This morning’s Prom represented the culmination of the Ten Pieces project, a year-long BBC initiative to bring primary school children into close and meaningful contact with classical music. The starting point was a specially commissioned film, in which the BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed each of the ten pieces, each with an accompanying animation or drama. Children were encouraged to respond creatively – in art, music and dance – the project has focussed as heavily on the works they have produced as on the original pieces that inspired them. For the Prom, the BBC attempted to bring it all together. BBCNOW was back to play the music, and live versions of some of the filmed dramas were presented. But the event also acted as a showcase for all the music, dance and art that the project has generated. A fascinating mix, and a lot to fit into two hours.
Musical standards were high throughout. Thomas Søndergard had no intention of underselling any of these classics, and often seemed to be milking then more than he normally might. The isolated cadential chords at the end of “Mars” from The Planets, for example, where slowed right down and played for maximum impact. So too A Night on Bare Mountain and The Hall of the Mountain King, but it all seemed appropriate to the occasion.
The presentation was mixed. We got some slapstick messing around from Dick and Dom, a straight man act from Barney Harwood and a running gag about Dan Starkey being chased by a troll. None of it really added up, but no one seemed to mind. In fact, the assumption seemed to be that everyone present had seen the TV show and so already knew the music and how it was to be presented.
The children’s contributions were all very impressive, and had presumably been cherry-picked from all of the school music activities around the country. We heard Zadok the Priest performed by the “Ten Pieces Children’s Choir”. They were supported by a few of the BBC Singers, but from the confidence of the young performers, professional help seemed unnecessary. Also in the first half we heard a composition from a girl called Deirdre, played by herself and a violin ensemble from her school. This was accompanied very sensitively by the orchestra – an impressive demonstration of how a symphony orchestra can support a project like this without completely overpowering it.
In the second half, we were obliged to take part in Anna Meredith’s body percussion work Connect It, which was also impressively danced by pupils of Trinity Laban. I’ll confess that I struggled to keep up with the actions, and even the young children around me were making a better job of it! The schools projects in the second half included a group composition that was shamelessly ripped off from The Hall of the Mountain King, a fact made all the more obvious by the fact that the original followed immediately on. More impressive was “Withycombe Stomp”, an act made up of children from Withycombe Raleigh Primary School in Devon hammering out industrial rhythms, mostly on discarded oil drums. Many of the instruments were larger than the players, and the sound they made in the Albert Hall was awesome.
This concert took a novel approach to connecting the young audience with the music. At last year’s CBeebies Prom, the orchestral works were performed straight, but interspersed with presentations from the children’s TV presenters. That didn’t work, because the audience’s attention drifted as each piece went on – the visual stimulus was valuable but never coincided with the music. So this year, each of the pieces was accompanied with dance, or drama, or light projections. Paintings created by children as part of the Ten Pieces project were also shown on screens above the orchestra as the music played.
So there was no danger of anybody getting bored. In fact, the result was overstimulation, for me at least. It was often difficult to know what to concentrate on and where to look. This was a particular problem when children were actually performing. One of the acts was a dance routine to the storm from Peter Grimes. It took place in front of the orchestra, but at the same time as the animation from the film on some screens, pictures of storm-inspired paintings on others, and an immersive light show: an impressive spectacle, but the dancers didn’t get the attention they deserved. It also often felt that the inclusivity message was being repeated and overstated to the point of absurdity in some of the videos. There were lots of clips of young children telling us how good it was to be involved and about the transcendent virtues of music making: no need to tell us, we were experiencing it first hand.
However, the concert culminated in an ideal finale. After the third movement of the Mozart Fourth Horn Concerto from Tim Thorpe (who managed to get a cheeky reference to Frozen into the cadenza) and a final appearance of the troll for The Hall of the Mountain King, the event wrapped up with the final hymn from The Firebird. For this, a huge crimson puppet bird was brought in, raised about 15 feet on poles to majestically fly around the arena. A fitting and very memorable conclusion.
And whatever reservations I may have, I’m not the target audience. My four-year-old daughter came with me. She was mesmerised by the whole thing and has talked of little else since. When the concert finished, I explained that we had had our ten pieces and that it was now time to go home. “Why does it have to be just ten pieces”, she replied indignantly, “why can’t it be a hundred pieces?”
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