BWW Review: PROM 11: THE SOUND OF A SUMMER, Royal Albert Hall
1969. The year of the moon. But that was far from all; Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, Monty Python's Flying Circus and the Battle of the Bogside were but a snapshot of life in the last year of the sixties - The Beatles' career came to an acrimonious end just as David Bowie's started its ascent to stratospheric heights. Prom 11 commemorated the changes in culture, science and society that occurred 50 years ago, with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the heart of the action.
The evening was hosted by the charismatic Lemn Sissay, with other musical contributions coming from the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble and singers Vanessa Haynes and Tony Momrelle. The programme was as eclectic as the year it was celebrating, beginning with a solo performance of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" from Haynes, followed later by numbers made famous by films of 1969 - such as "Everybody's Talkin'" and the Oscar-winning "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" - as well as classical excerpts from Walton and Bach, plus a range of tracks from popular music.
There was not a dip in the whole concert; it was interesting and engaging from the very first song. For some, this would have been a brief opportunity to relive their youth, whereas for others it was a chance to learn more about that pivotal year, as well as enjoy exemplary performances.
It was heartwarming to see George Harrison's songwriting given greater prominence than Lennon and McCartney for once, with two of his compositions to their one. The orchestral version of "Something" is one of the most beautiful things you'll ever hear; to begin with it was almost unrecognisable, sounding like a classical symphony - a clear example of the mastery Harrison developed in songwriting, and a warning to dismiss popular music at your peril.
The film numbers (whether individual songs or classical soundtracks) were very well chosen, and showed off a broad range of genres - from Westerns and The Italian Job, to James Bond and Battle of Britain. The instrumental pieces were quite eventful, allowing you to conjure up images as you listened; 007's ski chase from On Her Majesty's Secret Service was particularly fun.
Having an animated conductor in Stephen Bell is an added bonus - the enthusiasm he showed for each piece definitely brought a smile to my face. Philip Achille, too, provided a standout moment of his own as he took to the stage to perform the harmonica solo part from John Barry's Midnight Cowboy theme.
In the second half, Will Gregory (one half of Goldfrapp) brought his Moog ensemble in to join forces with the orchestra. This section showed just how well digital and analogue can work together to create something new, interesting. and valid. A nod to Switched-on Bach, the performance of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was revelatory, and the three short excerpts from Gregory's space opera Piccard were absolutely sublime - and a great tribute to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
There was further variety later on in the concert, as Sissay drew attention to the deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago, before Momrelle and Haynes returned to perform "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "I Say a Little Prayer" - hits for Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, respectively.
The evening was finished off aptly with an encore of David Bowie's "Space Oddity"; the original is obviously a classic, and a perfect bit of pop, but this cover definitely did it justice. It was an incredibly emotional experience, as the drama of the story came together with the soulfulness of the singers and the orchestral backing to give it an extra dimension - and of course Bowie's death in 2016 still adds a certain poignancy to the song.
This concert demonstrated that the spirit of Woodstock is very much alive and well - and the perfect example of what the Proms are all about.
Picture credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou