First Night of the Proms – Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony

Hannah Kendall

Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama

(World première BBC commission)

Eric Whitacre

Sleep

Aaron Copland

Quiet City

Beethoven

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’

Philip Cobb (trumpet)
Alison Teale (cor anglais)

BBC Singers (Chorus Master Nicholas Chalmers)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo


Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 29 August, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Is there a collective noun for sighs, I wonder? Even if such exhalations of breath are not always audible, there must have been more than just a few around Kensington Gore last night. Relief at the BBC that after months of planning and underlying trepidation that good intentions might be thwarted at the last minute, this short season of concerts in the traditional Proms venue could finally be launched. Relief too amongst BBC musicians that after a long hiatus in live performances they were finally together again on a familiar platform with their Chief Conductor in charge. And almost certainly relief also up and down the country at the prospect of a slow, albeit less than all-encompassing, return to normality.

Before Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ came a series of short pieces based on varying kinds of artistic inspiration, thus forming an excellent bridge to the main work which, when it was first published, included the reference “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”. 

Hannah Kendall’s latest piece, given its world première by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, takes as its starting-point the idea of early globalisation and multiculturalism, first through the memory of Vasco da Gama and then the American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who influenced popular urban culture in the 1980s. Richly textured and with scintillating orchestral effects that include the use of harmonicas, the piece suggests endless transitions, the musical strands coalescing and receding before moving off into unknown regions at the close. At one stage Stephen Bryant’s solo violin rose high above the shimmering harmonies to suggest the flight of a free spirit.

Eric Whitacre’s motet for a cappella chorus derives its inspiration from a Robert Frost poem but uses instead lyrics by Charles Anthony Silvestri, the word “sleep” being repeated to mesmerising effect as the piece steals away. The eighteen members of the BBC Singers were spaced out across the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall and directed from the arena by Nicholas Chalmers. Though modest in terms of numbers, they made a powerful and well-blended sound, the ethereal soprano line freed from all earthly restraint.

According to Aaron Copland, his Quiet City, which originated as incidental music for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name, was an attempt to mirror the emotions of the troubled main character. The jazz influence is unmistakeable, not only in the harmonies but also the improvisatory quality of the two soloists, distinct yet beautifully matched in the trumpet of Philip Cobb and the cor anglais of Alison Teale. Like the two preceding pieces, the prevailing mood was one of quietude. If New York is indeed the city that never sleeps, this was contrariwise a mood-picture of deserted streets and aching isolation.

Without the usual interval, the two E-flat chords that open Beethoven’s great symphony came as a rude awakening. Upsetting expectations was what this composer was all about. Oramo’s view was very much life-affirming, unburdened by introspection in the Funeral March, the emotions contained rather than worn on the sleeve. The original audience in the Palais Lobkowitz in August 1804 would have had its ears assaulted by the sheer impact of the novel sounds. However, given the modest forces used on this occasion – the strings grounded on four cellos and three double-basses and spread out over the entire platform, the woodwind and brass on risers behind – and the reverberance of an empty hall, there were fewer explosions and dramatic moments, the revolutionary fervour kept largely in check, the lightness of the tread suggesting plimsolls rather than Oxford brogues. One obvious gain was in the airiness of the orchestral textures with the wind given special prominence.

As Stephen Fry commented at the end of the television transmission, it was “like water in the desert”. From the barren terrain of the past few months, new life will surely follow.

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