John Adams and Gustav Mahler might not seem the most obvious bedfellows. Separated by a large temporal gap, the two figures are worlds apart; indeed, the only thing linking the pieces featured in Prom 63 appeared to be orchestral colour. However, it was not a musical connection which tied together the programme, but the ebullient personality of Marin Alsop. Alsop has long been a champion of Adams' music, and proved herself to be no less impressive in Mahler.

Marin Alsop conduction <i>Short Ride in a Fast Machine</i> © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop conduction Short Ride in a Fast Machine
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

This was Alsop's first return to the BBC Proms since her acclaimed performance at 2013's Last Night, and it was clear from the convivial atmosphere that she had won the hearts of the Prommers. The concert appeared to be a tribute to this much-loved conductor; indeed, she was presented with Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society at the beginning of the second half, a prestigious title which has been awarded only 140 times in 200 years.

The acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall was certainly not ideal for Adams' Short Ride in a Fast machine, meaning that the vitality and attack encouraged by Alsop's animated conducting was somewhat compromised; this was doubtless responsible for the loss of energy as it progressed. Although occasionally overpowered by some over-enthusiastic percussion, the BBC SO produced a robust and athletic sound which suited the propulsive nature of the piece.

Inspired by the great jazz players of the mid-20th century, Adams' Saxophone Concerto is undoubtedly a valuable new contribution to the repertory of the instrument. However, even though it is a gift for any saxophonist looking to test their virtuosic mettle, I was left unconvinced by the piece as a whole. Improvisatory in nature, it seemed oddly directionless: there seemed little logical progression between episodes. There were some gorgeous moments, especially in the more reflective passages, with gossamer-like melodic threads spun out over soft, luminous accompaniment, and the harmonies were endlessly interesting: deliciously scrunchy chords and piquant dissonances lent the piece attitude. Although attractive to listen to, I was ultimately dissatisfied by the structure: Adams may have been successful in incorporating jazz into his idiom, but had more difficulty reconciling the genre with large-scale form.

While I may have been left somewhat disappointed by the piece, the performance was full of verve. Soloist Timothy McAllister, for whom the piece was written, tossed off the finger-twisting passages with a cool sound, broad but never unrefined. Expressive and characterful, he met the significant demands on stamina with seeming ease. Alsop and the BBC SO provided colourful accompaniment, from the pulsating sonorities of the first movement to the infectious groove of the second.

After a shaky start ridden with flat intonation and ensemble problems, Mahler's First Symphony elevated the concert to a different level. Alsop provided a refreshingly relaxed reading, taking a malleable approach to tempo which allowed the music space to breathe and enabled it to blossom into more dramatic moments as if they were inevitable. The BBC SO took a while to adjust to Alsop's spontaneous shaping of tempo, but soon tuned into the expressive possibilities which this offered, responding with characterful playing. The Scherzo was big-boned, with a rich and resonant orchestral sound, but never sluggish; the trio of the third movement was graceful and fragile. Some of Alsop's tempi may have been on the slow side, but the tension never sagged: this spaciousness was carefully calculated, making the performance all the more gripping.

With teasing string portamenti in the trio of the second movement and blazing brass, the BBC SO sounded truly fantastic (although the horn section particularly stood out, their playing refined and spirited as required). Altogether, a thrilling performance, and a perfect example of Alsop's craft.