First Night of the Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London – review

They’re off! If a BBC Proms season of 58 consecutive nights sounds like a marathon, Friday’s opening concert was the pentathlon, testing musical athletes in a variety of disciplines and resulting in performances almost worthy of gold. First came a gentle warm-up in the shape of Harmony, Julian Anderson’s choral curtain-raiser. Then came that trickiest of orchestral tightrope tests, the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. This year’s other centenary composer, Lutoslawski, was celebrated with his Variations on a Theme of Paganini, a racy counterpart to the audience-pleasing Paganini Rhapsody by Rachmaninov that preceded it – both of them showpieces requiring gymnastic agility from the piano soloist. The fifth work, after the interval, was the one requiring most stamina – Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, heralding the 2013 Proms’ focus on Britten’s British contemporaries.

In six years as Proms supremo, Roger Wright has not always found the right balance for the opening night, but he came pretty close here – against expectations. You could argue that a single blockbuster by an anniversary composer – Britten’s War Requiem or the Verdi Requiem – might have made a bigger splash, but Britten’s paean to pacifism surely belongs to next year’s first world war centennial, and with no fewer than seven Wagner operas lined up in quick succession, this summer’s Proms already have a surfeit of big statements.

Wright’s opening throw sought to demonstrate the Proms’ range in a single evening, celebrating diverse strands of musical inspiration and showcasing the extraordinary pool of talent – orchestral, choral, soloistic – on which the BBC can draw. And yes, he may be diversifying the Proms into rock and gospel, but classical is still king, generating a predominantly middle-aged, middle-class audience that wants to be stretched.

You can’t say there’s anything elitist about an event that sells out the Royal Albert Hall (capacity 6,000, including 1,300 standing places at £5 a head), when composers such as Anderson and Lutoslawski head the bill. Friday’s first-nighters put concentration before jubilation. The proverbial pin could have dropped in the quiet closing pages of the Vaughan Williams symphony, and even after a long, hot evening, all 6,000 of us would have heard it.

The evening had begun on a similarly hushed tone. Commissioned by the BBC to write a short season-opener, Anderson (born 1967) might have been expected to uncork the fizz, and deserves credit for not doing so. Harmony is the opposite of glib. It takes the form of a choral meditation on 19th-century writer Richard Jefferies’ out-of-body moment when he felt he had entered eternity (“The clock may make time for itself; there is none for me”). Proving that less really can mean more, Anderson’s pristine musical poem is over almost as soon as it has begun – but not before eliciting mystic waves from the sopranos, a flurry of dark rumblings in characteristically imaginative orchestration and a succession of quasi-minimalist syncopations. Harmony will surely travel.

Like a sorcerer bewitching his audience, pianist Stephen Hough dazzled in both of the Paganini-inspired showpieces, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new principal conductor, Sakari Oramo, showed a similar mastery of the Britten Interludes, eliciting the exact, sensitive entries this music demands but rarely receives. His Vaughan Williams was also impressive – not least for the way he coaxed and contoured the Proms’ voluminous new Youth Choir and BBC Symphony Chorus, with Sally Matthews and Roderick Williams as radiant soloists.

Oramo’s tenure is off to a flying start – just like the 2013 Proms.

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