Neil Armstrong’s packing for Apollo 11 included a cassette player and a mixtape – Dvořák’s New World Symphony, plus a piece for choir and theremin; he took his own lunar sound effects with him. Fifty years minus a day since Armstrong reached his destination and stepped outside, there was no theremin at the first night of this year’s Proms. But the new work celebrating the anniversary – Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, by the New York-based Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri – created its own lunar soundscape, presented in high definition by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis. A woman conducting music by a woman on the first night, for the first time, feels like progress.
Di Castri’s opening gestures almost seem to evoke a lunar sunrise; between a low bass drone and high, glinting chimes, the music curves up and around to fill the space. The text weaves together Sappho, 19th-century Italian, poetry, and words by Xiaolu Guo referring to ancient Chinese legend and to the recent Chinese mission to explore the Moon’s far side. If the way the women’s voices are used early on perhaps unavoidably recalls Holst’s Planets, the rest of the sound world in this 15-minute work is entirely Di Castri’s own, and it’s fascinatingly detailed, full of shifting, dancing textures, and unexpected sounds – including rushes of wind, or perhaps radio static, conjured by the players rubbing their palms together. It deserves more performances.
Dvořák came next – although, in the spirit of Proms founder Henry Wood, whose 150th birthday falls this year, we heard a work new to the festival, the fairytale tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel. Canellakis coaxed along the love music and drove along its bouncing folk dances.
But the big opening-night statement was Janáček’s colossal Glagolitic Mass, kicking off a festival thread of works Wood introduced to the UK. This mass is drama, not ritual, and it felt like an opera manqué thanks to thrilling singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus, fiery orchestral playing, thundering organ rhapsodics from Peter Holder and soaring vocal solos from a quartet led by soprano Asmik Grigorian and tenor Ladislav Elgr.