Sunday night’s Free Prom, part of the Proms Extra Family series, was a glorious celebration of the dark and profane, a wonderful theme that was sure to grip new audiences and appeal to young minds in the way that the twisted worlds of Roald Dahl so often do.

Alison Balsom © BBC| Chris Christodoulou
Alison Balsom
© BBC| Chris Christodoulou

The concert opened with Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, which allowed the BBC Concert Orchestra's leader Charles Mutter to take the leading role. There was the opportunity for a more performative interpretation of the piece, but Mutter engaged more with the sheet music than the audience. The piece was dispatched with efficiency, though it wasn’t as arresting or daring as it could have been, particularly for a concert openly trying to awaken passion in a new audience. The sprightly speed at which Keith Lockheart conducted the orchestra contributed to the perfunctory tone, removing the opportunity for soloist or orchestra to really relish the menace of the piece. 

The world première of Guy Barker’s trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light proved more revelatory. The work is based on an anonymous English tract which provided a classification system based on the Seven Deadly Sins, establishing that each sin had an associated demon, responsible for implementing its temptations among the human race. Barker was aspiring to write highly programmatic music, and the accompanying notes expand in great detail a journey from the fall of Lucifer through the abyss to confrontations with envy and greed and finally to a dark coda depicting the place where the Seven Deadly Demons reside. There seemed to be an inherent risk starting with such a big, literal idea, but fortunately the realisation was marvellous, and the narrative worked.

The virtuosity and purity of tone of many musicians have inspired composers for centuries, so it is interesting to note that the genesis of this concerto involved quite the opposite. Alison Balsom is, of course, regarded for the striking purity and clarity of her trumpet playing, but this is precisely what Barker was trying to avoid in his piece. This worked wonderfully as the degradation of Balsom’s tone mirrored Lucifer’s fall from grace. From them on Balsom inhabited the work with a snarling, twisting, angry tone. Barker’s experience as a jazz composer was evident, particularly in the sleazy fourth movement depicting lust and gluttony, yet there were also moments where he conjured a big, orchestral sound with finesse. It was possible to feel completely at ease witnessing Balsom’s playing and the orchestra’s dynamic and virtuosic accompaniment, they were often at war with one another but in a way that was completely assured.

Orff’s Carmina Burana is a contentious piece, overshadowed by its awkward status as the most stunningly successful piece of modern music to emerge from Nazi Germany. Orff had, in fact, been marked by the authorities as a “cultural Bolshevist” and the work was attacked by the party newspaper as a degenerate production. The work’s elevation a few years later to a “celebration of the life instinct” was pure revisionism, but Orff’s ambiguous, or apathetic, response to his newfound status has clouded the work since. This concert provided the opportunity to enjoy the work in its musical as opposed to historical context.

It was a gaudy and raucous performance; the percussion in particular relished their roles. The combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir and Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs were both precise yet with a suitably impolite air. Lockhart, who had been somewhat lost on stage during the instrumental fireworks of The Lantere of Light, commandeered the amassed choral and instrumental forces with confidence and precision. Solo contributions were more mixed. Benjamin Appl’s voice was strained in the upper register, and he failed to make an impact in the space. Thomas Walker and Olena Tokar enjoyed more success, with characterful performances, augmented by the odd moment of choreography which elicited laughs in the hall. All in all, this Free Prom encapsulated the best of a festival that already scores high for accessibility, innovative programming and a dedication to new work.