Symphony No.10 Scherzo
The Magic Flute Papagenos Bird-catcher aria
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit [Wallace & Gromit]
Feather & Grabowsky
Jungle Book 2 Jungle Rhythm
The Firebird [1945 Suite] Infernal Dance, Lullaby & Hymn
Die Walküre Ride of the Valkyries
Three Little Pigs [finale]Saint-Saëns
Carnival of the Animals Introduction: March of the Royal Lions; Pianists; Fossils; Finale
The Little Sweep The Night Song
Barratier & Coulais
Les Choristes Caresse sur l’Océan
Old American Songs I bought me a cat
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Barnacle Bill Blue Peter Theme [new version]
Zoë Salmon & Matt Baker (presenters)
Chris Collins (special guest appearance as a Dalek)
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (baritone)
Chris Jarvis (narrator)
Micallef Inanga Piano Duo [Jennifer Micallef & Glen Inanga]
Islington Music Centre Children’s Choir
Blue Peter Music Makers
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 22 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
There’s no doubting the success of these ventures, although I have some suspicions about their educative value. However, don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see thousands of children, of all ages, hues, creeds and kinds, with their mums and dads crowding that architectural wonder, the Royal Albert Hall and sticking around for just over two hours for a wealth of music given, as always, by the BBC Philharmonic, this time under a Proms debutant: Alexander Shelley. He’s 26 and the son of Howard Shelley and Hilary MacNamara. With impeccable musical credentials – as a cellist he studied in masterclasses under Rostropovich and Starker, but and composition with George Crumb – in 2005 he won, unanimously, the Leeds Conducting Competition.
Long a prerogative of conducting-competition winners, the “Blue Peter” Prom certainly showed off Shelley’s range. He has a firmly controlled beat and personable manner and he was charming in his introduction – much more assured than were the presenters, in fact. But if Shelley was a debutant, there was also a fond farewell, from Matt Baker, seven years a “Blue Peter” presenter and bowing out with these Proms performances. Decked out with pith helmet and trousers tucked into his sand boots, he looked more fit for exploring than Zoë Salmon, who, despite her hat, had open-toed sandals: just as well we didn’t have scorpions illustrated musically in our safari!
For that was the theme this year – safari. Not surprisingly both anniversary boys Shostakovich and Mozart got in there, although it was not the former’s ‘Gadfly’ or ‘Bedbug’, but the scherzo from his Tenth Symphony (the programme making a rather tenuous allusion to Stalin being an animal…). It was Papageno’s ‘Bird-catcher’ aria (in Jeremy Sams’s ENO translation) that represented Mozart, sung by antipodean baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, in jeans, T-shirt and cork-dangling Aussie hat. Then more fanciful animals took over. Wallace & Gromit’s latest foe, the Were Rabbit, made an appearance – at least musically – and here’s a correction for the programme: Wallace & Gromit and the Were Rabbit is, correctly, either their first feature film or their fourth film (after “Grand Day Out”, “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” – all shorts); not their third film, as stated.
More celluloid action came in the form of an excerpt from the score to “Jungle Book 2”, sung vibrantly by the massed ranks of the Islington Music Centre Children’s Chorus, whose director Richard Frostick divided the hall into three parts to join in (RAH east side had to emulate Kaa, “Ssssss-S-Sss”; RAH west the birds’ warning “Eeh-eeh-eeh Ka-ka” and the northern block (Door 6 and above) had to be tourists shouting a warning, “Look out”). Any lack of enthusiasm from some of the shyer children seemed to be more than made up for by eager parents!
The first half ended with an extended extract from Stravinsky’s 1945 Firebird Suite, throughout which the youngsters remained remarkably attentive, despite a downturn in concentration during the lullaby; although not enough to spoil appreciation of the playing.
