It is fair to say that urban and classical music would not normally share an audience, let alone a stage, but, in the first-ever Urban Classic Prom, rising and established stars of the urban music scene met and collaborated with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under dynamic young conductor (and arranger of some of the evening’s numbers) Jules Buckley, in a showcase of two very different musical cultures. The evening was compèred by presenters Sarah-Jane Crawford (BBC Radio 3) and Charlie Sloth (BBC Radio 1Xtra).

Artists performing at the Urban Classic Prom © BBC/Mark Allan
Artists performing at the Urban Classic Prom
© BBC/Mark Allan

This Prom was billed as an “experimental fusion of musical styles, high-octane orchestral showpieces... rub shoulders with rap, R&B and soul”. That they rubbed shoulders is undeniably true, but a fusion of styles or a “culture clash”, as Jules Buckley put it? Not so much. Whilst there was a 90-piece orchestra accompanying the artists – just a touch larger an ensemble than the average backing band – the orchestra’s sound was picked up by myriad microphones and the sound seemed to emanate from the speakers, giving it a recording-like, synthetic quality that made it seem far more normal for urban music than might have been expected. The arrangements of each of the pieces were excellent in their orchestration and balance, but were ultimately designed to sound like the original backing music, and the addition of a drum kit, backing singers and a keyboard only added to this feeling.

That aside, the musicianship on all sides was superb. We first heard Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, one of the foremost examples of Soviet futurist music. For a piece that was written in 1926–7, it was well ahead of its time; as if to emphasise this, a spot of people-watching revealed many in the arena nodding their heads to the often grime-y (as in the musical genre) beat. The “male Amy Winehouse” Maverick Sabre led the array of urban artists with his smoothly soulful style; his rendition of I need was beautiful and had prommers gently singing along. Rising star Laura Mvula was perhaps the most obviously appealing to Proms regulars: trained as a classical pianist and violin player, she took her degree in composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. A certain sensitivity to that portion of the audience was detectable in her deeply expressive voice, and in her delicate piano playing with well-judged dynamics and rubato. She rounded off the first half at the piano with the utterly delightful Father, Father, which almost ventured into jazz ballad territory.

But equally as appealing was 21-year-old fellow Brummie Jacob Banks, whose youth and relative inexperience (Banks only started singing two years ago) belied grown-up vocals that lay somewhere between R&B and soul. The contrast in style between the uplifting, quasi-gospel-style Rainy Day and his haunting Worthy demonstrated the versatility that will make his reach a wide one.

Birmingham was well-represented and represented well in this Prom, the diminutive Lady Leshurr showcasing another dimension to the urban music scene. The girl can rap, and fast. She might have been spitting lyrics too fast for the audience to hear what they were, but the audience was lapping up her incredible energy, especially in Blazin’. Fellow rapper Wretch 32 didn’t quite inject such a high dose of energy, but that was very welcome, and never more so than in his duet with Jacob Banks. There was something hypnotic about Wretch 32’s well-known Traktor, which was given a dark, grinding, almost grungy edge by the orchestral accompaniment.

Judging by the high-pitched squeals at the front of the arena, a fair few had turned out to see Fazer, perhaps better known as having been one third of N-Dubz. It seems that I was at odds with the majority in not enjoying his performances as much as the others; I just felt that they were less polished, less inherently musical than those of the other artists. Redemption came in the form of his very competent piano accompaniment for Seven Chapters, a group of young musicians he had been mentoring over the previous weeks. The group came across as nervous and unsure of themselves, though their talents ranged from singers and rappers to one incredible electric guitarist.

One of the aims of this Prom was to introduce classical music audiences to urban music, and vice versa; I’m not sure it was a complete success in this regard, given how much deference to urban music there was. Certainly the music on offer was largely excellent, and it also demonstrated the enormous variety of styles that the label “urban” encompasses, but I suspect that there might not have been enough fuel for urban music lovers to go out of their way to explore the classical music scene. Certainly, though, and perhaps surprisingly in the given context, the BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians were in their element, clearly relishing the break from their norm – and that was a pleasure to witness.