The BBC’s increasingly eclectic approach to programming the Proms concerts is introducing us to many unfamiliar composers and their music, in the hands of performers whose excellence commands us to listen. So it was with the imaginative and knowledgeable programming that went into this BBC Prom, with 90 minutes of mesmeric contemporary music played by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing, with James McVinnie at the organ.

James McVinnie at the Royal Albert Hall organ
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Without an interval, we were treated to a succession of pieces of music from the late 20th century to the present day. Music from established composers Philip Glass, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt and Judith Weir was combined with first Prom performances of music by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Missy Mazzoli, and the UK premiere of Samy Moussa’s A Globe Itself Infolding for organ and orchestra, originally commissioned by the Orchestra symphonique de Montréal. From 1960s Minimalism to 21st-century neo-Romanticism, each of the pieces unfurled its own distinctive sound world.

What held the programme of often very short pieces together was the thoughtful, meditative quality of much of the music, with both the orchestra and James McVinnie at the organ not afraid of maintaining intimate, hushed sounds which drew the audience’s rapt attention. However McVinnie conjured the Splendour of God in Messiaen’s Méditation V Dieu est immense from his Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte-Trinité with full force, sending biting chords reverberating round the Albert Hall’s generous acoustic.

The BBC Concert Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There was a certain link throughout in the inspiration that composers have taken from birds and birdsong, not just famously for Messiaen, but also in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder, and in one of the most substantial pieces of the evening, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus, written in 1972. A concerto for birds and orchestra, it sets Rautavaara’s own recordings of arctic marshland birds – including the majestic whooper swans of the high Arctic – against transparent and expressive string and wind writing, a hymn to the wild natural world following in the footsteps of Sibelius.

Swedish-Finnish conductor Anna-Maria Helsing was making her Proms debut, and her affinity with modern and contemporary music was clearly in evidence, as was the versatility of the BBCCO. Many of the evening’s composers have crossover careers in film and documentary music, a genre familiar to the orchestra, which played the evening’s often filmic music with lyrical poise, with fine solos from section principals.

Anna-Maria Helsing
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

With only a small live audience in the Royal Albert Hall, sadly, the cavernous space felt a little cold, in spite of late summer warmth outside. We had a strong sense, though, of the wider audience listening to the live broadcast, and this atmospheric music, with its often introverted moods, perhaps was at its most rewarding when listened to at home. Indeed I was grateful to be able to follow the whole concert again online afterwards, when the BBC sound engineers had captured a better balance in places between the organ and orchestra than I had grasped from my seat in the hall.

The Royal Albert Hall Willis organ is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and the BBC showcased the instrument in a total of five Proms. That this instrument is taking part in music unimagined by its original patrons and builders is a testament to its adaptability, particularly in the hands of adventurous and virtuosic players like McVinnie. If the organ has a future outside of the traditional role of accompaniment to ceremonial, which surely it has to have, then some of this re-invention of the instrument will be in the hands of composers and performers who are exploring its unique qualities as part of the contemporary music scene.

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