It felt like old times at the opening night of the BBC Proms on Friday. As the temperature inside the Royal Albert Hall rose higher and higher on the hottest day of the year so far, a handful of Promenaders succumbed to the heat, fainting with a loud ker-boom on to the floor of the arena, as they used to before the air conditioning was installed.
The 2014-15 season has caught the BBC Proms in transition. Roger Wright, director of the Proms since 2007, is leaving to take up the post of chief executive at Aldeburgh Music. With his last day in the job coinciding with the opening night of the season, it was inevitable that there should be as much looking back as looking forward – though, ironically, Wright had planned what turned out to be his final Proms season very much with the future in mind.
The overarching theme is the ever greater reach of classical music. Orchestras are visiting from countries across the globe, including China, Greece, Iceland, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea and Turkey, many of them previously unrepresented in Proms history. The message is clear: as western music puts down new roots, so the Proms wants to embrace those parts of the world where the audiences (and performers) of the future are growing up.
Appropriately, the opening weekend’s concerts looked both to the past and the future. Andrew Davis, the long-serving chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra through the 1990s, is 70 this year. Invited to conduct the first night of the season, he chose Elgar’s The Kingdom, evidently a favourite work, as he had led an eloquent performance of it back in 1999 – remarkably the first time the oratorio had ever been heard complete at the Proms.
Davis’s Elgar was never going to deliver a crude, tub-thumping start to this year’s event. Although it has its grandiloquent passages, The Kingdom is mostly slow, imbued with the deep conviction of religious faith, and disappointingly short of the drama that courses through his most popular oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius. This is Elgar at his least tuneful, most sober (the word “turgid” was heard several times on the way out).
In Davis’s hands, though, there was nothing turgid about the performance. His quiet, cool dignity, with its refusal to overstate the case, was like assigning an expertly briefed advocate in a case of law, and Davis was rewarded with scrupulously balanced support from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the combined forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and BBC Symphony Chorus. The solo quartet – soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, tenor Andrew Staples and bass-baritone Christopher Purves – was no less well blended, though Purves seemed to be suffering from the stifling mugginess on stage. If this opening night felt less compelling than it had promised, it was probably because the audience’s concentration was simply melting away in the heat.
On Saturday, the heavens smiled. The temperature dropped and the China Philharmonic Orchestra had picked a sure-fire programme. This young orchestra – only 14 years old, but already playing with its own distinctive character – was making its Proms debut, and even if the Chinese and British ambassadors had sat down over the negotiating table, they could not have devised a balance of pieces that was politically more even-handed.
The Prom opened with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, tripping along lightly on its marching feet. Of the evening’s two soloists, one was Chinese, the other British. Haochen Zhang brought lithe energy, crystal clarity and (once past the crunching wrong notes of the opening flourish) impressive precision to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. British trumpeter Alison Balsom was then the soloist in a new Chinese work, Qigang Chen’s Joie éternelle, a BBC co-commission receiving its first UK performance – an evocative mood piece, as much French in its subtle impressionism as Chinese, and quite a test for Balsom’s nimble fingers.
Long Yu, the orchestra’s artistic director, has built a responsive team of players. They offered two Russian showpieces, Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and both were played with a fresh, light touch, if not the colour and drive of a top virtuoso team. For encores, they picked a bizarre Chinese and British mixture: first, a lyrical Chinese bonbon, then an extraordinary set of variations on “God Save the Queen”, offered as “a gift” by some of the young players in the orchestra. Half the audience leapt to their feet when they heard the opening bars. Obviously the Chinese also like to bring to the Proms a sense of humour.