The 107th season of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts got off to an elegant start on Friday with Leonard Slatkin, newly appointed chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, playing to his two particular strengths: English and American music. A jam-packed hall complete with TV cameras might have tempted the audience to boisterous behaviour but except for repeated barrages of coughing – where do people think they are? – the punters took the music as seriously as those on stage.
A newly commissioned Fanfare for the 2001 Proms by Colin Matthews – a darkly ominous spatial assault for brass and percussion – reverberated around the hall from the gallery neatly segueing into the uncompleted overture to Paul Bunyan, Britten's feeble attempt at American music-hall, which Matthews orchestrated in 1977. (Britten considered the overture superfluous). The two pieces fitted nicely, Matthews picking up in the Fanfare on the motivic material of the overture and the instrumentation used in his orchestration.
The instrumental star of the evening was the 20-year-old cellist, Guy Johnston. Johnston won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2000 (in spite of a broken string exposed for all to see on television), playing Shostakovich. This time, with TV cameras once again up his nose, Johnston gave an elegiac performance of the Elgar Concerto, an altogether different beast. After this performance, it can safely be said that Johnston has all the equipment to be a great artist. His musical intelligence is obvious: this interpretation spelt intensity and introspection; his long, elegantly shaped phrases beautifully coloured. He takes his time pacing and placing the notes; the playing is clean and honest – no fudge in the tricky spiccato passages; his finely balanced dynamics make real sense of the recitatives and passage work. He is a quiet, undemonstrative player, the energy rightly reserved for the music. Slatkin – similarly undemonstrative – provided a most sympathetic surround with the BBC players.
Vaughan Williams' lushly sensual "Serenade to Music" for 16 individual singers and orchestra, owes not a little in feel to Richard Strauss. RVW in this 1938 work, like certain late Strauss, seems to deny any sign of political turmoil, instead producing an aura of complete tranquillity. Soprano, Sally Matthews, sang with touching purity.
Passion and tranquillity were offered in abundance in the evening's final work: John Adams's massive, minimalist Harmonium. Requiring 275 performers, this work might have been written for the Proms. The combined BBC SO and Chorus gave an awe-inspiringly accurate account, pulsing, shimmering and rippling, under Slatkin's light-touched control. We owe much to the BBC and its patronage – but could the price of drinks at the Albert Hall be addressed?
This Prom will be repeated today at 2pm on BBC Radio 3. Box office: 020-7589 8212. www.bbc.co.uk/promsReuse content