A packed Royal Albert Hall cheered as rocker-come-classical composer Eric Whitacre took to the stage for this Sunday matinee. Thanking the audience for the “thrill and honour” of performing at The Proms and describing the event as “a dream”, the bar was set high. With the full force of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus behind him, Whitacre kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

Eric Whitacre © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Eric Whitacre
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Whitacre kicked off the performance with the European première of Jonathan Newman’s Blow It Up, Start Again. Whitacre's dance-like conducting brought out the ‘hip’ side of classical music, striking a perfectly cool attitude on the podium. Despite the enormity of the orchestra, the RPO's members played as one and presented a strong sense of unity between themselves and Whitacre. The trust between the two was evident and Whitacre later remarked that “if you ever get the chance to conduct this orchestra, I’d highly recommend it.” The piece was lively, rhythmic and created an apprehensive atmosphere amongst those avid Whitacre fans in the audience who awaited further stellar performances.

The River Cam, inspired by Whitacre’s journey to and from his son’s school in Cambridge, was introduced by Whitacre. Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich performed earnestly and with grace, bringing emotional depth to the lyrical and meandering line. Each layer and colour of the river was depicted beautifully through Whitacre’s scoring and the finesse of the orchestral playing.

Whitacre’s tingle-inducing Cloudburst acted as a fantastic segue from orchestral to choral as the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus took to the stage. Whitacre stepped down from the podium and placed himself in the middle of the stage. From this point, he conducted the choir and soloists through exquisitely timed atmospheric passages, constantly building in harmony and momentum, preparing for the climax of the storm. The handbell passage was well-organised amongst singers and as the musical rain began falling, Whitacre stylishly directed the audience to start clicking their fingers and assumed a position of power in the eye of the storm until the rainfall ceased. 

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue had absolute flare and some committed cello pizzicatos, making the piece entirely enjoyable. The orchestra was joined by the 19-year old pianist Martin James Bartlett, who performed with charisma and displayed a cheeky side to his persona. It was refreshing to see a concert pianist engrossed not only in his own performance, but thoroughly enjoying the sound of the orchestra, swaying along.

Quiet City by Aaron Copland, “the grandfather of modern music” according to Whitacre, made its fifth appearance at the Proms. A complete change in pace from the dynamic first half, trumpeter James Fountain performed the expressive melody with care and thought, conjuring images of walking through a city alone at dawn. Amelia Coleman’s cor anglais solo provided a soulful partner to Fountain’s trumpet passages.

Whitacre described Equus as “Carmina Burana on steroids” due to the constant expansion of the piece from wind ensemble to full orchestra, adding a choral part six months ago. All the participants rose to the challenge of performing this “viciously difficult” piece, which was inspired by horses racing across Whitacre’s garden in Nevada. The increase in tempo, the fluctuating time signatures and fascinating rhythms were performed with such focus and attack that any obstacles were met head on and cleanly hurdled. Whitacre’s use of the voice as an instrument to reinforce the orchestra in this film score-inspired piece put the definition into the muscular galloping herd of horses which was the RPO.

The Prom concluded with the European première of Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field, inspired by the Hubble Telescope's “Deep Field Image” taken in 1990. The purpose of the piece was to conjure a concept of the expanse of the universe. Tubas and a terrific cymbal roll created the magical force of Space. The performance comprised several interactive features such as the choir’s positioning in the aisles and the inclusion of Whitacre’s Deep Field mobile phone app. The app comprised an electronic part within the scoring which the audience played on Whitacre’s downbeat. People all over the Royal Albert Hall accessed the app after 20 minutes of orchestral and choral bliss, creating complete surround sound with Whitacre once again in the centre of the music. The piece was cleverly designed to allow for those app users who inevitably came in late, as when the orchestra and choir stopped, there was an eerie electronic sound resonating from various locations around the Royal Albert Hall.

The quality of the music-making, the ambiance and the involvement of the audience waves a particular flag for the future of contemporary music in many people's eyes. 

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