Prom 11 – Take it away, Sir Edward Elgar!

Blue Peter Prom – Magical Journeys

Blue Peter Theme
Prokofiev
Lieutenant Kijé – Sleigh Ride
Rossini
Introduction, Theme and Variations
Eduard Strauss
Bahn Frei!
Traditional Zulu Song: Hamba-nathin kukuli wethu
Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape – Main Title *
Wagner
Die Walküre – The Ride of the Valkyries
Offenbach
Orpheus in the Underworld – Can Can
John Williams
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – Hedwig’s Theme
Pachelbel
Canon
Holst
The Planets – Mars
Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Blue Peter Theme

Julian Bliss (clarinet)
New London Children’s Choir
BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda
Jason Lai

STOMP

Konnie Huq (presenter)
Simon Thomas (conductor * / presenter)


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 26 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Quite the most enjoyable of the three Blue Peter Proms I have been to. This year’s had the theme of “Magical Journeys”. Basically a travelogue through the known and the unknown worlds, as well as various modes of transport, it started in Russia on a snow sledge, courtesy of Prokofiev.It then toured to Italy with young clarinettist Julian Bliss playing Rossini and boarded a train in Austria with Eduard Strauss’s Bahn Frei – Clear the Track! Africa was represented by a traditional Zulu chant given youthful presence by the red-baseball-capped New London Children’s Choir and then, via presenter Simon Thomas conducting The Great Escape, landed in Wagner’s mythological world.To give it more currency, this was introduced with “85 years before J.R.R Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings, Wagner wrote four operas about another ring which was also all-powerful”. The Ride of the Valkyries saw the back-four horn players don cow-horned helmets, one of which during the interval ended up at a jaunty angle atop Sir Henry Wood’s bust (Horny Sir Henry, perhaps?), and stayed there for the rest of the concert.And that was just the first half!

New this year was not one, but three conductors.After the sterling work from Rumon Gamba in previous Blue Peter Proms, it’s great to see he has – at last – been granted an evening Prom to himself (Prom 38 – Saturday 16 August – British film music).The extent of his Blue Peter success can be gauged by the fact that three conductors were needed to replace him!His replacement as Assistant Conductor at the BBC Phil has been taken by the winner of the 2002 BBC Young Conductor’s competition, Jason Lai. He was on hand for half of the programme, with still-new Principal Conductor Gianandrea Noseda on the podium for four pieces, fresh from both his heaven-storming success with Beethoven’s Fifth the Thursdaybefore and the great news that he has already signed an extension to his contract with the orchestra.The third conductor was Blue Peter presenter Simon Thomas, who has been taking lessons from Jason Lai and conducted Elmer Bernstein’s “The Great Escape” with enormous aplomb (Konnie Huq insisted on an encore!).

Obviously taking inspiration from Channel 4’s “Faking It” – when Leeds punk-rock singer Chris Sweeney was groomed for a month by various conductors to dupe the ’experts’ at a concert at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls.

Noseda arrived on stage with Russian fur hat and trench coat for Prokofiev’s Sleigh Ride, and then paid careful attention to the accompaniment in Rossini’s clarinet showpiece, played very nicely by Julian Bliss.I think he is 15, but he is certainly very mature in his playing and, fingers crossed that he is not pushed into doing too much too soon, will be a smooth-toned clarinet star of the future.A little pantomime, in which Simon Thomas left the stage in a huff not being able to conduct Bahn Frei, led to us being introduced to the genial Jason Lai, who has a relaxed conducting style, a world away from the expressive ’lurching sans baton’ that Noseda seems to have adopted from mentor Gergiev.The first bit of audience participation was whistling at the end as Strauss’s train comes to a halt.

