the second of the most recent Who series) was joined by young Kerry Ingram for the song to placate an angry sun, and Ingram was not the only youngster involved. Winners of the “Create a Soundtrack” competition heard their entries, as orchestrated by Ben Foster, given their first outings, accompanying climactic scenes from the 2012 Christmas special, The Snowmen. The senior winners (14-16) were Gabe Stone and Matthew Owen from Gloucestershire and the junior winners (11-14) were William Davenport and Jordan Picken from Stoke-on-Trent; they obviously have good ears for pacing and contrast.

Also specially scripted was a film insert of The Doctor and Clara outside on the street without tickets for the Prom. But – rather Willy Wonka-like – The Doctor has a special permit which, when the silver is scratched off transports you into any entertainment in the universe, where you take the place of someone already in the Hall, who then find themselves naked outside. And, lo-and-behold, they didn’t appear in the audience, but from within the orchestra: Matt Smith with cropped hair could easily have walked through the Hall without being recognised; conversely Ben Foster has now grown flowing locks and was seemingly mistaken for The Doctor by the Daleks (who croaked for him to stop overacting). Only once did Foster use The Doctor’s present – a sonic baton, which was highlighted in the full-colour, high concert programme, once again in Tardis shape, and this time with doors that open on the cover to view the inside of the travel machine. Unfortunately Smith would give away no secrets as to the biggest cliff-hanger in fifty years of Doctor Who – the final image from the last series: an older figure turning to the camera and the words: “Introducing John Hurt as Dr Who.”

How all this transferred to BBC Radio 3 listeners I can’t tell. The television broadcast is yet to be announced, but the concert was definitely conceived for TV, with amplification of the orchestra (!), which made the strings sound tinny: for the pieces accompanying spoken excerpts, such aid is perhaps unavoidable, but not for the whole concert. The rule should be simple: the Proms is for the audience (and radio listeners, obviously) – television production should strive to capture this without dictating changes that affect the live experience. Simples! BBC National Orchestra of Wales is completely at home with Gold and Foster. Although it always gets a credit at the end of every episode, it is completely fitting that BBCNOW gets a lion’s share of the limelight at the Royal Albert Hall. If any Doctor Who fan, seeing an orchestra for the first time, returns for another concert, then that will embody Sir Henry Wood’s pioneering spirit. Here his bust shared the stage with the Tardis.

The niggle of amplification aside, this was a good-feel evening. I have followed Doctor Who for fifty years (having watched the first-ever episode aged two-and-a-half) and this Prom was a magnificent celebration.

Prom 1: Julian Anderson’s Harmony opens Proms 2013, Sakari Oramo/Sea Symphony, Stephen Hough/Paganini Rhapsody

Julian Anderson
Harmony [BBC commission: world premiere]
Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Sally Matthews (soprano) & Roderick Williams (baritone)

BBC Proms Youth Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the BBC Proms 2013. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouBehold the Proms! This bumper part-oceanic package launched (imagine a bottle of champers hitting a ship’s stern) the 2013 Season, opening with the eager anticipation to hear something new. Julian Anderson’s Harmony (2013) gave us six minutes of eternity courtesy of a text by the 19th-century writer Richard Jefferies. It opens with the most fragile of sounds, then comes a distant call from the past frozen musically in the present tense, a Stravinskian skill (clarinet quips further adding this composer’s presence), the BBC Symphony Chorus (only) lamenting “I could not enter time…”, the music shadow-dancing to pizzicatos and voluble in its emotions. Harmony, which fades to nothingness and stops, made a compelling if disorienting entrée.

Sakari Oramo’s first concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (good to know that he opts for antiphonal violins) was an euphonious mix of water-imagery and devilry, the latter supplied by Satan-associated Paganini’s capricious theme, originally for violin, and here spawning two piano-and-orchestra pieces. Beforehand Oramo saluted Benjamin Britten in his centenary year with an evocative and rousing outing for the ‘Four Sea Interludes’ that bookmark his first opera, Peter Grimes, a reading of quality; imaginative on the conductor’s part – especially the sombre and grey ‘Dawn’ and the broad-tempo, emotionally-burdened ‘Moonlight’ – and responsively played.

Stephen Hough performs at the First Night of the BBC Proms 2013. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouRachmaninov’s Rhapsody needs no introduction, an ingenious set of variations, deft, colourful and richly articulated. Stephen Hough is a master of the solo part and engaged it with intelligence and enjoyment, and also brought the old-world charm and flexibility that make his appearances so distinctive; the famous Variation XVIII was dreamily romantic, captivatingly gentle, its eventual soaring integrated to the whole. Oramo and the BBCSO gave detailed and cooperative support, and this thoughtful account opened up the potential of the music rather than running with its virtuosity. Hough’s built-in encore was the Lutosławski (another centenarian), an early work from 1941 for two pianos that he and fellow-composer Panufnik played in occupied Poland; only in 1978 did Lutosławski make this arrangement. Crunchier in its Paganini commentaries than the Rachmaninov, this short (seven-minute) divertissement is somewhat quixotic, even irreverent – folksy, spiky and jazzy – Hough delighted to have it under his fingers, one sensed, with conductor and orchestra alive to its brilliance and peculiarities.

“Behold the sea… !”. American Walt Whitman’s panoramic words and Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams’s awe-inspiring setting of them make for an Atlantic crossover of artistic honour. What a marvellous choice A Sea Symphony (completed in 1909 after much labour and tinkering) was for this First Night of the Proms; something grand and choral and also playing fair to Oramo’s keen interest in British music. The performance was thunderous and epic from the off, the Finn sympathetic to shanties, hymnals, expressive searching, and to riding ‘The Waves’. If the Youth Choir (hundreds-strong!) and Symphony Chorus, for all the impressive wall of sound, were sometimes too dominant of the orchestra, this was a stirring and moving account, full of pride. What Oramo’s navigation suggested in the first movement was Vaughan Williams’s debt to Elgar, and then almost a fond farewell to him as he moves into more of his own style in the slow movement, ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’, and even more so in the agile, gusty and foamy scherzo, its trio one of the most majestic of tunes; Oramo found this movement’s undercurrents and its joys, the choirs disciplined and sparkling.

The finest music comes in the expansive and extended finale (‘The Explorers’), fully half-an-hour. This solemn and visionary music found Oramo fully inside its sensitive core, letting it breathe, and the sections involving a semi-chorus were quite magically secluded. Sally Matthews and Roderick Williams made rapt unisons, unbelievably tender. Throughout, not least in the second movement, Williams was a mellifluous and unforced presence, diction superb; and if Matthews couldn’t match such vocal clarity she was no less affecting, particularly in the national-flags unfurling during the first movement. But it’s the large-scale conclusion that makes this Symphony, and this performance, special, Oramo indulging it to just the right degree of pathos. The folk-tune episode anticipates a bright future, but Vaughan Williams (choosing from Whitman’s collection, Leaves of Grass, to plot his grand design) finally takes us to the edge of the world, to another ‘unknown region’, the work ending on highs, lows and silences, just like Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1896). For 70 minutes, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra suggested great things ahead as they started their shared voyage.

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