It was an outstanding weekend at the Royal Albert Hall, with the presentation of two one-off extravaganzas, Kiss Me, Kate with the John Wilson Orchestra and War Horse with Gareth Malone and the Military Wives Choir, and to round it off, Mozart’s Requiem. Quite remarkable to witness such diverse works all achieved in the same auditorium within the space of 24 hours.
Prom 21: Kiss Me, Kate
(Saturday 2 August)
“There are musicals I’ve loved all my life,” says John Wilson, “but there’s only a handful I really want to conduct – this is one of them.” Two years ago he and his orchestra had a one-night-only knockout at the Albert Hall with My Fair Lady, but regrettably it wasn’t filmed for television. They haven’t made that mistake with Kiss Me, Kate. If you weren’t lucky enough to be at the Albert Hall, BBC2 will show it later in the year.
Cole Porter’s romcom musical, a play-within-a-play reworking of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew may have first opened in 1948 but it still feels fresh in 2014. A checklist of big numbers includes: So in Love, Too Darn Hot, I Hate Men and Always True to You in My Fashion (the last two hilarious). “The songs are all cut from high-grade musical cloth,” raves Wilson, and you can’t gainsay him.
A kinetic conductor, he invests all his concerts with energy and passionate attention to detail. Making clever use of a thin strip of stage, and with boisterous choreography, Wilson’s Kiss Me, Kate gathers top-drawer musicians and singers, with US stars Ben Davis and Alexandra Silber in the dual lead roles of Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate.
Silber (right) was incredible, reaching operatic heights and surely larynx-straining bawling for I Hate Men.
Prom 22: War Horse
(Sunday 3 August)
A neglected children’s book, a National Theatre play, a Spielberg movie and now a Prom… War Horse has cantered a long and winding path across three decades, and captivated and moved so many people. So it was touching to see the author Michael Morpurgo, in his trademark crumpled red jacket, sitting on the sidelines, taking notes before being drawn into the action to scamper on stage with his creation. The Handspring Puppet Company’s life-size rendition of Joey – country foal or adult horse pressed into battle – never fails to impress.
Adrian Sutton’s War Horse Suite, a 2010 symphonic poem drawn from his NT score, provides another deeply affecting chapter in the BBC Proms’ commemoration of the First World War. The photo montage of mules, mutts, birds, even elephants and kangaroos caught up in war should move the hearts of anyone, let alone animal lovers.
Melly Still’s sensitive production moved beyond the limits of the Albert Hall’s stage. Mime performers were cleverly captured on antique-looking film cameras then projected as flickering silent-cinema images, with intertitles, onto screens around the auditorium. A cannon blasted out of the arena floor and the Military Wives made their debut in the gods.
Their leading light, Gareth Malone climbed a small ladder to a podium almost as if going over the top. Now you may find his zeal somewhere on the spectrum between inspirational and incredibly annoying, but he’d achieved much here with these ladies, who were in fine voice for three songs from the Home Front by Elgar and Holst, and a hymn by Proms founder Henry Wood.
Malone (left) even stirred the audience to sing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, but not before Sutton brilliantly deployed Cambiata North West, a teenage boys’ choir in the premiere of Some See Us, his anthem for peace symbolising a generation of lost youth.
For both these shows – it’s astonishing that so much was put together for just one night.
Prom 23: Beethoven and Mozart
In weekend of celebration for Glasgow – with the Commonwealth Games drawing to a close – the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who are based in the city, travelled down to London for the first of their four Proms this year.
It was Scottish-flavoured concert: Edinburgh-born Donald Runnicles (right) conducted, the National Youth Choir of Scotland lined the back of the stage and, to kick things off, John McLeod’s The Sun Dances, a “colourful Scottish sunrise” was given its London premiere. “I’ve tried to re-create in music the story and atmosphere of an old Scottish legend,” he told Radio 3 last night, promising the changing colours of sunrise “and a little ecstasy”. Being a sun-worshipping lark, I was transported by this wonderful, unfamiliar piece.
Next on the bill was Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, probably his least well known. The BBC SO played with gusto but it did little for me. The main meat of the evening came after the interval – Mozart’s Requiem. The 130-plus youthful chorus (age range 16 to 24) gave the majestic work power and clarity, and rounded off a moving and inspiring weekend in the Royal Albert Hall.
If you missed them
You can listen to all three concerts again via the BBC Proms website.
Prom 23 will be televised this Friday, 7 August, on BBC4.
BBC2 is planning to show War Horse in November and Kiss Me, Kate in December.