Heroism and reflection were the two qualities that made conductor Sakari Oramo choose Beethoven’s Eroica symphony for this first of the fortnight of live Proms concerts. In the context of the pandemic, the symbolism of his choice spoke for itself, but, while there were many reasons why this should be a significant occasion, it was the nature of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing of the epic work that spoke volumes. Listening on Radio 3, the clarity, the lyricism and the absence of bombast were revealing.
Oramo, saying heroically little in the face of a lot of talk, suggested that he would treat the empty hall as a recording studio: the result achieved was beautifully balanced and will merit frequent repetition. Watching the television version later was less satisfying in terms of the sound, but it did underline the challenge for the BBCSO, just 40 in number, sitting one to a desk, 2.5 metres apart. Yet, thanks to the essential integrity of Oramo’s interpretation, the reduction in forces brought a gain in intensity of focus. Details of Beethoven’s rhythm and scoring seemed to emerge afresh, dramatic frissons from the timpani in particular, and in the slow movement it was the radiance of the major mode sections, rather than funereal solemnity, that felt emotional.
Hannah Kendall’s Tuxedo: Vasco de Gama, had been commissioned to open the programme. Reflecting on globalisation and multiculturalism, she was inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s screen print Tuxedo (1982-83), with its reference to the 16th-century Portuguese explorer. (Kendall retains Basquiat’s misspelling.) The piece briefly mirrored some of the urgency of his visual gestures before establishing a slower, more expressive vein and creating tensions out of these facets. In aural gestures of her own, Kendall uses harmonicas and, at a key point, lowered the dynamic suddenly so as to have a tinkling musical box play the spiritual Wade in the Water. Seeing the turning mechanism allowed this to work better on television than on radio.
Eric Whitacre’s motet Sleep, sung by the BBC Singers, and Aaron Copland’s Quiet City were included for their resonance with the Covid experience, and both were performed with sensitivity and commitment. But these three works made for a slightly awkward sequence, so it was the live experience of the Beethoven that made all the difference and spelled hope.
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