A family concert based on We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and featuring much-loved household names Michael Rosen and Tony Ross drew in a willing and high-spirited audience for this afternoon Prom, many with their own teddy bears in tow. With Bear Hunt such well-known book, but also such a brief story, my two six-year-olds, visiting the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, were keen to see how this would become a full-length concert, as well as “whether the seats are fluffy” and “how scary the bear is going to be”.

© BBC Proms / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC Proms / Chris Christodoulou

Rosen is a fantastic and energetic performer in his own right, and the rapport between him and Matthew Coorey, conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was excellent, with transitions between narration and musical numbers working very smoothly. After a quick “meet the orchestra” we were straight into the story, Rosen delivering the text in perfect rhythm as a call-and-response. The dressed-down look with careful lighting set a good scene. Rosen was on stage throughout, listening enthusiastically, which gave the feeling of being invited into an event which, although clearly well rehearsed, still had the spirit of something put together for fun.

With the structure established and the audience willingly chanting along with the refrain, the Bear Hunt story was extended to take in a concert’s worth of adventures, each new place or discovery another obstacle along the way in the hunt. Along with the traditional mud, river, and dark cave, then, we encountered a great gate (Mussorgsky’s), a mountain king (Grieg’s) and the bear, eventually, was snoozing to a Britten Nocturne. This was an adventure where Pirates of the Caribbean rubbed shoulders with Tchaikovsky’s Russian dancers, and the pieces were well chosen, with plenty of contrast and no piece too long.

All the performers were fully engaged, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic together with In Harmony Liverpool making a beautiful, full sound. The Liverpool Philharmonic Children’s Choirs led the participatory sections, and shone in Ian Stephens’ The Forest, to original words by Rosen.

All of this was accompanied and enhanced by Tony Ross’s drawings, produced live at a table at the front of the stage and projected real-time onto large screens. Before our eyes appeared, in a flash but never seeming hurried, scenes from the original story and pictures of every stage of the adventure. I thought these might be done in chalk, but Eric, a keen drawer, explained that this was pastel “because you rub it and the different colours go smudgy”, which we could see happening as colours were blended. In several drawings, a shadowy bear appeared out of a cloud, or the steam from a train.

In an otherwise sold-out Albert Hall, there were comparatively few promenaders. Families with young children in particular will most likely have wanted the certainty of advance tickets – and seats. However, this meant there was room for a spirited conga during the second half by the prommers.

As the bear hunters beat a hasty retreat near the end of the concert, we were treated to a medley with snippets of each preceding piece, masterfully put together, during which each picture was shown again in reverse order.

The Albert Hall does not have the easiest acoustic, and with a fairly vocal audience, a few quieter sections of music did not come across in full detail. But this was a small price to pay for the marvellous atmosphere and in fact, considering the level of audience participation at the intended moments, attention while listening was very good.

Ray’s favourite aspects of the afternoon were the trombones, Under the Sea, and the fact that “everything [in the Albert Hall] is a big circle”. He thought it was great having Michael Rosen read his own story because “he knows it the best”. Eric particularly enjoyed watching the illustrations appear and liked the bear drawings best, especially “the bear coming out of the smoke from the train” as well as the Firebird finale.

The BBC iPlayer version will inevitably miss some of the full occasion, but it is worth a listen for Rosen’s narrations and for John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King in particular. There is also an on-demand BBC feature available for the next week on Michael Rosen’s encounter Feeding the Bears at Whipsnade Zoo, included as an interval item, just over 35 minutes into the concert.

*****