Part 1: a First Night for everything

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Our online diarist Tristan Jakob-Hoff joins the Prommers in a packed central arena for a variety-fuelled First Night

 

Summer in London, for those who still believe in such a thing, is a time of reckless optimism. At the first hint of anything resembling sunshine, the capital’s entire populace heads down to the nearest stretch of green space to indulge in a spot of ill-advised and insufficiently attired sun worship. Even the more grizzled and cynical amongst us occasionally throw caution to the wind and head outside without an umbrella. I suspect this uncharacteristic confidence in the sun’s reliability is some form of temporary insanity, brought on by the sheer bewilderment of seeing an endless expanse of blue where the clouds used to be. Whatever it is, it is a dangerous affront to the gods and almost certainly guarantees a thunderstorm.

Thankfully, the men and women who queue outside the Royal Albert Hall every Summer are a breed apart. The heavens have never opened up above a queue full of Prommers without a thousand umbrellas doing likewise. Just as well too. Last night, the 2009 Proms season kicked off with a very healthy downpour, the sort you don’t usually see until at least the second or third week. Everyone standing in the queue had their brolly up within seconds. There was a fair amount of grumbling, of course, and an audible cheer went up when the doors were finally flung open and we were allowed to shuffle inside. But I felt a certain pride at our collective preparedness. I suppose anyone who has ever spent the best part of a British Summer queuing outside, at the fickle mercy of London’s elements, knows to expect the unexpected.

Once inside, we were treated to one of those scattershot programmes the First Night seems to specialise in: nothing really resembling a masterpiece, but the whole thing kept alive by its own dogged eclecticism. The highlight was Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, played with superb zaniness by the Labèque sisters (pictured top), whose contrasting personalities – one serene, the other ebullient – seemed perfectly suited to the music’s schizophrenic flip-flopping.
 
Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto was also full of peculiar contrasts, but did not coalesce in quite the same way, perhaps because pianist Stephen Hough’s way with the music (pictured left) was not quite the same as conductor Jirí Belohlávek's. The latter did manage to make amends with an excellent account of Elgar’s In the South – furthering his credentials as a surprisingly fine conductor of British music – and he was afterwards joined by Alice Coote, who made an outstanding soloist in Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody
 
Regrettably, though, the concert came to a close with an uninspired and rather workmanlike account of Bruckner’s Psalm 150. But never mind. There’s another eight weeks of great music to look forward to, and who knows – the sun may even make a brief cameo appearance at some point. As ever, we live in hope…
 
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...
 
Main pictures credit (Labèques and Hough): Chris Christodoulou