Family Prom

Spitfire Prelude and Fugue
The Banks of Green Willow
Four Cornish Dances, Op.91
PK [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Shall We Dance – Promenade (Walking the Dog)
John Williams
Hook – Flight to Neverland

You Must Remember This: A Cinematic Sing-Along [Various composers, arr. Don Sebesky]

42nd Street [arr. Sebesky]

BBC Proms Family Orchestra
BBC Proms Family Chorus
Graham Fitkin
Lincoln Abbotts

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 30 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A Family Prom would have to be something to appeal to all ages, relatively short pieces in fairly easy musical styles. Recent years have seen popular innovations at the BBC Proms with the likes of Blue Peter, Dr Who, and MGM movies. This year has seen a celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim in his eightieth year and a matinee of Rodgers & Hammerstein. This Family Music Prom hit just the right notes with its mixture of traditional if not typical twentieth-century English music and a similar selection of the best of popular American movie-music – all that and a sing-along too! Dumbing down? Certainly not! Just recognition of the pleasure of popular music.

The first half ended with a new piece, PK by Graham Fitkin. It was composed for musicians from two geographically separated areas, London and Cornwall, who rehearsed separately until just before the performance. The BBC Proms Family Orchestra and Chorus is an amateur outfit specially gathered for this premiere. The London Orchestra fielded nearly seventy players with a chorus of twenty-six, while the Cornwall Orchestra comprised over eighty musicians with another chorus of twenty-six. Add in the BBC Concert Orchestra for over three hundred performers providing a truly wonderful sound.

PK runs just over ten minutes and is basically a Morse code message from one group to another. PK is the telegraphic code name for Portcurno, a remote village in Cornwall, the world’s largest cable station with fourteen telegraphic cable paths linking the UK to the rest of the world. Fitkin uses the telegraphic Morse codes to generate his music. Although three conductors are named, in fact it took no less than ten to harness this music, each covering the various orchestral sections and the choruses. There is much use of percussion as the Morse code dot-dash system might suggest. It begins with some insistent drumming and never lets up in its persistence of big blocks of sound that take on a sort of ritualistic exposition. Fitkin marshals his forces with great dexterity and went down well, a glorious sounding piece.

The opening work, Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, is taken from his score for the 1942 film “The First of the Few”, comprises the film’s title music of brass fanfares followed by a march and the fugue, the film paying tribute to the designer of the Spitfire, R. J. Mitchell, who worked tirelessly on the project, one which more or less killed him. Although Leslie Howard was not ideal casting as Mitchell, the film had its propaganda uses and Walton’s rousing and moving score is a suitable reminder of Britain during wartime. The BBC Concert Orchestra’s conductor, Keith Lockhart (who remains the conductor of The Boston Pops), evoked these feelings with both subtle and bravura playing.

By contrast George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow is quiet and contemplative, an idyllic reminder of English countryside, the composer’s last orchestral work before he left to serve (fatally) in the First World War. Vaughan Williams was his natural successor in this evocation of a long-lost time before the world went mad. Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances provided the first Cornish connection of the evening, a tribute to the people and places the composer found when he moved to the county. The opening piece has been taken up by Rick Stein as the signature tune of his television series based in Padstow. The Andantino is a mysterious piece evoking Cornish mists while the third dance is a playful parody of a Methodist hymn, complete with Amen. The finale, redolent of ‘On Ilkley Moor’ is fused with brass- and drum-writing that is full of spirit the essence of which was captured perfectly by the BBC Concert Orchestra.

The Symphonic Dances (as put-together by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is a classic, still sounding as modern and unsettling as fifty years ago. The Gershwin was a little bit of frippery, an excerpt from the film score of “Shall We Dance” in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are aboard a liner walking their dogs. A delightfully catchy tune was memorably played with finesse and not without a touch of humour. John Williams’s ‘Flight to Neverland’, from the Steven Spielberg film of “Hook”, a sequel to “Peter Pan”, is another of the composer’s flight themes.

“You Must Remember This” provided the Proms audience with a cinematic sing-along of famous movie songs: ‘As Time Goes By’, ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’, ‘Moon River’, ‘The Way We Were’, ‘Que Sera Sera’, ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’, as arranged by Don Sebesky. Perhaps the orchestra could have been left to play them without the audience, a contribution that enhanced nothing much at all; the audience just loved it though. Finally, a rip-roaring arrangement of Harry Warren’s “42nd Street”, also arranged by Sebesky who interpolated a few bars from Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate”. This made a grand piece to go out on and it even had the percussionists giving ‘tap dancing’ effects, an apt and charming choice with which to welcome Lockhart. No doubt we can look forward to a future with more American music and probably a lot of good fun too.

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