The combined Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and The Julliard School, bringing together student musicians from London and New York, presented an ambitious programme for their third appearance together at the Proms, here conducted by Edward Gardner. With a history of collaboration between the two institutions stretching back to 2001, they arrived at the Proms having performed together at Snape Maltings Hall in Aldeburgh the day before, following a week of rehearsals together here in London, and seemed totally at ease together and in the rarefied atmosphere of a BBC Prom.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Edward Gardner and the Orchestra of the RAM and The Juilliard School
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Their programme began with no predictable, easy overture. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, now based in London, composed Metacosmos in 2017, and it received its UK premiere in tonight’s Prom. In its relatively brief span, Metacosmos reaches far, exploring the balance between beauty and chaos, and the metaphorical force of falling into a black hole. With strange, unearthly sounds such as bowed gong edges, drum scrapings and sounds of breath, there is a sense of mystery and danger, and whenever fragments of a more harmonious melody are heard, they are on shaky ground, the strings in particular sliding and slipping away beneath any consonant harmony. Gardner held the disparate elements of this complex piece together with clarity, and the young players rose to the considerable challenges set them. This is a remarkable piece, showing such command of large orchestral forces, and the final slide upwards, leaving a single violin hanging in the air, was unsettlingly moving.

Britten’s Violin Concerto, composed at the outset of the Second World War, is a work full of menace, and ultimately, leaves one with a sense of tragedy in its lamenting final moments. This throws the seemingly skittish Scherzo, with its folksy Trio into relief – is this innocent fun or sardonic mockery? Perhaps the extended cadenza at the end of this middle movement, based largely on themes from the opening, uneasy movement gives us our answer, as it fades into the final, lumbering Passacaglia. Ehnes held the Royal Albert Hall rapt for that cadenza, and he delivered the preceding Scherzo with flourish and a dancing step. The orchestra gave the Passacaglia weight and import, with its fugal entries layering on top of each other. As the movement developed, there was some remarkable high wire skittering from Ehnes above the orchestral textures, and when D major finally arrives, the colliding scales had a real sense of desperation, searching for resolution. Sadly no resolution comes, and Ehnes was left lamenting in and out of major and minor over the gently pulsing orchestral chords. As much needed balm, Ehnes gave us some Bach – the Andante from the Violin Sonata no. 2 in A minor, BWV1003, as an encore, and its gentle pulsing, unlike the conclusion of the Britten, gave some soothing comfort.

Edward Gardner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Rite of Spring, despite a shaky start, was committed and powerful. This is such a high energy whirlwind of a piece that it is almost inevitable that momentum flags somewhere, but when it happened here, in the mystic opening passages of Part 2, Gardner marshalled forces for the final onslaught and elicited a wild, terrifying final sacrificial dance from the massed orchestral forces. There were moments where more naked aggression is called for than could be mustered here – the stamping chords of The Augurs of Spring had a whiff of furious counting – but otherwise, this was an impressive showing of what is a challenging call for any orchestra. Gardner returned for a final encore with the orchestra, a performance of Knussen’s complex Flourish with Fireworks, composed in 1988 for Michael Tilson Thomas’ first season with the LSO. Full of swirling surges and showy raised instruments, this is no walk in the park, and once again the combined student forces demonstrated considerable virtuosic command to conclude an impressive night’s performance.