Music and Vision homepage



They're off!

First Night of the Proms in London, 19 July 2002


They're off! -- the BBC Proms, that is -- and off to an auspicious start. This year's main themes for special exposure are Spanish, or Spanish-influenced music, and the Old Testament. The music of Sir William Walton is also profiled in this, his centenary year. The inaugural concert gave us a generous taste of all three.

In the first half, it was the Spanish theme. First up: Chabrier's tuneful and high-spirited España, an unquestioned 'pop', and rightly so, with its generous supply of memorable tunes and foot-tapping rhythms. The ideal curtain-raiser. Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a spirited and invigorating performance. There were one or two minor uncertainties of ensemble at the beginning, but the forces were soon into gear, and the infectious joie de vivre was exuberantly conveyed.

As I said, España is an established 'pop', but frankly, I don't fancy the chances of Roberto Sierra's Fandangos putting up a serious challenge to such status. I suppose this British première was inevitable, given the Spanish theme, and the fact that the work was a commission for Maestro Slatkin's other orchestra in Washington. But, to my ears, it was a case of much ado about rather little. It was amiable enough, and certainly not aurally or intellectually challenging, but it posed no challenge to the lighter-than-light hedonism that preceded it. The composer claims to have used themes by Soler and Boccherini. The end result was so much catchy rhythm, (confidently delivered by the orchestra, particularly by its alert percussion section), but it all seemed to be in search of a theme. My reaction at the end was no more than 'been there, done that'.

And so to a long-established virtuoso warhorse, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. I have to confess, this is not a favourite work of mine. It is musically slender, and I can take it or leave it. If I am to take it, the violinist has to be just about the best in the business. On this occasion, the soloist was Maxim Vengerov. I took it! What a consummate artist Vengerov is. Yes, he milked the D minor heart-on-sleeve for more than it was worth, but what a star! The central Intermezzo which, inexplicably, used almost invariably to be omitted, was a revelation, and the fizzing pyrothechnics of the finale had me gasping with delight and disbelief. He had it, he flaunted it, and Lalo was flattered. He was not allowed to leave without an encore, a Bach Sarabande, which was simply sublime, but brought blushes of embarrassment to all that preceded it.

But after the interval there was more real music -- the very essence of a first night, and the very essence of the dear old Albert Hall: Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. My one regret in hearing this performance was that all subsequent ones will almost certainly pale by comparison. Everything was right: a fabulous choir, the peerless BBC Symphony Chorus, joined by Slatkin's Choral Arts Society of Washington, supremely confident and responsive to every nuance from fortissimo to pianissimo and the thrillingly rapid crescendi and decrescendi in between. Slatkin bids fair to be nominated a choral conductor par excellence. The orchestra, their early hesitations well behind them, played to the far reaches of inspired greatness, augmented by the thrilling brass ensembles on either side. If this could be capped, the majestic vocal and physical presence of Willard White gave evidence that we were truly travelling first class.

What a work of sheer genius, made for the occasion, and delivered to perfection. I was present at the First Night last year, when the choral offering was John Adams' Harmonium, pleasingly beguiling, mildly erotic, even, but never, in a thousand years, exultant. I rejoice that the writing was on the wall, and that Babylon fell. And great was the fall of it, according to Walton, Slatkin, and the talents at their disposal. Yes. They're off! And how!

The BBC Proms continue until 14 September 2002, and all are broadcast, webcast live and available on demand for delayed listening from BBC Radio 3. The First Night concert is available on demand until 26 July.

Copyright © 21 July 2002 David Thompson, Eastwood, Essex, UK



 << Music & Vision home                  Trio Melisma >>