Given how far in advance concert schedules get fixed, it’s good to know that things can sometimes happen on the spur of the moment – as they did when the new Proms season at the Albert Hall began with an unscheduled item: Fireworks with Flourish by the composer Oliver Knussen, who had died just a couple of
Knussen wasn’t, I suppose, a household name, but he was a significant figure in the British music world. He had burst on the scene as a 15-year-old, conducting the LSO in his own first symphony, and earned universal respect even though he developed problems in completing scores on time – or at all. As a result, his output wasn’t vast, but it was valued. And at 66 he died too soon.
In fact, his short orchestral fireworks fitted comfortably into an opening night devoted to British music of celestial spectacle – starting with Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, a mystical account of death that you might call a response to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius from the perspective of a “Christian agnostic” (as VW described himself).
After that came Holst’s The Planets suite, marking the centenary of its premiere in 1918 and reminding the audience what a groundbreaking score it was: a piece that bears comparison with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for shock value in the relentless 5/4 beat of the opening number, “Mars”.
And lastly came a new work by a composer of our own time, Anna Meredith, based on communications from the trenches in World War I and more memorable for the impressive digital light show playing alongside it than for the music itself (which had impact but in a brutal way). For all of this the BBC Symphony Orchestra was on good form under Sakari Oramo, a conductor who always looks like a cheerful policeman on traffic duty, but keeps things moving and delivers the goods.
Less impressive was an event that celebrated 40 years of the BBC Young Musician competition. With a contrived programme of short items designed to showcase almost every winner there’s ever been, and held together (limply) by an ever-smiling onstage “hostess” who addressed the audience as though we were four-year-olds in playschool, it was excruciating.
Yes, it was good to catch up with how past winners of the competition have fared over the years, many of them turning into major artists. But this wasn’t a smart way to do it, with a conveyor belt of musical morsels poorly chosen and largely vacuous. When the BBC goes into self-congratulation mode its standards usually collapse, and this was a depressing instance.