Prom 10: 28th July 2001 – BLUE PETER “Town and Country”

[Blue Peter Theme Tune]
John Williams
Superman Theme
The Gift to be Simple (Appalachian Spring)
Summer (The Four Seasons)
The Death of Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet)
Barry Russell
Town and Country (story by Taffy Thomas)
Storm (Four Sea Interludes – Peter Grimes)
Roddy Skeaping
Habbits (words by Rupert Sheldrake, directed by Lucy Bailey)
Mambo (West Side Story)
Traditional arr. David Childs
Carnival of Venice
Rimsky-Korsakov arr. Childs
The Flight of the Bumblebee (The Tale of Tsar Saltan)
Henry Wood
Hornpipe (Fantasia on British Sea-Songs)
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D
[Blue Peter Theme Tune]

Liz Barker and Simon Thomas (presenters)
Daniel Hope (violin)
David Childs (euphonium)
the gogmagogs
Taffy Thomas (story-teller)
Barry Russell (conductor)

Pupils from Ambleside CE Primary, Coniston Primary and Langdale Primary Schools, Cumbria; All Saints CE Primary and Warren Wood Primary Schools, Stockport

Farnborough Primary, Felsted Primary and Sandhurst Junior School Choirs
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the successful ways in which Nick Kenyon has tied in BBC-TV to the Proms is to create new collaborations around established TV programmes. This Friday’s ’The Later Prom’ (No.19, 3 August) is the most recent example. One hopes the trend is not continued overly – would we really want ’The Ground Force Prom’ hosted by Charlie Dimmock featuring Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens, or ’The Film 200X Prom’ hosted by Jonathan Ross, or even – Heaven forfend – ’The Top of the Pops Prom’.

The first such collaboration was the now-annual ’Blue Peter Prom’, presented by two of the programme’s regular presenters, which has become very much the prerogative of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, whether under that Gallic charmer, Yan Pascal Tortelier, or – for this year – Rumon Gamba.

Given that entry to the Arena for this particular Prom is restricted to those with a child in tow, this was my first ’Blue Peter Prom’. My brother’s family having moved to Hampshire, I took my nephews – Connor, coming up to 9, and Ash, nearly 7 – along with their mother to see what all the fuss was about. Serendipitously, the programme included a première written especially for the occasion performed by pupils from schools in Cumbria (my family’s home county) and Stockport (the nearest town to where, until March, my brother’s family lived), so it all seemed to fit nicely.

On the hottest day of the year so far, the Arena was not oppressively full. Thankfully, adults had the sense to sit throughout the concert so the kids could see sitting as well. In the centre of the Arena, instead of the fountain (a dangerous fitting with so many inquisitive children about), there was a roped-off area littered with bright-yellow-cased small glockenspiels, buckets of water with gongs and metal chimes immersed, bells, plastic bottles filled with beans or beads, and rain-sticks, and myriad other items which could be blown, shaken or struck to create sound.

On the dot of 11 o’clock, Yuri Torchinsky – leader of the colourfully-attired BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – stood to direct the Blue Peter Theme Tune and the presenters bounded on to the stage to introduce our very own superman – Rumon Gamba, who arrived swathed in a red cape – to conduct John Williams’s Superman.

The theme of the Prom, taking a leaf (no pun intended) out of Kenyon’s Pastoral programming, was ’Town and Country’. Superman was seamlessly followed by Copland’s finale to his ballet Appalachian Spring. There it is known as the Shaker hymn, ’The Gift to be Simple’, but – as answers came back to Simon and Liz’s question – it is best known to youngsters as ’The Lord of the Dance’. Although hyperactive, with hand-held mikes glued to their mouths, these two were not going to talk down to the children. We were told when the Shaker hymn had been adapted to ’The Lord of the Dance’; throughout, the watchword was “facts,” with spoken introductions tailor-made for setting the scene or providing background for the ensuing piece. (On the Radio 3 relay this may be irritating – I remember thinking so last year, and have heard similar comments subsequent to Saturday – but it worked very well in the hall.)

The only feeling of attention slipping was in Daniel Hope’s performance of Vivaldi. He gave a quick introduction to the themes, which came over in a rather perfunctory manner; in the vast cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall, this refined performance with reduced strings unfortunately dissipated above most of the audience’s heads.

Prokofiev’s ’Death of Tybalt’ took us back to the town, albeit a Renaissance one, Simon and Liz not sparing any details of gangs fighting and Romeo’s multiple stabbing of Tybalt. Perhaps this concert should have been rated PG!

The central area of the Arena was, during the Prokofiev, silently filled with children from schools in the Lakes and Stockport for a specially commissioned piece from story-teller Taffy Thomas (looking rather hot and overdressed in his colourful woven coat and hat) and composer Barry Russell.

Town and Country was conceived as a 50th-birthday tribute to the foundation of the Lake District National Park. It started with the tale of a golden eagle swooping down to grab a lamb in its mighty talons (more no-holes-barred reality!); then being swept off course by the wind, ending up above Manchester. The bird, in shock, drops the lamb and then – still disorientated – grabs a young child and flies back north.

