BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 1

I’m writing a diary for this year’s BBC Proms season – mixing review and commentary and publishing it on a fairly regular basis. The diary format helps keep the copy concise, limits the time it takes to write, and leaves room for other classical music content on the blog. 

That last point is important. Every start of the Proms season marks the passage of time. And at this point in time I recognise the extent to which  my relationship with the Proms has changed.

A cautious approach

Where I used to approach it with a bumbling appreciation and unbridled joy, now I look on it a little more cautiously. Reasons abound – some of them people. I’d like to explore what that means for me. I’m rather tired of being fearful of saying what I think about the Proms.

The First Night is fast becoming a statement concert – a statement of intent, a vessel for gleeful and often self-satisfied hyperbole. The First Night is the BBC’s summer open-day. It knows it has all eyes on it, so the programme reflects that. Broad implicit messages that amplify the BBC’s public purposes, packaged up this year in a considerably more polished TV and radio broadcast.

Make it about the core content

Starting a concert at 8.15pm seemed utterly bizarre when I looked at it in the programme, until I realised that it was a neat way for TV coverage to avoid the 20 minute interval with an almost-live edited transmission. Unusually for me, I thought the TV version worked better than the infuriating radio coverage which had been scheduled to start nearly 20 minutes before the actual concert began.

Work commitments prevented me listening live (I was in Bedford recording a podcast) so I listened back on iPlayer yesterday. I ended up skipping through nearly all of the two-handed introduction – itself an annoying distraction from the purpose of the event. When the BBC tries to create an event out of a broadcast I get rather irritated. The impact of an event is only discernible after it’s over. Anything else is anticipation and therefore, marketing bollocks. 

Knussen, Vaughan Williams and Holst

Adding Oliver Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks at the beginning of the concert was touching. It also gave a tantalising glimpse of the composer’s style. Vaughan Williams’ Towards an Unknown Region had an unexpectedly restorative effect (some of the harmonic progressions are ravishing) with moments of Brahms and memories of Ivor Gurney in the 2014 season – English romanticism straining to break free from sentimentality. The tenors in the chorus sounded unnecessarily exposed in the radio mix, showing them to be under-resourced and straining to reach the notes in places. Holst’s Planets was note-perfect but lacked any kind of spark throughout.

A blistering creation from Anna Meredith

Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams was the real highlight. There is nothing I haven’t enjoyed by Meredith both as producer or composer. I admire her creativity. She also a down-to-earth kind of poise which is infectious. There’s youthful fascination and unbridled enthusiasm in her writing too. She writes for the audience, but does so in a way that challenges the performers. No easy feat.

The opening movement – Spin – displays her trademark love of rhythm; the second, a canny understanding of what makes cracking choral writing and a shimmering climax. Quirky eccentricity mixed was followed by epic carnage in a tour-de-force performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The final telegram – a plaintive cry transformed into a something altogether more hopeful and anticipatory – concluded what was a blistering musical creation.

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