BBC Proms reviews

Prom 58 review – Jon Hopkins’ group sonic meditation

29 August 2023

Jules Buckley helms the BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Symphony Orchestra with a new commission sitting alongside reinterpretations from across the electronica composer’s career.

Jon Hopkins with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jules Buckley, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus

Prom 58: Jon Hopkins with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jules Buckley, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus
(Photo: Mark Allan)

Prom 58 has producer, DJ and composer Jon Hopkins’ name in its title, but this performance is in reality the Jules et Jon show. Across his singular career Hopkins has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to collaboration, from working with stadium botherers Coldplay and ambient godfather Brian Eno, amassing a long CV of production credits and making acclaimed records with Scottish folkster King Creosote. He has also demonstrated a considerable range across his immersive solo work, which is the focus of exploration tonight. With an orchestra and singers to work with for the first time, how would he translate music that was created alone, and which occupies atmospheric space ranging from soothing solo piano ambience to propulsive electronic club beats, into something orchestral? Does the music gain from orchestral augmentation and achieve its stated aim of becoming “a group sonic meditation for 5,000 people”?

To help in the answering, Hopkins has joined forces with conductor Jules Buckley. For many years at the pinnacle of crossover contemporary-classical music, Buckley has reworked club classics for Pete Tong, and brought music by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Pet Shop Boys to the Proms. He is, then, very much the man for the job of fusing ostensibly different musical traditions, knowing well which orchestral buttons to press – aided here by the variously arrayed talents of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Singers and Symphony Chorus. But as Hopkins notes, the set list may come as a surprise for anyone expecting to hear the music he’s best known for: “There’s certainly no attempt to make techno with an orchestra.” Good news there – for really, who needs that? 

As a demonstration of his music’s direction of travel away from clubs and into the pantheon of ‘holy’ minimalism alongside the likes of John Tavener, this sold-out performance begins with a world premiere of a new 15 minute BBC commission called ATHOS, composed by Hopkins and arranged by Buckley. Described in the programme notes as “a psychedelic drone epic for orchestra, choir and piano”, it was inspired by a documentary about monks living in isolation and nature on the eponymous Greek mountain. Beginning with an approximation of hauntingly Greek ecclesiastical choral music, it develops a compulsive beat and textures from piano and orchestra to serve as a calling card for Hopkins’ purposefully slow-building weaving together of sonic threads and voices, before it all collapses back into a twinkly celesta phrase.

“With an orchestra and singers to work with for the first time, how would he translate music that was created alone(?)…”

Jules Buckley conducts Jon Hopkins with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus

Prom 58: Jules Buckley conducts Jon Hopkins with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus
(Photo: Mark Allan)

It is followed by the first of the evening’s reinterpretations. Feel First Life from 2018 album Singularity, brings tentative piano, played by Hopkins, to meet the merest hint of strings, and provides more of a mood than a movement. Gradually the singers join the arrangement, their voices involved not to enunciate words but to provide sounds – think any of the narrative gearshifts in the soundtracks for the Lord Of The Rings films – which gently massage the brain and hush the eyes to close. As with the following The Wider Sun, from 2009’s Insides, this is music to heal to, and accordingly there are few dramatic musical flourishes or unnecessarily baroque arrangements.

The title track of Singularity sees the Royal Albert Hall’s organ powered up to join in the proceedings, though as with the orchestra there’s a sense of restraint, of things never quite being allowed to let rip. We can certainly hear it; but the same can’t be said of some of the instruments on stage, not least a harp placed front stage left alongside Hopkins, which is quite lost to ears across the hall. After an excerpt taken from his most recent album Music For Psychedelic Therapy, a well realised moment is Form By Firelight, in which the woodwind parts substitute for the microtonal electronica of the glitchy original.

Much of this work occupies a similar area of soothing contemplation, of the sort that wouldn’t be out of place soundtracking a candlelit warm bath, with one mildly startling exception. Collider, tonight’s only big banger from Hopkins’ 2011 Mercury Prize-nominated album Immunity, has all the drama in one piece that’s absent elsewhere, with timpani, horns and much else underpinning the soaring choir, ending in a decidedly classical flourish. It is the track that sounds least like its origin material, with Simon Dobson’s arrangement standing stark amongst a set that majors otherwise on subtlety, reflection and quietude. This curiosity hints at the struggle with a set of adaptations that may seek to give an account of Hopkins’ solo career in the whole, rather than focusing on a particular theme, period or mood, and all of it (necessarily) out of its original context; some of it is therefore bound to seem oddly sequenced, or even out of place. Compilation albums often have the same problem.

The set winds down again through the piano-led contemplative minimalism of Abandon Window, very much a yin to Collider’s yang and slow to the point of stopping, before it all drifts pleasantly away. But a long pause before applause testifies to a successfully sonically meditated audience, and an encore is sought; this turns out to be Recovery, in which Hopkins’ textured piano part is joined by guitarist and longtime collaborator Leo Abrahams. He sets about briefly conjuring coruscating post-rock atmospherics on his black guitar, bringing further sonic exploration to a set that’s been full of it, with an extended piano outro tinkling ever quieter to its close.

Music adapted – rather than written – for orchestration works best if the source material and the new instrumentation are in balance, and Buckley and the other arrangers largely succeed in pulling off that tricky task here. For his part, Hopkins’ music has been presented to a Proms audience just a week after his electro guise played in a Hackney park for the Field Day festival. His music, however it may be formed, will take this man anywhere.

• Prom 58 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

buy Jon Hopkins MP3s or CDs
Spotify Jon Hopkins on Spotify

More on Jon Hopkins
Prom 58 review – Jon Hopkins’ group sonic meditation
Jon Hopkins – Music For Psychedelic Therapy
Jon Hopkins – Singularity
Jon Hopkins, Beach House, Belly, Grouper… Weekend Reads
Jon Hopkins @ Brixton Academy, London