Thus the scene is set for two journeys: the child – helped by a vixen chosen from the Lakeland animals to carry the child back south; and the lamb, who escapes the mechanistic terror of the big city to be helped by a white lion to head north. One night the two odd-couples meet and exchange experiences, and then go on their way. As Taffy Thomas explained at the end – this is why at Helm Crag in the Lakes there is a rock called ’The Lion and the Lamb’, nearby there is a pub called ’The Eagle and Child’. And let’s not forget the vixen: she found scavenging in Manchester so easy that she is now the descendent of all the urban foxes there, so Taffy Thomas told us!

Barry Russell, who knelt conducting in front of his amassed band of school children, wove this simple but effective tale inside a magical musical carapace. Ringing bells from a phalanx of kids at the back greeted the opening of the tale, and every sort of sound was used to portray the two strands of the story, with most fun being had with the mechanical sounds of the city. In the background, Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic provided orchestral support in an engrossingly engaging work. Three players from the orchestra were featured soloists in the central area: flautist Victoria Bodger, alto saxophonist Rob Buckland and ’cellist Rebecca Aldersea.

Town and Country could not have wished for a better première; the young players were magnificent in the complicated changes of instruments. A real winner, and one that – I fervently hope – gets performances in both Stockport and Cumbria. Given the horror of foot-and-mouth that still bedevils Cumbria (and – perhaps even worse – its additional suffering in the face of the unpalatable disregard for the full extent of the situation by politicians and apparatchiks), it is great to report some good news emanating from the county; it would be good if more people there could share in it.

The first half ended (only the first half! – Music Editor) with a spirited performance of Britten’s ’Storm’ Interlude, which did nothing in reality to cool anyone down, although lighting (for lightning) effects kept the youngsters’ attention.

The second half – with the central area now completely cleared – started off with a puckered-face cellist, rabbit-hat on, being chased around by three violinists, a violist, another cellist and a double bassist, all dressed in white coats. (They’ve come to collect Classical Source’s deranged Music Editor! – Music Editor.)This facile frippery was ’the gogmagogs’ latest escapade, Habbits, which had a recorded spoken soundtrack, which made almost as little sense as the action – something about evolution I gathered as my brain went into ’close down’ mode, to block out the idiocy. Once you’ve seen a cellist running-around trying to act like a rabbit for thirty seconds, you don’t need to see it any longer. Regrettably, the scientists all became rabbits at the end. The scraps of music (yes, the instrumentalists were playing something throughout) seemed to have no logic whatsoever and I now rather assume that ’composer’, Roddy Skeaping, allowed his pet rabbits to do their business on huge sheets of manuscript paper, and transcribed the result. This was my first experience of ’the gogmagogs’ – because I have always been suspicious of their professed endeavour to “release the physical expression of the classical musician”. I am quite convinced that musicians would rather not be compared to rabbits. Compared to the rest of the programme this was a rather wretched gimmick.

Leonard Bernstein’s frenetic ’Mambo’ allowed us to regain some semblance of involvement by shouting that very word in the pause bars (the cue-boards from Liz and Simon perhaps a little unnecessary), and then our second Proms debut soloist arrived.David Childs was the euphonium finalist in last year’s BBC Young Musician of the Year; he played his own arrangement of Paganini’s variations on ’Carnival of Venice’, which was virtuosic enough in itself (he said it should sound like several euphonium players at the end, and it did!), but then he turned to Rimsky-Korsakov’s fleet-fingered ’Flight of the Bumblebee’ – wow!

The remaining two items were direct from The Last Night – a clap-along to the ’Sailor’s Hornpipe’, where the kids showed much more rhythmic steadiness than a normal Last Night audience, with Simon and Liz hooting at every phrase end. Rumon Gamba complained that we were pathetic – but he had to say that, didn’t he, so we could have an encore (he turned to the orchestra: “You can play it better,” before hastily correcting himself, “er … play it faster”).

Elgar’s First Pomp and Circumstance March rounded things off, with the adults singing ’Land of Hope and Glory’ and the kids looking rather mystified at the printed words. Yes, indeed, what do they mean?

So, a thoroughly enjoyable Prom – distinct in that it was a proper concert. The printed programme was handsomely produced: half the price of a normal Prom programme and printed throughout in full colour with numerous pictures by children from the schools taking part (I particularly liked Romeo and Tybalt fighting, with blood spurting from the latter, and a rather amazed glint in Romeo’s eye). The notes, by Mark Pappenheim, were nicely written in a style that could be easily digested (although, in fact, there was so much going on it is probably best used as a reference at home).

So how did my nephews enjoy it? Asked what they liked best, Connor was quick off the mark, “Superman, and the story,” with his brother echoing his opinion. It was clear they also enjoyed the ’Sailor’s Hornpipe’ (with Ash not only clapping but jumping up and down when the hooters sounded), and shouting “Mambo” was a memorable moment. I caught Connor conducting along at one point (he denied it afterwards). David Childs and his euphonium also caught their attention, although a Coca-Cola spillage upset our concentration in ’Carnival of Venice’. At the time of asking they were playing with the balloons that gently fell from the rotunda – to accompany the strains of the reprise of the Blue Peter Theme Tune. That caused the biggest reaction (i.e. a stampede into the central area) of the whole event. I’ll ask them again in a week or two to see how the experience has settled, but from the audience’s reaction on the day I think I can conclude that this year’s ’Blue Peter Prom’ was a great success.

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