At first glance, the 2008 Proms programme may actually seem quite conservative. Unlike last year, there are no brass days, no evenings of Indian music, and certainly no songs from the shows. Indeed, the most radical it seems to get is with a folk day.
But there again, it is surely the quality, and not the quantity, of departures from the norm that matter, and, in this respect, the Proms’ first ever folk day certainly hit the mark. Indeed, 20 July 2008 is also the first time that the Proms has ever hosted a free concert, or held a ceilidh in the arena after the evening Prom. It is a shame, however, that, when deciding to introduce a free Prom, no research went into how it would affect audience behaviour. Despite having ‘sold out’, many seats at Prom 4 remained empty, and numerous people entered late, which was highly distracting for those trying to listen. This was unfortunate as the Prom had a worthwhile point to make in showing how folk music has influenced so many classical pieces. It did this by playing Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite and Grainger’s Green Bushes, preceded by the original folk songs that inspired them. These were sung unaccompanied from the centre of the arena by Bella Hardy, whose stunning voice combined technical mastery of the music with a keen sense of the folk tradition.
In the second half, the Hungarian group, Muzsikas, played music from Kalotaszeg, Gyimes and Moldova, before interspersing the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Bartok’s Romanian Dances with the original tunes. With the London Sinfonietta demonstrating as much ‘informal’ exuberance as Muszsikas did technical precision, this performance was quite breathtaking. Further connections between the classical and folk worlds were brought out through using an opera singer, Monica Bacelli, to perform Berio’s Folk Songs, and having all the participating groups from both genres join together in a world premiere performance of Kathryn Tickell’s Confluence.
Bella Hardy returned in the second Prom as both a vocalist and violinist, accompanied by concertina and harp. If her voice occasionally felt too harsh to blend with the latter instrument, the overall quality of the performance was never in doubt. Hardy particularly brought out folk’s mystical dimensions, especially in Down in Yon Forest in which she sang ‘I love my Lord Jesus’.
The highlight of the set that followed from Martin Simpson was a song he composed about his father, Never Any Good. Speaking about how he could never hold down a job, the subtext was the affection that a son held for his father who, in his own unique way, did fulfil his duty towards his family and fellow man.
The final ‘act’ of the evening was Bellowhead, whose eleven members proved they had bags of talent, great stage presence and a sure command of how to excite an audience. Their opening number, the love story Fakenham Fayre, was pleasing enough, but then when they invited everyone to dance along to their next numbers, I decided to down my critics’ pen altogether and join in the party.
I feel equally unqualified to comment on the ceilidh that followed since by then I was no longer a detached observer of the proceedings, but the overall conclusion at the end of the first ever folk day was clear enough. As the new Proms Director, Roger Wright’s first ‘departure from the norm’ was an unqualified success.