Royal Albert Hall
Colin Matthews: Fanfare for the 2001 Proms
Benjamin Britten arr. Colin Matthews: Paul Bunyan - Overture
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Serenade to music
Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor
John Adams: Harmonium
Emma Bell (soprano), Sarah Fox (soprano), Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano), Sally Matthews (soprano), Anna Burford (mezzo), Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Emma Curtis (mezzo), Louise Mott (mezzo), Alfred Boe (tenor), Wynne Evans (tenor), Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor), Rhys Meirion (tenor), Leigh Melrose (baritone), Hakan Vramsmo (baritone), Jonathan Lemalu (bass), James Rutherford (bass)
Guy Johnston (cello)
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus
Leonard Slatkin's first First Night of the Proms was closer to an old-fashioned Pops concert that anything (other than a Last Night) heard at the proms for some years. It celebrated Anglo-American cross fertilization in Britten's Paul Bunyan Overture, an evocation of the wide open spaces of the west as imagined in a Bohemian commune in Brooklyn, and also in Guy Johnston, the soloist in the Elgar Cello Concerto, British but studying in New York. Vaughan Williams' Serenade to music is of course a thoroughly British, even BBC, affair, probably justified as a programmatic statement about the power of music. Only John Adams? Harmonium, pretty much all American given John Donne's interest in the continent, emerged from polite familiarity into something more uplifting.
Following Andrew Davies, a demon in twentieth century music and widely adored by audiences, is of course a tall order, and it was probably wise for Slatkin to start with what he is good at. The BBC Symphony Orchestra were on elegant form all evening, perhaps understating the underlying vehemence of both the Britten and the Elgar in exchange for clarity. Guy Johnston played the cello solo impeccably but was similarly short on passion. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect someone aged twenty in 2001 to express the tears of the Great War. The dainty approach was most effective in the Serenade to Music, where the fine texture of the ensemble vocal parts and the dramatic developments of tonality (both interestingly and surprisingly finding parallels in Harmonium) emerged strikingly. The fine assembly of singers mostly graduated from music college in the past five years, though the great Sarah Connolly?s maturity stood out. The new opening fanfare was given a bravura performance, its initial percussion booming dramatically from all parts of the hall.
The audience thinned out slightly for the second part of the concert, which consisted only of Adams? Harmonium. This was a major cockup in programming terms, since the first part was aimed solidly at middle-middle-brows and the friends of the young performers, and Adams doesn?t reach those parts in the UK, although he does in the United States. Those who knew what was coming or waited to find out were rewarded for staying. The BBC Symphony Chorus was on good form, filling out the tonal abstractions of the Donne setting with emotion and bounding along in the first Dickinson setting, Because I could not stop for death, until they died away looking towards eternity. But the orchestral bridge to the second Dickinson setting suddenly achieved a sense of style and drama that had been missing in the playing of the evening so far, and Wild Nights, suitably stormy and spiky, leapt into life before again ebbing away.
Slatkin clearly has an excellent working relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and there is every chance that their combined technical excellence will result in a worthwhile contribution to the Proms. In any case, it will be all right on the Last Night. Who will be able to resist Flicka singing Rule Britannia?