The Proms are like mini-discoveries. Obviously there’s the music. Then there are the artists. But then there are also the occasions they mark. Last year’s Proms saw Juanjo Mena bid a fond farewell to the BBC Philharmonic after seven years at the helm, and a year later the Proms welcomed Omer Meir Wellber, making his Proms debut, to his first official engagement as Mena’s successor (no longer as Chief Conductor ‘designate’). But he didn’t hang about setting his stall out with this intriguing and rather generous programme: take a couple of Classical and Romantic staples, throw in a revolutionary work from the early 20th century and a wartime piece from Wellber’s homeland and you’ve got quite a mix.

Yeol Eum Son and the BBC Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Yeol Eum Son and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But there was no whizz-bang of the popular overture to announce his official arrival, but the rather more subtle woodwind opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 15 in B flat major, which always sounds to me like you are coming in half way through a conversation. The whizz-bangs came later. South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, who has previously collaborated with Wellber, has gained a reputation as a fine interpreter of Mozart, and on this performance it was easy to see why. Son mixed serenity with calm assertion, with a delicate but confident touch and an almost dream-like quality, particularly in the Andante, while also creating breathing space amongst all of Mozart’s technical intricacies. The wonderful playing of the orchestra gave stability but was not as crisp as it might be. Nevertheless, Wellber took great care over phrasing and brought out a noble warmth in the strings with woodwinds floating lyrically throughout.

The music of German-born Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim has never been heard before at the Proms, yet his Symphony no. 1 is considered to be one of the most important works in Israeli classical music. A post-Romantic style tempered with middle-Eastern folk idioms characterised Ben-Haim’s music, but there was also an overriding sense of struggle and defiance in this particular work, mirroring the outbreak of war, most notably in the martial overtones of the restless first movement. Wellber gave this real meaning, drawing out rampant brass, persuasive percussion and wailing woodwinds, with the strings aggressive and mournful. He yielded intense emotions and a distant melancholy in the glorious second movement, with wonderfully melting flute, violin and oboe solos after the huge central climax, and the busy tarantella rhythms of the third movement, mixed with the hora (a Hebrew folk dance), had Wellber in fiery and tempestuous mood with the sharp, acerbic rhythms stirring up the orchestra into a frantic frenzy. Full marks to Wellber for bringing this rather absorbing work to our full attention.

Omer Meir Wellber and the BBC Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Omer Meir Wellber and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After the interval, Wellber took us to the year 1909, a melting pot of musical change. Schoenberg’s new musical language of total chromaticism and atonality opened up a whole new world of expressionism, but the real game-changer was his Five Pieces for Orchestra. Wellber’s approach to this piece was straightforward. Schoenberg always said that there were no themes to try to bring to the fore and that performers should concentrate on playing the dynamics exactly as written. So Wellber simply allowed the music to do its thing. He coaxed each nuance and gesture with care, letting the delicate colours contrast with explosive, violent outbursts exactly as intended, and allowed extreme changes of dynamics and timbres to prevail. Each section of the orchestra played an equal part, and the BBC Philharmonic excelled, with Wellber embracing the unsettling nature of this still remarkable piece very ably indeed.

Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor gave the opportunity to end in more buoyant mood. While not an exceptional performance, there was much to enjoy. Wellber brought vibrancy to the first movement, though slightly laboured at times, but with nice contrasts, beautiful woodwind lines and singing strings (the brass were a little over-balanced early on). The lament of the Romanze was gorgeous, and Wellber gave himself carte blanche in the Finale to be super-generous with tempi, bringing the whole shooting match to a joyous close with the conductor dancing almost continuously for the last five minutes.