After an extended interval, it was more fictitious characters that saw us back for the second half: Wagner’s Valkyries – or perhaps it was their winged horses that would fit better into the safari theme. Chris Jarvis then appeared and showed everyone how to present – in the skilfully filleted version of Paul Patterson’s second contribution to the Roald Dahl Foundation’s commissions based on Dahl’s ‘Revolting Rhymes’: “The Three Little Pigs”. Accompanied by a white pig in a blue jacket that snuck into the Arena, an impressively tall wolf and Red Riding Hood herself (the subject of Patterson’s first ‘Revolting Rhyme’ orchestration), Jarvis simply read Dahl’s poem until we got to the third pig in its brick house. That’s where we picked up on Patterson’s score. Knowing the wolf won’t stop at failing to blow down the house (the wolf rushes off muttering something about “if I can’t blow it down, I’ll blow it up”), the third pig rings Little Red Riding Hood, knowing she’s already well-versed in getting rid of wolves. Here Paterson emulates a mobile ring beautifully then suddenly melts into Mozart!
The denouement is the expected one (although, disappointingly, Red Riding Hood uses the same perfunctory manner to despatch the wolf as she had in her own tale), but there is a twist in the piggy’s tail (sorry, tale), which I won’t spoil…
No safari can be without Saint-Säens’s The Carnival of the Animals, but personally I could have done without the Ogden Nash doggerel, especially as Baker, Salmon and “Blue Peter” gardener Chris Collins were not up to the reciting of it. On the plus side, Jennifer Micallef and Glen Inanga on the two pianos had much fun in trying to get their scales right in ‘Pianists’, while in ‘Fossils’ the spotlight in the Gallery picked out the dinosaur floating in the fountain. I could have done with more of the Saint-Säens than the four sections allowed, but time was needed to properly feature the choir.
Arrayed in their red T-shirts the Islington Music Centre Children’s Choir were so much more vibrant than the serried ranks of children at the Queen’s Prom on Wednesday and, while neither Britten’s ‘Night Song’ from “The Little Sweep” nor one of the hits from the French film “Les choristes” (‘Caresse sur l’ocean’) were roof-raisers, they were much more beautiful to sing (and hear) than Maxwell Davies’s new work. Their animal content was a series of birds, ending in one flying over the swell of the sea.
Closer to home, Teddy Tahu Rhodes returned with an effortlessly winning performance of Copland’s ‘I bought me a cat’ from “Old American Songs”, imitating to the manner born the cat, duck, goose, hen, pig, horse and, just the final time, his wife saying “honey, honey”. And that was that. All the animals catered for, with only Elgar’s behemoth that is Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (“Land of Hope and Glory”) left, sung innocently and allowing the music to end audibly rather than in the braying cacophony as it does on the Last Night.
But there was one final piece – a new version of the “Blue Peter” theme tune “Barnacle Bill” by Murray Gold, the composer – Matt Baker told us – of “Doctor Who”. While Ron Grainer may have something to say about that, Gold I felt must have beamed his new version in from the Tardis in another galaxy. Heavy on rhythmic interludes it seemed no improvement at all on the old one (which, I should have said, was conducted by the BBC Philharmonic’s leader Yuri Torchinsky), but it did include in this performance 40 talented youngsters whittled down from 25,000 to help record the new theme tune.
It was great to see them there, the rhythm section in front of the orchestra in the Arena included and, while I wasn’t enamoured of the piece, it was indicative of the pleasure that can be gained from music – here principally classical – by youngsters.
The concert was complimented by a full-colour programme with witty cartoons following our programme guide, a monkey called Cebus Albifrons (‘Al’ for short), who expounded entertaining facts about each piece. Unfortunately most of the ink was light in colour, so with the house lights dimmed it was almost impossible to read. On the plus side the programme was free and I hope every child will take it home and read it.
At the end the traditional falling of hundreds of “Blue Peter” balloons from high up near the hall’s acoustic mushrooms was started too early – so the performers, all coming on together at the end, were all-but ignored as the scramble for hot-air booty took place. At one point as I left the hall glancing back, the fountain seemed to have disappeared completely. Certainly it was a shame not to be able to applaud especially Alexander Shelley, of whom – I’m sure – we will see lots more of.