Controversy has raged about these new Proms which take us off the beaten path of classical music. The BBC Asian Network Prom was the first of these, and the first such adventure for the radio station. In a night of many firsts, it seems Watford-born producer Naughty Boy is also the first British Asian artist to headline a Prom; if true, his appearance on the Royal Albert Hall stage is shockingly overdue. But however overdue, I’m afraid, it was not over-prepared.

Palak Muchhal performs at the Late Night BBC Asian Network Prom © BBC | Mark Allen
Palak Muchhal performs at the Late Night BBC Asian Network Prom
© BBC | Mark Allen

We began in good order with a rousing Burning Train Overture by RD Burman, the BBC Philharmonic launching in with vibrancy and accuracy which promised well. The evening was presented by Bobby Friction, resplendent in a fabulous gold-embroidered Indian jacket and smoothing through his links with natural charm. Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor made the briefest of appearances to give a cross-station seal of approval. And then, the programme unfurled: or, rather, unravelled.

The BBC Philharmonic worked hard all night, conductor Richard Davis virtually dancing on his podium as he navigated his crew through yearning string lines and briskly syncopated rhythms. Sadly, apart from his magnificently disciplined orchestra, Davis was joined by a selection of soloists who generally seemed as natural as stagestruck cats, and herding them extempore became Davis’ unenviable task. Much airtime was wasted by performers breaking into endless catalogues of thanks: while everyone acknowledges the honour of performing at the Proms, surely professional artists should be able to take it in their stride?  

Palak Muchhal appeared in a pale pink ballgown and tiara, the envy of any Disney princess, with a voice (and tremulous teenage air) to match. Her five songs, sung with a breathy prettiness characteristic of the genre, sounded lovely, but with no explanation of the songs’ context or content, it seemed like a lost opportunity to introduce Bollywood to a new audience. Muchhal herself seemed surprisingly awkward with the friendly and largely Asian audience, many of whom hummed along happily with her. Benny Dayal followed, much more at ease once singing, sounding like a young Michael Jackson, again seeming oddly self-conscious for someone whose voice is apparently familiar to millions through film. Kanika Kapoor made a better impression on stage, her voice sounding generally more settled and mature than Muchhal, though she struggled to fill some phrases: but her unscripted launch into thank yous, endearing as they were, seemed to hold everyone up. Naughty Boy’s interactions with the BBC Philharmonic ran into similar difficulties: in one toe-curlingly awkward moment, his (moving) inspirational speech, delivered peculiarly over the orchestra while it was playing, was cut off mid-flow due to a sudden swell in the music: had there been no rehearsal? Naughty Boy’s warm and self-effacing approach kept the audience entirely on his side, but if I had been at home I would definitely have been tapping my radio to see what had gone wrong with the broadcast signal.

Naughty Boy and Kanika Kapoor perform together at the BBC Asian Network Prom © BBC | Mark Allen
Naughty Boy and Kanika Kapoor perform together at the BBC Asian Network Prom
© BBC | Mark Allen

The finest moment of the night was Arrow Benjamin singing Naughty Boy’s energetic new composition Runnin’. Arrow Benjamin took centre stage from his first notes, his voice an elegant haze of shadows and passion with flute-like top notes, exhibiting a soul sensibility which immediately reminded me of Marvin Gaye. Surely Runnin’ has number one written all over it.

Emeli Sandé’s consummate artistry came as a late treat with a resounding diva rendition of Lifted, but only one song felt rather a cheap thrill when we had waited all night to see her. At least she didn’t gush awestruck gratitude for three minutes.

Some people wish to see something different at the Proms, and I for one firmly hope this experiment is repeated. But while difference of content is to be applauded, difference in quality of execution is not. If our soloists had spent less time being overawed, and more time performing to the best of their ability, this crucial first impression could have had a lasting, positive impact on Proms programming. As it was, the gap between the superlative execution of the BBC Philharmonic and everyone else only widened during the programme, making it much harder to be convinced the BBC Asian Network will ever get a second chance. I hope they do. But next time, they need to make it count.