Musical Notes: First Night of the Proms 2010

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Prom 1: Mahler Symphony No. 8

Date: Friday, 16 July, 2010 Time: 20.00 BST

Location: Royal Albert Hall, London

Work(s): Mahler Symphony No.8 in E flat

Orchestra: BBC Symphony Orchestra; conductor Jiri Belohlavek

The 116th season of BBC Promenade Concerts kicked off last night (Friday) with a performance of Gustav Mahler's monumental Eighth Symphony, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand. Few venues are able to stage this symphony and do full justice to it, but the Royal Albert Hall is one of those that can. It requires a *very* large orchestra, eight vocal soloists, two adult mixed choruses and a children's chorus. Add to these an organist, and, of course, a suitable organ upon which to play1. In the case of the Royal Albert Hall (RAH), the very fine and recently restored Willis organ serves the need perfectly.

The inclusion of the Mahler 8 at the BBC Proms this year is very important as it coincides quite closely with the 100th anniversary of this symphony's first performance on 12 September, 1910. Furthermore, this year is also the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth on 7 July, 1860. First heard at the Proms during the 1964 season, this was its eighth performance, the last being that by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2002.

Just a few days before this concert, the Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff had to withdraw due to illness; he was replaced by Stefan Vinke from Germany. The other soloists were Mardi Byers, Twyla Robinson and Malin Christensson (sopranos), Stephanie Blythe and Kelley O'Connor (mezzo-sopranos), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone) and Tomasz Konieczny (bass). The choirs were the Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Crouch End Festival Chorus. A brief word here about the last named. In contrast to the professional choirs, this is a dedicated group of amateurs from North London, including a doctor, a teacher, a sound engineer, a wine company executive and a clergywoman.

Needless to say, the hall was filled to capacity (approx. 5,500 people) and even most of the tier boxes were occupied. My seat was right at the top of the hall, immediately below the galley that runs around beneath the huge elliptical dome of the RAH. At this level, some 100 feet (30m) or so above the arena, one is almost up with the mushroom domes – acoustic diffusers, installed in 1968-9 to substantially eliminate the (in)famous echo2. Is it too fanciful to suggest that from here I had an angel's-eye view? Just two bays of the gallery round from my right ear is where the off-stage band of brass instruments was located.

The boy choristers, resplendent in their scarlet robes, were lined up in a row behind the orchestra, with the two mixed choirs packed into the stalls either side of the organ loft. Sat unobtrusively with the right-hand choir for most of the performance was the soprano who sang the small, but crucial rôle of the Mater Gloriosa in the latter pages of Part II of the symphony.

An expectant hush settled over audience and performers alike as the conductor looked around checking that everyone was ready, before signalling to the organist to play the thunderous E flat chord that launches this work, followed a bar later by the combined voices of the choirs with the opening stanza of the Latin hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus. The Prom season was under way.

I have had occasion to be critical of some of Belohlavek's previous performances of Mahler symphonies, but last night there was little to gripe about, although I do wish he had properly observed Mahler's instruction to insert a brief pause (Ger: Luftpause) between the first and second syllables of Ac-cende in the development section of Part I. It was there, but only just.

Given the hundreds of musicians behind them, it is no mean feat for the four female and three male soloists to make their voices heard around the Royal Albert Hall without the aid of amplification (heaven forbid that *that* is ever introduced), but even from my lofty seat they were clearly audible.

Suffice it to say that this performance was a spectacular start to the 2010 Proms season and richly deserved the sustained applause it received at the end.

By the time you read this, Stephen Fry will have presented Saturday night's Prom performance of Richard Wagner's great music-drama, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. To quote from Stephen's Twitter posting: 'Morning, world. I've a long day ahead'. Mine says: 'Hurrah music lovers, we have a long Prom season ahead'.

I shall be back with further Prom reports in future issues of The Post. Till then, happy listening.

Almost on the eve of the Prom season, a shadow was cast by news of the death from cancer of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. Sir Charles, who would have been 85 later this year, was to have conducted the BBC Philharmonic in the Proms Viennese Night, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a late night Prom of Dvorak and Mozart Serenades. Although American-born, Sir Charles was Australian through and through, and in 1973 conducted the first public concert held at the then newly-completed Sydney Opera House. His name was synonymous with English National Opera, formerly known as Sadler's Wells Opera. He was also a great champion of the music of the Czech composer Leos Janacek.

Sir Charles gave the Proms première of many works, including Manuel de Falla's Love, the Magician in 1961, Henry Purcell's Indian Queen in 1965, (amazingly) the Bach Mass in B minor in 1966, and Benjamin Britten's Gloriana in 1973. In 1980, he became the first in what is now a list of non-British conductors to take charge of proceedings at the Last Night of the Proms. He will be sadly missed.

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1Sometimes performances are given in venues without an organ; the part then has to be played at a different venue and the soundtrack imported into the performance hall.2It was once wryly observed that the RAH was the only place an English composer could hear his work played twice.

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