(Jacob Banks. Image: Mark Allan)
Just four days ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was at the Albert Hall performing Lutosławski and Holst, now here they are accompanying Fazer from N-Dubz. The ever-expanding ambitions of the Proms can be gauged by the bizarre diversity of the music these players find on their stands as the season progresses. It’s rare to hear a full symphony orchestra at an urban music gig. Rare, but not unprecedented. The Urban Classic Prom is the third “Urban Classic” event to have combined young urban artists with BBC orchestras. Last year, they put on a similar event at the Barbican, and on the strength of its success they’ve now brought the concept to the Proms.
The audience tonight must have been a dream come true for the BBC’s demographics department. The idea was to combine classical and urban music, in the hope that the audiences for both genres would come along. And so they did. Well-dressed teens and 20-somethings made up at least half of the audience, while the rest seemed to be the standard middle aged and older Proms regulars. The arena season ticket holders were scared off though, and there was no unison announcement at the end of the interval about how much we had raised for musical charities. But their places were enthusiastically taken by a younger generation, who transformed the arena into a proper moshpit.
Each half began with something properly classical, the first with Mosolov’s Zavod, the second with “Dance of the Maenads” from Henze’s The Bassarids. As the Mosolov started up, it became clear that the orchestra was heavily amplified. That’s no great sin in urban music, nor should it be in the Albert Hall, given the state of the acoustic here. But the amplification was too much, giving a synthetic sheen to the string sound and obliterating what little subtlety there is in Mosolov’s industrial sounds.
For the rest of the gig, the orchestra was essentially reduced to a backing band. Additions included three excellent backing singers tucked in to the left of the woodwind, a keyboard player with some funky analogue synths, and a drummer, the rock-steady Troy Miller, sitting centre stage encircled in glass isolation panels.
Conductor Jules Buckley has the ideal stage presence for this set up. He is professional but unassuming, and the ideal foil (and occasional straight man) for the more ego-driven soloists. Buckley was responsible for some of the orchestral arrangements, and on the night acted as diplomat and go-between for the two performing cultures.
The six headline acts were well chosen: all young, obscenely talented, and with enough musical personality for each to stand out. The first act was Maverick Sabre. He’s a Soul singer of the old school, though he is only in his early 20s. Sabre’s style benefited from the lush orchestral backing; the BBC SO strings playing heavily amplified chords beneath his rich vocal.
Next up was Laura Mvula. She’s a great artist for this project, properly ‘urban’ but also classically trained and well able to find her way around a piano keyboard. She sang three numbers, each in a completely different style and mood. The most impressive was Father, Father, which ended the first half. For the first verse she was accompanied by a chorale of trombones and in the second by a similarly evocative string accompaniment. This was one of Buckley’s arrangements, and one of the best orchestrations of the evening.
Jacob Banks had the most impressive voice of any of this evening’s soloists. He is a young man, tall and with a narrow frame. But his voice is just extraordinary, deep and throaty with lots of soul. He could easily make a career in opera (I’d love to hear his Sarastro), but it would be a shame to divert him from this rich, bluesy soul.
The rap acts were Fazer, Lady Leshurr and Wretch 32. Judging by the apoplexy that greeted his name every time it was mentioned, Fazer was the big draw of the evening. He certainly knows how to hold the stage and how to work the audience. His vocal is slick and focussed, and carries well across the huge orchestra. Lady Leshurr is a high-octane performer. Her stock in trade is a fast, percussive patter, rhythmically propulsive and again well-suited to orchestral backing.
But backing is all the orchestra really did this evening, and the promised meeting of classical and urban music was weighted almost exclusively towards the latter. The aim of introducing new audiences to classical music is hardly going to be furthered by presenting a symphony orchestra as a little-used backing band. One or two of the orchestral effects really worked, that lush string sound for the soul music, the trombone chorales for Laura Mvula, and some occasional mariachi outbursts from the trumpets towards the end. But in general, the 80-odd players of the BBC SO collectively made a far smaller contribution that the four-piece rhythm section.
Returning home and listening on the radio, it became apparent that we had been missing much of the orchestral detail in the hall. That was partly due to the excessive amplification, but ultimately comes down to the dreadful acoustic of the space. How depressing that even this music is defeated by the scale of the Albert Hall. Still, it was well worth going for the sheer buzz of the live event, being part of an audience as enthusiastic and casual as anything you’ll meet at the Last Night. But, as always with the Proms, it was a case this evening of going along to the Albert Hall to experience the atmosphere, then going home and turning on the radio to find out what you’d missed.