To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Royal Philharmonic Society, and supporting their ethos of “music for all”, Prom 38 was completely free. Over 400 youth performers sang and played for the occasion: this year, the National Youth Orchestra’s annual Proms appearance was accompanied by their sister organization, the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, and the concert also saw a debut Proms performance from both the Irish Youth Chamber Choir and Codetta.

Vasily Petrenko acknowledges the bust of Beethoven after conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 wit © BBC/Chris Chri
Vasily Petrenko acknowledges the bust of Beethoven after conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 wit
© BBC/Chris Chri

The main work and focal point of the programme was Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, which created the second half of the concert. As one of the earliest pieces commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, Beethoven was paid a sum of £50 for this epic-scale work. Preceding this tonight, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region was paired with the world première of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze. The Vaughan Williams piece was on a fairly huge choral scale, though with not quite as big an impact as the Beethoven. One of the highlights of Toward the Unknown Region was hearing the giant organ being played by Anna Lapwood. At the end of the piece, Lapwood pulled out the stops, creating a power that reverberated around the venue.

Frieze was a BBC co-commission with the Royal Philharmonic Society and the New York Philharmonic which takes Beethoven’s Ninth as an influence within the context of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. The work was very typically Turnage. It had elements of jazz with a Bernstein-feel swung rhythm in the second movement and punchy brass. The percussion and brass sections were the focus throughout the four movements, and though sometimes lacking in melody, this piece was not short of rhythm. Brass chords disturbed the continuum in loud blasts. It would have been nice for the huge number of singers to have been used in the composition in some way, particularly as the choral aspect is one of the most integral parts of Beethoven’s Ninth.

As a reminder of the evening’s Beethoven theme, the Royal Philharmonic Society’s bust of Beethoven by sculptor Johann Nepomuk Schaller sat next to the conductor’s podium, from which Vasily Petrenko conducted the great mass of musicians. The Royal Albert Hall is definitely the venue for large-scale works – it allows a vertical extension to the stage, by the nature of its seating in the gallery. The highest members of the choir were some six metres above the stage. This posed a real challenge for Petrenko: not only did he have to command a few hundred performers, but he also had to aim to get the best out of the music. Petrenko succeeded in the latter. He put his efforts in the performance into create the impact that the music intended, harnessed the energy that the sheer amount of performers could project and threw it wholeheartedly into the right parts of the music.

The highlight of the concert was the build-up to the famous “Ode to Joy” tune. It started with a low suggestion of the main melody by the lower strings and built up adding more and more instruments. After the orchestra had reached their climax, the choir stood up en masse, followed by the four solo singers, and made the sound impossibly larger. The projection of baritone Gerald Finley’s voice for the opening of the quartet was vast, and the sound of the full orchestra presented no challenge to him. Despite being at the epicentre of the sound on a gigantic scale, the four solo singers (Ailish Tynan, replacing Lisa Milne; Jennifer Johnston; Toby Spence; and Finley) had no trouble in being heard. Their voices, in quartet, gave an extra edge to the youth choirs with a more mature voice layered over the top of each section.

The Royal Philharmonic Society successfully achieved a memorable night and made music – their oldest and newest – accessible to all at the Royal Albert Hall’s first free main-evening event. Let’s hope there will be more events like this in the future.