Bristol Proms: the Fitzhardinge Consort

Jeremy Pound heads to Bristol Old Vic for the opening night of the new Bristol Proms

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This has been a good summer to live and work in Bristol. With the prolonged spell of hot weather getting people outside and heading en masse for a drink or two in the harbourside and beyond, there’s also been the fun of 80 variously decorated statues of Gromit (of ‘Wallace and…’ fame) appearing at locations around the city – ‘Gromit hunting’ has proved an instant hit.

And now we have the Bristol Proms too. Taking place in the recently restored Old Vic theatre (complete with its own Gromit!), this new festival is a week-long event that seeks to present classical music concerts in imaginative and inspiring new ways, not least by bringing them firmly into the digital age. It’s supported to the hilt by Max Hole, CEO of Universal Music, whose artists – such as violinists Nicola Benedetti and Daniel Hope and pianist Jan Lisiecki – make up the core of the programme.

In an impressive media campaign, Hole has expressed his determination to rid classical music of what he perceives at its stuffy image, and that message was repeated loud and clearly – and then loud and clearly again – on the Bristol Proms’ first night. He’s quite right in principle, but one wonders if the rhetoric is really necessary. When it comes to breaking down barriers and putting an audience at ease, the likes of the City of London and Cheltenham festivals have long shown what can be achieved with a touch of informality and charm on the part of the organisers and performers. And besides, Bristolians are a pretty chilled bunch anyway.

Ironically, you couldn’t have found much stuffier than the Bristol Proms opening event – ‘Singing in the Dark’ by Bristol’s own Fitzhardinge Consort. Though for stuffy here, read ‘airless’ rather than ‘formal’ – staged in Old Vic’s underground, windowless Studio, this was as warm and muggy as concert-going gets. When the ‘in the Dark’ bit of the title was fulfilled by turning off all the lights, audience reactions were largely twofold – for some, it was a moment of magic, for others of us, it induced a feeling of mild panic.

The very concept of singing in the dark can work two ways too. On the one hand, it has the effect of concentrating the mind on the music and the music alone; on the other, it also makes one all the more aware of every fluff and flaw, particularly in an acoustic as unforgiving as this one. The Fitzhardinge Consort – who in fact only performed three works in completely pitch darkness – improved as the concert went on and the repertoire headed towards the current era. Works by Gesualdo (the wretchedly tricky Tristis est anima mea) and Josquin sounded a little ragged; Stanford, Holst and Whitacre, however, were delivered with aplomb.

A special mention, meanwhile, to conductor Tom Williams, for his winningly affable spiel between pieces. His ad libbed commentary was just the sort of approach – brief but informative, light-hearted but never irksome – that an event such as this will thrive on. Good stuff.

But no time to rest and reflect. Next up, just half an hour after the end of this concert, was pianist Jan Lisiecki in the Old Vic's main auditorium. Watch this space for a report…

For more information, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.

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