Classical Review | First Night of the Proms 2015 (Royal Albert Hall)

Posted: July 20, 2015

The First Night of the Proms was an eventful evening at the Royal Albert Hall, providing a taste of the next eight weeks of 76 concerts including 21 world premieres. To mark the Proms’ 120th anniversary, there is a focus on two highly acclaimed Nordic composers who also both share their 150th anniversary this year - Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius.  Their distinctive concertos and magical symphonies will grace the BBC Proms' programme this year.

Tonight, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, looked cool and calm during the flamboyant opening to the Proms with Nielsen’s overture to his opera Maskarade (1904-06). A sparkly and dashing opening, even in moments of quiet, the orchestra performed with heart and gusto and secured the audience’s confidence in a positive evening ahead.

Things began to get hot under the collar during Sibelius’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1906-7) and I wonder if it was the Finnish connection between composer and conductor that got Oramo more passionate about Sibelius’s ‘orientalist’ incident music. Titillating percussion, alluring flute and string solos, and shimmering melodies were played with warmth, detail and delicacy.

The world premiere of Dadaville by contemporary composer Gary Carpenter also ended with fireworks – literally! Influenced by the iron and cork wall artwork of Mark Ernst, Carpenter’s score was much like how he described the sculpture: “rich in ambiguity”, with its fusion of muted violins, jazzy baritone saxophones and discomforting percussion. Unsure of where the piece was going, the unexpected fireworks seemed like a blessing – it certainly woke up the entire auditorium. Much credit must go to Carpenter for managing to capture such intriguing music from a fragile piece of art.

Slightly off the programme for the evening, but equally delightful to hear, was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Pianist Lars Vogt showed his deep attachment to the piece, which he first heard as a teenager. He performed with finesse and although sombre and desolate in tone, there’s much to admire with such melancholic music. By the final movement, the potency that thrilled from the outset seemed to sag, but nonetheless, Vogt managed to create somewhat of a ‘happy’ ending from the piece, finishing on D major.

The finale – and I’d say main event – was an interpretation of Belshazzar’s Feast by British composer Sir William Walton. It was down to the talent of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and spine tingling solo passages by baritone Christopher Maltman to expose the Old Testament tale of ‘The Writing on the Wall’. There is high drama and a cinematic quality to this remarkable cantata that could easily be seen as influencing modern film composers. Frantic strings stirring at its conclusion, for example, sounded very similar to John Williams’ main theme to Star Wars.

This was the single most penetrating piece that had everyone’s attention with twin brass ensembles playing high above the pit, on both sides, and the prowess of the Royal Albert Hall’s historic organ. The First Night of the Proms was a winning success and a clear indicator of what is to come.

Listen to the whole First Night of the Proms here, and find the full Proms 2015 schedule here.

Read more posts by Mary Nguyen here and follow her on Twitter @MaryGNguyen