BWW Review: PROM 50: ORCHESTRE DE PARIS, Royal Albert Hall
The Royal Albert Hall as a venue always lends a special feel to a performance and the acoustics allow the audience to feel fully enveloped by the sound, adding depth and richness throughout. It was particularly effective in the cinematic Babylon Suite.
Daniel Harding was a joy to watch as a conductor, breathing the music - you could literally hear him breathing in the sound and exhaling as the melodies billowed from the orchestra. He conducted with his whole body, leaning into the violins to draw them into the sound, and throwing control of the pieces to the percussion as required.
The intensity on his face at the end of each section of the concert showed him really living the moment. But, as required, he would use subtle gestures to offer the melody up to any soloists. As he came out for the many curtain calls - as the ovation went on for a long time at the end - his rapport with members of the orchestra became particularly evident, hugging the soloists warmly as they shared the applause.
The three contrasting pieces worked brilliantly together, creating a rich and varied programme for the evening. They were not played in chronological order, starting with the second oldest, then newest and oldest, to throw the difference in the music into sharper focus.
The staccato and syncopated sections of the Schumann were where the orchestra as a whole came into their own. You could see each musician leaning into the music, signalling which segments they most enjoyed. They thrived on the playfulness of each piece.
But the grand build through the grand legato melodies lifted the piece and carried the story forwards. The love which characterises Schumann's only opera was conveyed through the beauty of these soaring sections with the edge of the betrayal, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
The standout section of the programme was the London premiere of the Babylon Suite. Composed in 2014, the dissonant glissandos in particular created a futuristic feel. The work is visceral in the edgy sounds made by the vast range of instruments brought on stage for the benefit of Widmann's work, with those instruments all being made to sound like each other in innovative ways.
They were also played unexpectedly - blowing on the instruments rather than into them to create chuffing noises, using the wood of bows against music stands and instruments, or pressing the keys of an oboe as new forms of percussion...
The true percussion section was particularly impressive, with five musicians spread out across the whole back of the stage with a huge array of instruments, some used only once, like the rain maker. It kept the quality of the sound ever-changing throughout.
A lot of excitement came from the way the melody was shared between the instruments. Just as the ear and the eyes had worked out where the sound was coming from, someone else would have taken control of the piece.
The creativity of the Suite, along with its newness and originality, made it great fun to listen to. It was very funny in places with so many quirks and subtly brilliant touches. However, there were so many gimmicks and twists and turns, it made the audience very demanding. As soon as it carried on in one vein for any length of time, they tired quickly and grew a little restless.
The Beethoven was wonderfully familiar after this. From the opening notes, it was instantly recognisable and therefore comforting after the energy and concentration required by Widmann's exciting composition.
The woodwind really came into their own here, with the strings owning the Schumann and the Babylon Suite giving everyone a moment to shine. The bassoon in particular stood out throughout the Symphony, really relishing the chance to control the melody.
Sadly, the horns were a little disappointing when they had their few bars of prominence, not quite matching the effervescent sound the other sections achieved.
The Beethoven was beautiful, showcasing the virtuosity of the orchestra while letting the music speak for itself. It seemed very simple and stripped back in comparison to the preceding Suite.
Overall, the performance was polished, and the programme well thought out. The one area in which it fell down, common to all three pieces, was a little too much intensity. While all music benefits from a rise and fall, and crescendos throughout, they were slightly overused.
Each time one of these builds was employed, it was stretched over too long a section of the music and the intensity then held for rather too long. It became tiring to listen to at points and took away slightly from the empathic endings of each work.
As Beethoven himself said, "all tone-painting in music loses its value if pushed too far". This is a quote taken from the programme and seems sadly apt in a way other than how it was intended. Although it certainly can be applied to highlight the subtlety of this interpretation of Beethoven's Symphony.
Regarding the Proms experience as a whole, it is much more accessible than it is perhaps popularly perceived. The Albert Hall was by no means sold out, and day tickets are on offer from £6, which is often cheaper than a cinema ticket.
The top price tickets from Prom 50 were no more than for any West End show. The dress code is listed as smart-casual, but the arena was filled with people in shorts and T-shirts who could have been enjoying the concert as part of a day out in the park. There was a smattering of evening dresses and suits for those who wanted to make a night of it too.
As the Proms are presented by the BBC, they are all broadcast live on the radio and can be enjoyed by anyone. They are then made available online afterwards so anyone at the concert can relive their experience.
The hall itself is decked out with posters, information and quotes about the Proms series. As David Attenborough says in the poster print of him, "there is a great communal feeling which is cemented by the Prommers".
There are clearly first-timers, Proms veterans and everything in between in the audience. But everyone is buying into the Proms experience. It's clear that everybody there is ready to embrace the music and the magic that surrounds the festival.
Prom 50: Orchestre de Paris was performed on the 26 August, with the BBC Proms running until 14 September
Photo Credit: Charlotte Downes