Proms 2018 review – opening night dutifully honours musical greats

Royal Albert Hall, London
Centenary of the end of the first world war dominates first concert

The 80-plus concerts that make up the 2018 season of BBC Proms dutifully honour all this year’s important musical anniversaries – the centenaries of the birth of Leonard Bernstein and the deaths of Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger and Hubert Parry among them. But it is acknowledgements of a non-musical centenary, the end of the first world war in November 1918, that run right through the two-month season and they also dominated the opening concert, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Sakari Oramo.

Conventional Proms fare – Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region and Gustav Holst’s The Planets, in typically unsentimental, direct Oramo performances – made up the first half of the published all-British programme, while the second was given over to the premiere of a piece commissioned as part of the armistice theme, Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams.

But the concert actually began with another memorial, to Oliver Knussen, who died on Sunday at the age 66; his association with the BBCSO, as composer and conductor, stretched back almost 40 years. The five-minute concert opener, Flourish with Fireworks, made the perfect tribute, crammed with the busy detail and ravishing orchestral textures that typified Knussen’s exquisitely crafted music.

Lasting around 25 minutes, Meredith’s Five Telegrams is a son et lumière, combining mostly abstract video images, created by 59 Productions and projected around the Albert Hall, with a score that calls for a chorus (the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, who had also supplied the wordless female voices for the closing movement of The Planets), extra brass and percussion groups (the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble) arrayed around the auditorium, as well as the Planets-sized forces of the BBCSO itself.

But Meredith uses these considerable forces with great restraint and economy, in what is an exploration of the ways of communication during the first world war, and how they could be controlled and manipulated. Each of the five short movements deals with a different element – fake news and propaganda, censorship, redaction and codes, to the rather hesitant unbelieving way in which news of the final armistice was conveyed back to families and friends.

The chorus is only used extensively in the second movement, when it sings the bland, formulaic phrases that troops at the front were allowed to use on their postcards back home, and really the visuals add little to it all, except a frisson to some of the climaxes. The lingering images come from Meredith’s music – the clashing, grinding riffs, and occasional moments of tender intimacy; shorn of cosmetics, it’s strong enough to stand on its own.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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