There was a noticeable difference in the audience who had come to this Prom from those who had attended the rather more serious Proms in the preceding week: colourful clothing. Gone were the sombre suits; in came casual summer dress in every imaginable colour under the sun. It was, perhaps, a reflection of the dramatic difference between the types of music on offer: this Prom, comprising familiar and less well-known pieces of British light music, was effectively the antithesis of last week’s Wagner marathon. It was also an opportunity to link in with one of the themes of this year’s Proms – that of music for royal occasions, and more specifically of the Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen in its 60th anniversary year.

Barry Wordsworth conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra in Prom 24 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Barry Wordsworth conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra in Prom 24
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Although it is easy to dismiss British light music as one of the quirks in our vast home-grown repertoire – its very levity makes for easy listening more than academic discourse – there is nevertheless a case for playing it well and for devoting rehearsal time to exploiting its innate humourousness fully. It is therefore a pity that the BBC Concert Orchestra seemed on dismissive form; regrettably, much of the programme was unenthusiastically delivered.

The concert began with Granville Bantock’s The Pierrot of the Minute, which the composer had intended as a “comedy overture” – Pierrot being, of course, the figure appearing in many a pantomime and commedia dell’arte, as well as in the source of Bantock’s inspiration, a dramatic poem by Ernest Dowson. The music’s being “light as a gossamer” and having “a genuine airiness of texture”, as the programme notes had it, sadly failed to materialise – the playing, although with tight ensemble and occasionally entertaining, was less delicate than the piece required. Elgar’s Nursery Suite followed; cobbled together from some of Elgar’s “youthful unpublished compositions” as a celebration of the birth of Princess Margaret Rose, it was simplistic, and by no means Elgar’s finest hour.

Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for two pianos (three hands) fared markedly better. When it received its première at the Proms in 1969, it was a great success – one of many three-handed concerti for the husband and wife duo of Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick (Smith had lost the use of his left arm after suffering thrombosis and a stroke in the preceding decade). It could be said that Arnold crosses the boundary between light and more serious music here: influences from the worlds of jazz and dance (rumba) and the Romantic era merge together in a style with an unquestionable bent towards the popular music of the day. The teamwork of piano duo Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott was obvious, and their enthusiasm did not go unmissed by the orchestra, which responded with energy that had hitherto not been felt in this concert.

It is a shame that the orchestra slipped back into nonchalance for Walton’s Crown Imperial march. Yes, it has received innumerable performances over the last couple of years, and yes, people may be getting tired of hearing it, but that is not a reason not to take care over it. Conductor Barry Wordsworth’s very brisk tempo made me wonder whether someone had pencilled in “Quick” at the beginning of the piece’s title; the speed removed any hint of sentimentality, but the piece’s usual sparkle and stateliness was also lost with moments of slack ensemble. The ensemble failed to gel in Eric Coates’ The Three Elizabeths – the First, the Second, and “of Glamis” (the late Queen Mother) – which was disappointing for a piece that truly embodies the British light music ideal, and manages to do so tastefully. Mercifully, the orchestra seemed to perk up for Arnold’s first set of English Dances; the brass section clearly had fun in the Vivace and final Allegro risoluto. At times, the percussion was distractingly off-beat (and not because they should have been), but finally the orchestra appeared to be truly enjoying itself.

That the orchestra was having fun was nowhere more obvious than in Gordon Langford’s gem of a radio theme-tune medley, Say it with music. Whilst many of the theme tunes will have been unfamiliar to the younger portion of the audience, it was still possible to gain enjoyment out of the orchestra’s humorous, perky playing. Some prommers were spotted bending their knees to the theme tune of The Navy Lark, and, needless to say, the Royal Albert Hall resounded with giggles as the Archers theme was played – Wordsworth’s turning to the audience to flash a cheeky grin assured us that he was having just as much fun. It was a welcome end to a concert that should have been rather more entertaining given its subject matter.