Proms diary: First Night of the Proms

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Oliver Condy arrives at the Royal Albert Hall for the opening night of the BBC Proms 2013… after a fashion

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Sakari OramoWe apologise for the late-running of this blog which has now arrived, three days later than planned. We apologise for any inconvenience.

In extreme weather conditions, we all know that Britain grinds to an undignified halt. And anyone travelling by train from the West Country to the Albert Hall on Friday night was lucky to get there on time, if at all, thanks to overheated signals or some such. And so, leaving behind the airless First Great Western train, jumping into a taxi and bribing the poor driver to get me to the BBC Proms by hook or by crook, I made it. For the second note of the opening premiere. And alas, readers, I was marooned at the main entrance, and only heard/saw bits and pieces of the Britten Four Sea Interludes, too – up on a TV screen in the corner of the foyer. It was a little like sitting on the beach at Weston-Super-Mare on a sweltering weekend during the school holidays. Too many people, miserable sight-lines and the very distant sound of something sea-like. The mood in the foyer was tense and brooding for all the wrong reasons.

Still, we were allowed in for the Rachmaninov – a rather swiftly despatched Paganini Variations sparklingly performed by pianist Stephen Hough. I wondered whether his mind was sometimes on the following (bonkers and utterly thrilling) Lutosławski Variations on a theme of Paganini, and whether the BBC Symphony Orchestra was going through the motions a tad. But that piece needs unity, and the Albert Hall is a flighty venue for anything smaller than a Mahlerian band. Still, it was wittily played and Hough resisted the temptation to wallow in the famous 18th Variation. A good move – it was all the more engaging and coherent for it.

It was the second half, however, that we had all come to see. Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony performed by full orchestra and over 400 singers (and two terrific soloists in smiley baritone Roderick Williams and a glittering – sartorially and vocally – Sally Matthews). They were incredible, both for their poise and vocal tone. But thank goodness for Walt Whitman’s salty poetry, though, because VW’s music lumbers a bit (or should that be ‘pitches’) and isn’t blessed with the subtlety, say, of an Elgar oratorio. And I do wish that the chorus could have watched the conductor a little more and sung pianissimo when called for (440 singers can do it). But in all, the Sea Symphony was rousing and given as good a performance as it has probably ever had. A sort of Last-Nightish feel for the opening to the BBC Proms.

A final word on Sakari Oramo (pictured above) – this was his first official concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as its new principal conductor. From their faces and his gestures, he seems to have the orchestra utterly on his side. It was a delight to watch and we wish him well in his time with them.

There are more than 80 concerts ahead of us now at the BBC Proms. If the standard stays this high, it should be a season to cherish.

For more on this year's festival, head to our BBC Proms page.