Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 3: BBC NOW / Søndergård @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 July 2015

Thomas Søndergård(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Thomas Søndergård
(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Ten Pieces  is an ambitious BBC led initiative to open up the world of classical music to primary school aged children across the UK. The programme was initially launched in the autumn of 2014 with a film that combined visually striking footage of the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales playing the specially selected ten pieces of music whilst children’s television personalities provided brief synopses of each piece and placed them into child-friendly contexts. The logical next step was to offer a similar experience in a live environment and this was to come in the opening weekend of the 2015 BBC Proms season where the same orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård would play the ten pieces in two sold-out shows.

What becomes obvious early on is that, appropriately, this won’t be a concert that follows traditional lines. Each piece is introduced by CBBC presenters Barney Harwood and Dick & Dom who provide a theatrical (and in the latter’s case an occasionally mischievous) presence for the show. Other characters also appear both on stage and in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall. Importantly, each piece is cast as a short musical story, helping to ensure that the attention span of the younger members of the audience is maintained.

The music begins with Mars by Gustav Holst. The stage turns a menacing shade of red as the sense of orchestral attack builds. Strings are propelled forwards, brass surges upwards, percussion thunders down. It’s exactly the opening that was needed, capturing young minds and showing the power of which classical music is capable. Its dominance arguably looms over the rest of the programme. It is followed by the perennially exhilarating first movement to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It may be the first time the iconic strokes are met inside the Royal Albert Hall with members of the audience singing along . This highlights one of the most memorable things about the show – the variety of responses to the music. Physical reactions like this may be the most common but beforehand a mother and son are overheard impressively discussing the time signature of Mars (they eventually correctly settle on 5/4).

The modern vitality of Short Ride In A Fast Machine by John Adams gives way to the dramatic vistas and sweeping waves of the Storm Interlude from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Calm is restored by Handel’s Zadok The Priest which brings the first half of the show to an end. The inclusion of the Ten Pieces Children’s Choir ensures it carries extra poignancy, all shafts of light and exultant purity.

Four short pieces created by children from schools across the UK are also performed on stage, ranging from traditional strings-based compositions to energetic workouts on improvised instruments. Other artistic responses from children are shown on the large screens above the orchestra which help reinforce the wider scale and worth of the scheme.

The second half begins in markedly different fashion with Connect It, a ‘body percussion’ piece by Anna Meredith which is performed by the Trinity Laban Conservatoire Of Music & Dance Ensemble. It’s fresh and dynamic and carries the democratic message that anyone can make music. Indeed, the audience are engaged to recreate sections of the piece using hand rubs, finger clicks, knee-slaps, hand claps and vocal exclamations. Mussorgsky’s A Night On The Bare Mountain (complete with flying witches on stage) and the third movement of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 soon re-establish a traditional classical sound, the ominous undercurrents of the former contrasting with the composed elegance of the latter.

The rampant, almost unhinged intensification of In The Hall Of The Mountain King from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt  (complete with a troll marauding through the venue) is followed by the comparative nuance and sheer majesty of the final scene from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. It’s an inspired, spine-tingling  choice to close the concert and the entrance of a large red puppet bird into the hall provides a stunning visual accompaniment.

It’s hard to see the concert as anything but an unqualified success. Our five year old companion hummed along to Mozart, got out of his seat to dance to Grieg and was firmly stuck to it whilst being wowed by the power of Holst and Stravinsky. The announcement of Ten Pieces Secondary, a similar programme beginning later in the year aimed at secondary school aged children, suggests there’s still plenty of ground to be covered but in the meantime these two concerts showed the considerable impact the initiative has already achieved.

Full details of upcoming BBC Proms can be found here: bbc.co.uk/proms

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