The First Night of the Proms with my ten-year-old nephew

"An unscheduled performance of La Marseillaise was a beautiful moment I shall never forget"


First nights can be touch and go for any show – even for the BBC Proms. But, boy, did they put on an assured performance last night.


The instant that the BBC Symphony Orchestra started to play, the backdrop was drenched in the hues of the tricoleur and everyone in the Albert Hall clocked an unscheduled performance of La Marseillaise. Within seconds everybody was on their feet with a surge of fraternité for all those who’d been murdered and maimed in Nice the night before.

A poignant mark of respect, it brought a tear to the eye and was a beautiful moment I shall never forget. I’m so happy that I shared it with my nephew James, who I’m sure will long remember it too.

One of the aims of the new Proms director David Pickard is to “make youth a central focus this summer” and it’s in that spirit that I took Jamie along. A bright ten-year-old, he listens to and loves classical music. I have to say I’d rather have stuck chisels in my ears at his age. But he was totally engaged with the First Night’s varied programme.

Ten-year-old Jamie outside the Royal Albert Hall

First on the bill: Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture “Romeo and Juliet”. It’s 400 years since the death of Shakespeare (in case you haven’t heard!) and the BBC is still going to town with it. So the Bard is one of the themes running throughout the Proms season and this dramatic symphonic work, awash with familiar melodies, was a perfect place to start. The BBCSO under the baton of Sakari Oramo captured all its romance and violent passions with exquisite verve.

Jamie’s verdict: “I loved it. Thrilling.”

Elgar’s Cello Concerto has become, over time, a phenomenally popular work, on dozens of Desert Island Discs shortlists. I’ve listened to the immortal Jacqueline Du Pré 1965 recording so many, many times that I’m always surprised when people in the audience cough in the wrong place – as they did tonight.

Making her Proms debut, Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta breezed onto the stage in a vermilion frock, looking undaunted, then tenderly caressed and teased out the soul of the mournful theme of the first movement. She went down very well in the hall. It’s long been one of Jamie’s favourite pieces but he’d never heard it live before. His verdict: “Amazing. It was like a rollercoaster of sounds.”

Cellist Sol Gabetta performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo 

Her encore was extraordinary: a little-known piece for solo cello – Dolcissimo by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Gabetta was fully in command of and at one with her instrument; she made it sing and even sang with it. She opened her mouth and let out a plaintive, ethereal wail. Mesmerising. No hacking or shuffling in the audience; you could have heard an eyelash drop.

One of the boons of the Proms’ mixed-bag programmes is that inevitably you’re exposed to works you’re less than au fait with. Gabetta’s encore was one; Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky another. Many moons ago I saw the 1938 Eisenstein movie at the BFI. Its score, from which this cantata is almost wholly derived, made no lasting impression, but last night I was rather taken by it.

The text is based on a heroic incident in Russia’s medieval past, a victory over Teutonic crusaders, and in 1938 was seen as a commentary on the rise of Nazism in Europe. One could certainly draw parallels with today’s fast-moving events.

Sung in Russian with the odd burst of Latin, it was stirring. Occasionally, the combined force of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales pinned us back in our seats. There was a majestic moment when the mezzo Olga Borodina wandered on stage to sing the lament of The Field of the Dead.

Jamie’s verdict: “Excellent. An extravaganza of musical types.” Would he listen to it again? “Probably not.”

On balance, a rousing night. Vive les BBC Proms!

You can watch the First Night again for 30 days 

Win tickets to the John Wilson PromWilson and his orchestra are among the Proms’ sell out stars. We have two tickets to give away to his concert on Saturday August 13 celebrating the music of George and Ira Gershwin. Click here to enter


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