The First Night of the BBC Proms

A stirring and emotional performance opens the 2016 season

The First Night of the BBC Proms
The First Night of the BBC Proms (Credit: Chris Christodoulou)

The excitement exuding from the Royal Albert Hall on Friday night could be felt even in Hyde Park. As I made my own way through the grand gardens from Paddington station, others bustled past. Some were dressed up for the occasion, others were in jeans and backpacks, and all had a palpable air of expectation. Not only was this to be a concert of legendary repertoire, complete with a debut from dazzling cellist Sol Gabetta, it was the First Night. The start of the summer. The beginning of the biggest classical music festival in the world.

The expectant atmosphere continued into the hall, which was packed full save for a couple of boxes left empty by the companies and private individuals that ‘own’ them - always a sad sight. The Prommers Charity made its usual announcement of funds raised last year, and gave a plea to give generously on exit.

The concert began with a surprise performance of the Marseillaise in solidarity with those affected by the tragic events in Nice last week. As the BBC Symphony Orchestra played the rousing anthem (though there was sadly no singing from the assembled choruses), the organ was lit up in a Tricolour, the seated audience took to its feet in a spontaneous show of respect.

Then the concert began in earnest with the first performance to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. The orchestra took a leisurely pace, though this did occasionally feel a little limp. It is, after all, supposed to represent young, passionate, tragic love.

Cellist Sol Gabetta (Credit: Chris Christodoulou)

Sol Gabetta took no time at all to get started with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, taking the audience (who were still settling) a little by surprise. She gave an exquisite performance, daring to attack and withdraw from standard tempos, and drawing us in to absolutely minuscule dynamics. After the quiet tension of the second movement ended, there was a controversial mid-work round of applause. Oramo made a sympathetic companion throughout, allowing Gabetta to direct all of the drama, and keeping the BBCSO completely balanced with her relatively small sound. She communicated magnificently with the orchestra throughout, particularly with leader Stephen Bryant. It seemed the perfect partnership throughout.

After storming applause Gabetta returned to stage to give an unaccompanied encore: the Dolicissimo from Pēteris Vasks’s Grāmata čellam (The Book of Cello). It was quite a contrast to the emotional Elgar. Glassy enharmonics and ghost notes were briefly interrupted by a drone. Then another, completely unexpected sound – Gabetta’s own voice, singing. It was spellbinding.

The traditional choral contribution to the First Night was Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, based on his score for Eisenstein’s 1938 film of the same name. It is a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda which represents the Russians and Nazi Germans as the apotheosis of good and evil. The combined choir of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National Chorus of Wales made a big sound, though lacked the depth of voice that Russian choirs have. Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina waded through the already-playing orchestra in the introduction to The Field of the Dead, before performing a haunting, dark, and very Russian lament. Most vivid was the violas harsh playing in The Battle of the Ice, visibly wrenching their bows across the strings to create a grating and icy sound. 

Elinor Cooper


Did you watch the opening night of the BBC Proms season? What did you think of the performance? Comments below. The First Night (Prom 1) is available to watch on iPlayer until 15 August 2016. Click here to watch the first half, and here for part two. 


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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