1969 was, of course, the year the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon, and several of this year’s Proms reflect this event. Culturally, though, 1969 also had its landmark moments: it was the year of Woodstock and the year of the Beatles’ penultimate studio album, Abbey Road, amongst their best loved. Not a few iconic films, and their soundtracks, were released: Midnight Cowboy; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Italian Job, and Wendy Carlos released the first multi-tracked Moog-synthesizer album of ‘classical’ music: Switched-on Bach.
Friday evening’s Prom celebrated all of these and more in a lavishly orchestrated old-style-Radio-2 wash of nostalgia that might have caused muttering from the Proms purists, but which, for its audience, was an evening of delight.
The evening opened quietly with the singer Vanessa Haynes accompanying herself at the piano in a cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic Woodstock. Her voice is silky with an attractive husky quality, but when she cranks up the volume, there’s power and presence and an ability to inhabit the style of the original vocalist. Her summoning of Mitchell was uncanny, and for the final number, Bacharach’s ‘I say a little prayer’ Aretha Franklin was almost in the room. Haynes’ harmony lines in duet with the male singer, Tony Momrelle in Here comes the sun and I heard it through the grapevine were elegantly matched for tone and timbre. Her account of Bacharach’s Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head (the oddly out-of-place song in Butch Cassidy, accompanying Newman, Ross and a bicycle) did not perhaps capture B J Thomas’ original, but it was a nuanced performance nonetheless.
The BBC Concert Orchestra under Stephen Bell were playing their core repertoire, at which they are always superb. The suite of Walton’s never-used score for The Battle of Britain was given all the musical scene-painting it needs, from the urgency at the opening to the warm tones of the trio theme of the march; the trumpet intro to Ski Chase was appropriately menacing, and gave way to some burly work from trombones and tubas for the melody. Singing strings and whooshing harps were not absent either, and worked their magic in the theme from Midnight Cowboy (underlying Philip Achille’s sensitive harmonica playing) and in the accompaniment to Michel Legrand’s rarely-heard What are you doing for the rest of your life? (from The Happy Ending).
There were some excellent arrangements, too: David Arnold’s stylishly crafted instrumental version of George Harrison’s Something (in which the melody began limpidly on the clarinet and moved through the horn to the strings) brought Sibelius to mind. There is, though, something about Beatles’ covers that, with more than 50 years’ hindsight, can occasionally rankle: the ballads lend themselves much more to reinterpretation than do the upbeat numbers, which somehow need the edge of McCartney’s scouse for completeness; and despite excellent delivery, because of this, Momrelle’s Get back wasn’t as forceful as the original.
Momrelle, though delivered some great performances in Everybody’s Talkin’ and On days like these, for which his crooner tones were spot on.
The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble replicated well Wendy Carlos’ synthesizer interpretation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 – which gained from the addition of live strings – but Gregory’s own music (his three movement concert work Journeys into the Sky) was less successful, being largely about texture and rhythm rather than containing any interesting melodic or harmonic material. The other moments of ennui, sadly were provided by the compère, Lemn Sissay, who spent too long explaining 1969 to an audience, most of whom knew it better than he.