Now in its second year, the Bristol Proms music festival is competing in an increasingly crowded summer market. All over the country, it seems, ‘promenade’ concerts are sprouting up in imitation of the London-based BBC Proms. In order to get noticed, the South-West’s week-long festival has pledged itself to presenting classical music in inventive and accessible ways. Judging from the opening day, organisers seem largely to have succeeded.
The tone was set with a relaxed early afternoon interview and song recital from Bryn Terfel. In an affectingly candid interview with John Suchet, Terfel recounted the struggles he had encountered in achieving a musical education from humble beginnings, followed by successes and disappointments on his way to the international operatic stage. The musical interludes traced these stages in his life, and also marked out some of the music that has become synonymous with his career. Most impressive were an expressively sung string of Welsh and English songs, and Wotan’s final entry into Valhalla from Wagner’s Das Rhinegold, with Terfel expertly accompanied by young pianist David Doidge.
While Bristol showed it was able to get out the big guns with Terfel, it also managed to capture a rising star with Lisa Batiashvili. The Georgian-born violinist is one of an emerging generation of superb soloists from the former Soviet Union. Her youth, energy and sheer sense of enjoyment made her the poster girl for the festival, which, according to artistic director Tom Morris, seeks to unshackle music from concert hall conventions. Thus, impromptu clapping, photos and drinks are allowed, while camera projections onto a stage screen update the traditional surroundings of Bristol’s elegant eighteenth century Old Vic theatre.
These innovations, though, did not distract a well-behaved audience from the old-fashioned virtuosity of Batiashvilli’s playing. As with Terfel, the repertoire chosen had a distinctly personal touch, starting off with a shimmering rendition of JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major (BWV 1042), a work which Batiashvilli first played in public aged just ten. That personal approach was enhanced with another pair of Bach works – the Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor (BWV 1060) and a violin and oboe d’amore transcription of ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion – for which Batiashvilli shared the stage with her husband, François Leleux. Accompanied by a small orchestra of strings and harpsichord continuo, the pair exhibited real warmth and joy in their playing, although this spilled over in what should have been a more contemplative slow movement in the concerto. An arrangement of the ‘Spring’ movement from Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires once again saw Batiashvilli’s personality and skill bounce forward in a gutsy performance that made the hour-long concert seem all too short.
Before and after this headline concert the Bristol Proms organisers fitted in two Bach-themed shows from either end of the performance spectrum. In the first, ‘Bach in the Dark’, regional a cappella group The Erebus Ensemble performed sacred works by JS Bach and Renaissance and medieval composers in the Old Vic Studio. The concept may have appeared gimmicky, but the opportunity to hear the music in almost total darkness really did reveal the almost physical textures of the polyphonic writing. The Erebus Ensemble – a group of very young singers – demonstrated superb vocal control and unity over a demanding repertoire in an increasingly hot, tight space.
In the final, late night, show of the day, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was the main work in a wild, spooky and thrilling version for synthesisers and electronic woodwind by Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble. Bach’s works do lend themselves well to this kind of treatment, possibly due to the mathematical configurations of his music, and the audience (by now accepting the invitation to bring in drinks and to clap and cheer at will) – clearly enjoyed themselves. The Bristol Proms 2014 will be a hard act to follow, but one suspects that the organisers of next year’s event already have a few surprises up their sleeves.