Prom 22, Aurora Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
A prom can give you breadth of musical experience, or depth, but rarely both. Either you’re thrilled and entertained and leave with a smile on your face, or you get a deep spiritual journey that makes you reluctant to applaud at the end.
The wonderful thing about this prom was that we got both.
In the first half, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto took us to a very lost and lonely area of human experience; in the second we returned to light and life with Beethoven’s immortal Fifth Symphony. In between came a listening guide to the latter, which was brilliantly entertaining as well as hugely informative.
On stage was the Aurora Orchestra, the extraordinary group of young musicians who have shaken up the orchestral world with their elegantly choreographed arrangements, in which the orchestra reconfigures itself before our eyes. We’ll see a good example of it later in the guide to Beethoven’s Fifth, but we got a hint of it at the very beginning with a performance of O-Mega, the last piece of the great Greek modernist Iannis Xenakis, who was born 100 years ago . The ritualized exchanges between a lone percussionist high up on the choir terraces and groups of strings, brass and brass below and on either side of him were diamond-hard and utterly enigmatic.
Then came Shostakovich’s concert, where the soloist was the diminutive, fiery Moldavian Patricia Kopatchinskaja. In the opening of Nocturne, the packed hall was reduced to complete silence by her wavering melodic line, infinitely fragile but somehow indomitable. In her enormously long solo passage (the “cadenza,” as it’s known), she began so quietly that I doubted whether the listeners in the balcony could hear her, but it meant that the ferocity of the final burlesque registered with tremendous force.
After the break came the guided tour of the Beethoven masterpiece from the orchestra, broadcaster Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon. Not only did they tell us about the countless transformations of the famous Da-da-da-DUM rhythm, and the connections between the symphony and the Marseillaise and Mozart’s great 40th Symphony – they showed them by playing simplified excerpts, with different players moving in between on stage as their parts became more prominent.
Finally came a performance of the whole piece, played (like Xenakis’s) from memory, and with the players standing at attention. Did it seem so riveting and overwhelmingly joyful because our ears and minds had just been sharpened, or because the performance itself was so wonderfully balanced between urgency and grace? It was incredibly difficult to say. IH
Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until 10 October. The Proms continue until September 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms
Prom 21, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆
The first ever Gaming Ball brought a packed crowd of gaming fans, of all ages. It was the guys of a certain age who probably cut their teeth on Space Invaders back in 1978, and even larger numbers of youngsters.
They were clearly delighted by this concert, which traced almost the entire history of game music in chronological order, from the stiff little melodies and slapstick burps and sweeps of 1980s music to the heady full-orchestral panoramas of the 2000s. The younger listeners seemed to enjoy the “primitive” scores as much as the older fans did, suggesting that nostalgia is built into the entire gaming experience.
The challenge of this event was to let us enjoy the real live sound of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on stage, while conjuring up the massive, essentially digital immersive sound that creates the feeling of an alternate universe. It must be said that everyone involved – the sound engineers, the organizers who adapted the music to the concert situation, and the players in the RPO – took on the challenge in a magnificent way.
In the music of the older numbers, there was an additional problem of reinventing primitive early-digital sounds for the orchestra. Matt Rogers wittily evoked the tedium and sudden excitement of loading a game from a cassette machine in Loading Chronos, but the evening’s real triumph of recreation came from composer Chaines, whose recreations of scores for Pokémon, Ecco, and Secret of Mana were so uncannily dense they evoked happy laughter from the players around me.
Then we were on the Hollywood grandeur of The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy VIII, Kingdom Hearts and others. Never have I heard so many impressive orchestral climaxes full of cymbal crashes, combined with a wide-open sound that makes me believe that the true progenitor of game music is the classic Hollywood Western score. The most extreme of all this was the dark, dystopian score of Battlefield 2042. Although the arrangement by the evening’s conductor Robert Ames was brilliant, the music lost some of the metallic, shiny horror that is its essence.
Finally, it was back to greatness, for the score for the 2012 feature Dear Esther. Just two lush major chords, rocking back and forth, with a big melody over the top; it could hardly be simpler. Like the gameplay itself, it delivered a massive sugar rush that silences all critics and drove the crowd wild.
Watch this prom on BBC Four on Friday at 8 p.m. Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until 10 October. The Proms continue until September 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms