EVOLUTION! A Darwin-inspired extravaganza for kids

Big Bang [with audience]
Peter Grimes – Storm Interlude
Hekla [UK premiere]
John Williams
Jurassic Park – Main Theme
James Brett
Walking with Dinosaurs – Main Theme; Tyrannosaurus Rex (In Defence of Her Young); Raptor Hunt
Sine tempore [BBC commission, world premiere]
If Bach had Been a Beekeeper
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
The Jungle Book – The Law of the Jungle
Fanfare for the Common Man
John Williams
Star Wars – Main Theme

Barney Harwood & Gemma Hunt (presenters) with Sir David Attenborough

London Philharmonic Choir

BBC Concert Orchestra
Charles Hazlewood
Nicholas Collon [off-stage conductor: Hekla]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 1 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Charles Darwin (1809-82)This Saturday morning extravaganza (repeated the following morning) fulfilled the decade-long tradition of a special children’s Prom. The overriding ideas have not changed and nor has the excellence of presentation – free full-colour programmes to boot, with fantastic dinosaur cartoons from Sue Rinaldi, accompanying Sarah Breeden’s funny and easy-to-follow notes (voiced as Tara the Utahraptor).

So, this year the Proms celebrated Darwin’s 200th-birthday. Evolution! But the real secret of the day was the presence of Sir David Attenborough, who started at the Beeb some 55 years ago. He had two guest-presenting spots and got a resounding welcome.

I did wonder how last year’s Dr Who Prom might be topped, which included lots of extraterrestrial visitors, but I should not have worried as the world’s fantastic animal life was readily available on the many high definition screens around the hall (from bee and cuckoo to tiger) and there was a roaring competition between two T-Rexes (well, at least their heads) and a clutch of raptors, which explained why the Arena’s fountain was encased in wood, covered with painted ‘Danger’ notices.

Charles Hazlewood. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouSo all the ancillary fun bits were in order – what about the music? Well, I would be amazed if any other children’s concert could muster two world premieres and a UK premiere. The first world premiere was an improvisation led by Charles Hazlewood (and practised ten minutes before curtain up) to re-enact the big bang from the quietest of “Shhhhs” to hummed notes and whistles in a slow but shattering crescendo.

If ‘Storm’ from “Peter Grimes” started rather sedately, it did pick up power, but it was with the UK premiere of Jón Leifs’s Hekla, based on his own experience of seeing Iceland’s biggest active volcano erupting, that filled the hall completely. It is said to be the loudest piece of music ever written and with 20 percussionists – on chains, rocks, cannon, guns, sirens and every manner of drum, and organ, it could easily be. It certainly had the desired ‘WOW-factor’ here.

Gemma Hunt and Barney Harwood were taking us on a three-billion-year trip from the beginning of the universe to the future. After the cataclysmic powers that formed land with volcanic force, it was the turn of dinosaurs to close the first half, after Sir David had made his first appearance. By comparison to the giant Triceratops skull and the two animatronic T-Rex heads, his most amazing animal brought an awed gasp from the audience – a tiny worm that lives under hippopotamus’s eyelids and feeds on hippo tears…

John Williams’s memorable main theme from Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” (that starred Sir David’s older brother, Richard) segued nicely into a selection from James Brett’s score to the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs”.

GoldieGoldie’s Sine tempore (Without Time – or, as the programme had it, Timeless) opened the second half, complete with rhythmic drums to start and vocalise from the London Philharmonic Choir. Commissioned after his starring role on BBC2’s “Maestro” last year, when he was just pipped to the top conducting honour by Sue Perkins, Goldie has produced a hugely impressive orchestral and choral work which followed a giant arch, rising to a finely worked climax with plenty of incidental instrumental detail. It may well be the best of this year’s Proms commissions.

Insects and birds came next, with Hazelwood explaining clearly the bee-like impetus to Arvo Pärt’s extraordinary If Bach had Been a Beekeeper, followed by Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Sir David came back to help transport us to India, and all the animals Mowgli would have known in Kipling’s “Jungle Book”, musically illustrated from Charles Koechlin’s epic orchestral work of that name, from which we heard the stately progression accompanying ‘The Law of the Jungle’.

Having got through to land mammals, it was only a short quarter-of-a-million-year jump to the present day for mankind to be represented by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. To end we looked to the future with George Lucas’s Star Wars, John Williams in his shameless rip-off of Holst’s The Planets (‘Mars’ and ‘Saturn’ are never far away).

I guess if you wanted to trace evolution over 100 minutes of music you could play Mahler’s Third Symphony. Much more fun, though, to hear numerous works and almost get bitten by a velociraptor! With baton-less Hazelwood moulding music from the BBC Concert Orchestra, this was another feather in the Proms’s cap in its aim of making music available to all.

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