It was Lai who conducted the choir in the Zulu chant, “Go with us, Lord, and set us free”, in an arrangement by the orchestra’s double bassist Peter Wilmott, before Thomas turned to the Bernstein. Noseda was back for the Valkyries and before the interval, the lead-man from STOMP danced his way on to stage to ’tell’ us how we could join in the opening piece of the second half.He didn’t have to say anything, but by simple rhythm and through personality alone he got 6000 people – kids, mums and dads – to double clap with him (or after him) in one of the most absorbing and successful pieces of non-verbal communication I have ever seen.The air of expectation was palpable, and the opening of the second half was no disappointment.

Although Konnie Huq did mention it later, I wonder how many of the audience realised that the rhythm gently pounded out on the plastic barrels at the start was the five-beat rhythm from the opening of Holst’s Mars. We were told that STOMP had devised a routine unique to this concert and when later the ensemble of nine each picked up various utensils and incredibly delicately picked out a downward theme from Offenbach’s Can Can one realised how inventive they had been for this single show.Astounding and invigorating, STOMP held the Albert Hall audience in the palms of its collective hands.Eschewing all paraphernalia (which was quietly and subtly removed by the stagehands), their final ’number’ got the audience to use the clapping techniques learned before the interval.Dying away to just one person on stage, a spotlight on his clicking fingers, this was a brilliant display not only of rhythmic virtuosity but a masterclass in holding an audience’s attention, let alone a perfect way to distract us from tiresome stage changes.

The Can Can with Jason Lai in charge brought the orchestra back into focus, with owls as post-delivery animals championed in John Williams’s Hedwig’s Theme from the ubiquitous Harry Potter.Three members of STOMP came back to show us (again no words) how a canon worked with the aid of collapsible chairs (numbered 1, 2 and 3) and simple rhythm matched to action, which showed up the orchestral excerpts of Pachelbel’s Canon rather (the piece is more complicated), but the whole worked effectively in full performance.

However, for my young charge (also, as it happens, called Nick) it was Holst’s Mars that stole the show, and Noseda certainly gave it the most energetic of performances.Only the lighting effects – where the lightning flashes at the end always following the rhythmic outbursts by a fraction of a second (reversing nature, when lightning is seen first and then is heard the rumble of thunder) – let the side down.

Earlier we had had white searchlights roving the auditorium during The Great Escape and various images projected on the organ backdrop and throughout the seating area (snowflakes for Sleigh Ride etc). Some of the lighting in Mars was effective, such as the filling of the gallery and above with light in the long brass chords at the end, but the red searchlights at the beginning and the all-too-late lightning flashes missed the mark.

To end, by now something of a Blue Peter Prom tradition, we had Elgar’s First Pomp and Circumstance March and, even if the kids were more reticent about singing Land of Hope and Glory (not helped by the New London Children’s Choir who were swathed in confusion about when to stand and whether to wear their baseball caps or not), the adults around me were singing as lustily as I was.Simon Thomas’s exhortation was rather odd, I thought: “Take it away” he urged Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, but one of the advantages of the Blue Peter Prom audience is that, unlike the Last Night audience, after the final chorus, they listen to the final coda.It’s a great shame the older audience at the end of the season are not more attentive.

By the time the conductors and presenters were waving goodbye and the orchestra was reprising the Blue Peter theme, all the kids’ eyes were on the balloons being released from high up; the expected mayhem ensued, orchestra and music all-but forgotten.

One other point should be made.All the stops are pulled out in the printed programme for the Blue Peter Prom.It’s in full colour and this year was packed full of cartoons by Tim Hutchinson, as well as user-friendly notes by Roland Taylor.With characters appearing as varied as Eminem (doing a Blue Peter rap about using sticky-backed plastic) and Offenbach’s Orpheus featuring all your favourite soaps, let alone intriguing facts about well-known composers (did you know that Wagner wore pink underwear?), this is both witty and invigorating, and indicative of the seriousness taken over the Blue Peter Prom.

Quite the most successful children’s concert I have ever attended.

If only they could bottle it!

  • Radio 3 deferred relay on Monday 28 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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