The First Night of the Proms is an occasion. It’s the beginning of summer. It’s a musical promise. It’s reuniting with an old friend. It’s also, as of this year, an excuse to make a bit of an effort. I made mine by ironing my best white shirt, donning my best Dockers and brown leather boots, and finishing off my ‘effortless’ meeja-luvvy look with a smart/casual jacket. Colleagues commented how smart I looked. “Oh of course,” said one, “it’s the First Night, isn’t it.”
In truth, events in Nice late last night overshadowed things today. I felt guilty about anticipating the start of the season. The Proms seemed almost frivolous in comparison to what now as saddening as it is familiar. There needed to be some reference to France, I thought. But given that the programme tonight was mostly Russian, that was going to be difficult.
The powers that be – a combined effort of conductor, orchestra and broadcaster, I imagine – came up with the goods. The opening chords of La Marseillaise took me by surprise. So too, for a split second, everyone else in the auditorium. From the stalls, I saw one man get up from his seat; I followed suit.
I’m normally rather cynical about the acts of pilgrimage, the outpouring of grief on social media, or the worldwide light shows. But, on this occasion, I appreciated the gesture. Someone somewhere had anticipated how I and a great many others would be feeling and combined that with a desire to show solidarity with a country coming to terms with yet another horrific attack.
In these unsettling times, those few minutes hearing the French national anthem not only showed respect but promoted a new feeling we all need to get more accustomed to. We are citizens of the world.
More than, the simple act of solidarity illustrated how the Proms can reflect what’s going on around it. In doing so we were reminded that classical music wasn’t a bubble but could, as and when required, respond to unexpected events.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture didn’t sound all that Russian, not tonight. Sakari Oramo conjured up something both chilling and rapturous. It’s unusual for an overture to command such attention – it’s normally the warm-up before the main event.
In comparison, the Elgar felt small and intimate, musically lacking the bold defiance I felt I needed tonight. I suspect my appreciation of the work is constantly spoilt by Jacqueline du Pre’s benchmark recording from the 60s. That said, Sol Gabetta’s performance was transcendent in parts – the third movement in particular, where both soloist and conductor exploited the pianissimos and left us hanging.
The Prokofiev cantata was similarly dramatic. Musically, things don’t hot up until the fourth movement. Sometime after that, I’m sure I heard the title number from Phantom of the Opera, which makes me wonder whether Andrew Lloyd Webber has a soft spot for the Russian composer. The conclusion comes good, however. Bombast and celebration abounded.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra continue playing to great effect under Sakari Oramo. The stars that shone were, undoubtedly, the BBC Symphony Chorus.