It’s a phrase we’ll hopefully hear a lot more of in the coming weeks and months: “it’s good to be back”. Cliché, perhaps: but the thought filled me like a billowing sail when the Royal Albert Hall loomed into view for my first live Prom of the season.
There isn’t another classical music experience quite like this – at least, not in my experience. Even in its heroically-mounted, Covid-battered form, the enterprise is utterly gargantuan: consider the co-ordination of multiple soloists, choirs and orchestras across so many weeks, involving radio and TV broadcasts with supporting programming; from the premieres commissioned from new talent to the ongoing outreach to new audiences.
Heading towards this most distinctive of venues – the world’s largest steamer, as anyone who’s been in there on a July evening can confirm – always reminds me anew of this achievement, and how I could always take it for granted that even though I might not be there in person, there would be a top-flight live concert on BBC Radio 3 more or less every evening during the summer months.
In this slightly surreal ‘mask on / mask off / come here, you / KEEP AWAY FROM ME’ phase of Covid measures, I suspect many locations – theatres, concert halls, stadiums, restaurants – will go through their own version of ‘uncanny valley’ syndrome. (This is a name given to the uneasy feeling one can get when seeing a robot face, for example: it’s nearly a perfect replica of a human but not quite, disturbing the onlooker.) I briefly wondered if this might be like a Prom simulation, with the image buffering. Less bustle, roped-off corridors, fewer people, distanced music stands onstage, more gaps – especially in the arena, and a near-empty circle. (A frustrating outcome of the ever-changing guidelines impacting the booking system.)
Fortunately, nothing was going to stop this looking, feeling or sounding like a Prom. I sought and found all the reassuring sights and sounds. The keenest Prommers leaning on the front barrier as if they were at Brixton Academy: tick. The bust of festival founder Henry Wood in his usual imperious position at the back of the stage: tick. A handsome programme booklet, still only a fiver: tick. The Radio 3 box that looks for all the world like some kind of dimly-lit cabinet-war-room bunker: tick. The usual >CRASH< before the gig of someone in or near the gallery dropping an anvil or some similar object to the floor: tick. Even, on a personal note, our good friend and Proms companion David already stationed at a leaning post ahead of our arrival, nursing his yearly summer downfall, a Pimms. Tick (with a flourish).
And the music could not have given us a more resounding welcome. This was a precise, tightly-programmed evening promising maximum joy and maximum interest. On booking, I was naturally drawn by the soloists, but also intrigued by the concert’s ‘hook’ – the thematic link between the well-loved Pergolesi setting and the Stravinsky ballet suite it apparently inspired.
I consider myself an agnostic – not because I have no inclination to believe in anything: it’s more that neither religion nor atheism answers all my questions. So I often find myself responding in two ways to sacred music, sometimes at the same time. For its duration, it can somehow fill that ‘spirituality gap’, channelling the devotion of the composer and convincing me of its divine source; on the other hand, it can be just as intriguing to switch one’s spiritual response off, and listen out for what still makes a sacred piece a modern-day ‘entertainment’, sound aiming only to please.
I felt this performance of the ‘Stabat mater’ offered ample nourishment for both responses. After all – this was a gig, not a service. As Martyn Brabbins (stepping in to conduct at short notice) fired up the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it was easy to just drink it in: how the piece as an entity seems to just generate melody, harmony and rhythm, an almost ruthless crowd-pleaser. And yet (flipping the switch to ‘spiritual’), this poor man in his twenties, waiting to die – where did Pergolesi find the energy, the impulse for this perfectly-expressed, compact statement? (I was fascinated to read afterwards, in Lindsay Kemp’s programme notes, that contemporary detractors felt the tone in parts was too much like comic opera, Pergolesi’s other speciality.)
One never quite knows how the Hall’s acoustics will behave, but from my seat I thought the BBC SSO perfectly caught the balance between reverent restraint and rhythmic propulsion. And out front the two soloists, soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Tim Mead, gave committed, commanding performances; both voices conjuring sweetness and strength, and blending like a dream.
After the interval, the ranks of the orchestra swelled in preparation for ‘Pulcinella’, Stravinsky’s ‘ballet suite with songs’. Time to let our collective hair down. Sampson returned for this half (rocking the interval costume change to the extent that the Hall lighting switched from a sober blue to a warm pink in sync with her dress choices), this time with tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass-baritone Simon Shibambu. The orchestra’s ranks now swelled to include wind and brass, who I imagine might have spent the first half backstage doing circuits and downing vitamins or Red Bull, such was the brio they brought to their performances.
This was audibly exciting dance music, with a wide variety of tempo – but many sections careered cheerfully up in the ‘Allegro’ area. With the suite clocking in at almost the exact running time as the ‘Stabat mater’, it is natural to imagine Stravinsky satirising the original with his own secular version – a series of short ‘miniatures’ making a complete whole, with a solo voice part included on several of the sections. However, the voices are not ‘characters’ – they are unnamed, actually more chorus-like. Their songs are concerned with more earthly devotions, giving each soloist more room to shine: Hulett’s ‘Presto’, so fast an indignant tirade that it sounded near-impossible just to survive it; Shibambu making a mark with his anguished ballad centrepiece, and Sampson proving as versatile as ever – lovelorn at the start but a knowing coquette by the close.
(Again, I later learn from Malcolm Hayes in the programme notes that the technical connections with Pergolesi run deeper – or they were meant to. Stravinsky based his pieces on unpublished works thought to be by Pergolesi, but which mostly turned out to be by others. However, Stravinsky fully intended his ‘inversion’ approach, designed to let the dancers convey the plot while the singers made comment.)
Something of an ideal Prom then: a thoughtful, satisfying programme, performed with grace, charm and power – seasoned with the discovery of new music and enhanced knowledge.
It’s good to be back.
Remember that all the Proms are broadcast on BBC Radio 3, then available for 30 days afterwards. At the time of writing, you can listen to this particular concert here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000yg39