This is a Prom like no other. A troll stalks through the audience throughout the concert, cackling witches wheel and whirl their way across the stage, a phoenix soars around the Royal Albert Hall auditorium and Dick and Dom crash spacecrafts into the Hall. There’s also the utterance of the unforgettable line — surely never before heard at a Prom — “Shall we show Dick how to blow a raspberry?”
It’s a head-spinning multi-media spectacular that acts as a climax to the BBC’s worthy year-long Ten Pieces initiative to get primary school children enthused about classical music by introducing them to ten easily accessible pieces of music (more on them later). The pieces are played here by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under conductor Thomas Sondergard, which was also the orchestra that featured in the BBC’s Ten Pieces film that launched the initiative.
The music may be the focus, but to keep young minds from wandering each piece is introduced by a team of boundlessly energetic CBBC stars: Barney Harwood, Dick and Dom, Dan Starkey (Wizards v Aliens) and Molly Rainford (from Friday Download) — oh, and that troll. Their energy helps build the enthusiastic response to the music: imagine a concert hall reverberating to the sound of a packed audience singing the first eight notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
But the real stars of the show are the children who were inspired by Ten Pieces to produce their own music, some of whom get the rare privilege of being invited on to the Royal Albert Hall stage to perform.
First up is 11-year-old Evelyn and her school friends Emma and Sophie from St Mary’s Primary School in Maguiresbridge, Fermanagh, whose composition Equinox is a violin-led piece that wears its inspiration from Beethoven’s Fifth lightly. Just as inspiring as the music is to hear Evelyn talk about how she picked out Beethoven’s motifs and pizzicatos for her own piece.
The next contribution from schoolchildren really sends a shiver up the spine, as hundreds of kids from Hampshire and Wandsworth combine to form the Ten Pieces Children’s Choir and sing the heck out of Handel’s Zadok the Priest (you know, the one ITV used as their Champions League theme and the one George II had played at his coronation). It may not be their own work, but they still deserve special recognition for making such a joyous chorus.
Then the pupils of Chase Bridge Primary School, Twickenham, file on stage with glockenspiel, bongo and big bass drum (plus strings and woodwind) to play their composition, Volcano, which is inspired by the story of Peer Gynt being chased in the Hall of the Mountain King — though in their piece, it’s villagers fleeing an erupting volcano. That big bass drum gets a good workout as the volcano rumbles.
In a non-musical performance 12 pupils from St Joseph’s College, Ipswich, take to the stage in front of the orchestra to perform an entrancing interpretative dance to Benjamin Britten’s Storm Interlude from his opera Peter Grimes. Dressed all in blue, the boys made it seem as if the sea had washed into the Royal Albert Hall.
The finale of the children’s performances is left to the pupils of Wythcombe Raleigh CE Primary School, Exmouth, who drag on stage water butts, broomsticks, bicycle wheels and other bits of junk salvaged from a local dump to play their composition, Wythcombe Stomp, a percussive piece that wowed the audience.
Talking of percussive pieces, special mention has to go to the innovative staging of Anna Meredith’s Connect It, in which dancers from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire swooped among the prommers on the floor for a kinetic performance of a piece that uses no musical instruments, just the dancers’ breaths, body slaps and movements to create a hypnotic sound. When Meredith stepped on stage herself and encouraged the whole audience to get involved, it certainly proved entertaining though some concert-goers of, ahem, a certain age may have found it hard to keep up.
Throughout the concert, as the prommers delighted at the music — which also included Holst’s Mars from the Planets Suite, John Adam’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, Mozart’s Horn Concert no 4, and Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt — we were also held rapt by the screens showing school children’s art, animations and dances inspired by the pieces.
If there are any gripes, it’s at times the multi-media show was too busy; you wanted to watch the St Joseph boys dancing to Peter Grimes but also felt you should be watching the screen at the same time to see others’ interpretations, and my seven-year-old son felt In the Hall of the Mountain King was almost inaudible for the noise of children shouting, “TROLL!!”
But when the soaring music of the final piece, Stravinsky’s Firebird, is accompanied by its own beautiful puppet of a phoenix that swooped and soared over the heads of the audience then all can be forgiven.
The Prom was a great mixture of the ideals espoused by both Henry Wood and Lord Reith — it brought classical music to a new audience in an entertaining, educational and informative way — and is a shining example of what the BBC does best. It’s heartening to know the Ten Pieces initiative is being extended to secondary school children for the following year — I can’t wait for next year’s Prom!
Highlights from this year’s Ten Pieces Prom are broadcast on CBBC at 9.30am on Sunday 2nd August and the Radio 3 broadcast of the full Prom is available on BBC iPlayer until 18th August.