How many people stay on when there is a double bill of Proms? Anyone who came for Tuesday’s early evening concert of popular classics will have had a shock at the late-night event, which featured some of the wackier pieces of the last 60 years, culminating in a new audience-participation work, when everybody had to set their mobile phones to go off at the same time.
That was a flop. But there were highlights along the way, starting earlier with Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance of Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.2. Grosvenor made his Proms debut at the opening night last year, aged 19, and seems set to become a Proms favourite. His playing is small-scale, inconveniently so in this vast arena, but its precision is exceptional. His Saint-Saëns concerto alternated between a distant dream world and outbreaks of sparkling effervescence, and his encore – Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” in the transcription by Godowsky – glided poetically across the keys.
On either side the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under its artistic director, Charles Dutoit, played Delius’s Paris (The Song of a Great City) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 with a well-blended gloss finish topped by a powerful overlay of brass that sounded a bit like one of the big US orchestras. The spontaneity has gone out of Dutoit’s Tchaikovsky, but this was at least a solid and serious performance.
The late-night Prom brought the London Sinfonietta and conductor André de Ridder in music they have made their own. Choosing small avant-garde pieces for this hall is a special art and nothing worked better than Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco, as its pre-recorded tape, blending Winchester Cathedral’s largest bell and a chorister’s voice, resonated around the hall.
There were works by various London Sinfonietta favourites, including Ligeti, Xenakis, Berio and Andriessen (his De snelheid, a battering exploration of velocity, for which the composer himself turned up). But the main event was a performance of John Cage’s now historic 4.33, in which conductor and musicians famously stay silent for four minutes and 33 seconds. Cage’s whole point was to show that there is no such thing as silence, but here there was little to be heard other than the hum of air conditioning. Perhaps he underestimated the concentration of a Prom audience?