Proms in the park vibe gives way to the classical moshpit
Isobel Waller-Bridge starts the Thursday night opening concert. It’s romantic and melancholic, entirely suited to the TV and film soundtrack where her work is most often heard (her sister’s ‘Fleabag‘, ‘Black Mirror‘ and the 2020 film ‘Emma‘). Waller-Bridge sits at the piano, which is a bit difficult to hear in the mix, and her short set is enjoyed by a crowd who have settled in for an evening with their B&Q collapsible chairs and blankets. There’s a gentle hubbub – rows and rows of people await the evening’s music, seated in their camping chairs, bathed in bright evening sunshine. It feels rather like a prom performance – the calm before the forecasted weekend storms.
London producer Coby Sey follows. Fusing trip hop, blurred sonics, grime and abstract poetry, with occasional side-steps into woozy dub/techno, Sey’s 2022 debut album ‘Conduit’ was a real statement of gloriously complex electronic dissonance. Here, he joins forces with the BBC Concert Orchestra for a 15-minute performance of ‘Eve (Anwummerɛ)’ – from ‘Conduit’ – played live for the first time.
It might be brief, but what it lacks in length it certainly makes up for in punch and depth. Standing stage-front, Sey delivers his spoken word/vocal sermon, backed by lush, desolate strings. At one point, the orchestra rustle balled-up newspapers, replicating the sound of teeming rain or the crackle of a vinyl record – you can sense the collective shivers in the crowd, before the slow burn of brooding strings gathers momentum and peaks in a euphoric crescendo. Glorious.
By the time neoclassical composer Max Richter takes to the stage, also backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, a new crowd has piled down the front much to the mild irritation of happily seated early birds. Everyone is standing, ready for the fiery segments of ‘The Four Seasons‘.
The first part of the show is ‘Recomposed’, featuring Richter’s reworked versions of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ violin concertos. Richter himself oversees proceedings while multitasking on laptop, keyboard and piano.
It’s beguiling and immersive, as you might expect. The orchestra’s ornate, crystalline strings ebb and flow, their massed array of violins, violas, cellos and harp cutting through the still night air like an army of swirling bees, underpinned by Richter’s atmospheric, drone-like electronics. At times, it’s as dramatic as a Bernard Herrmann score. During the vigorous ‘Summer’ segment, a nearby woman is suddenly jolted into life, throwing all manner of curious shapes and waving her arms about as if her life depended on it. It’s quite a sight. Who knew classical music had such power?
After a brief pause, Richter and the orchestra reappear for the second part of his show, a performance of ‘Voices’ with actress Tilda Swinton – stylish and resplendent in a fetching turquoise suit – reciting excerpts from the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. It’s a hugely poignant and moving experience. Whispers of Declaration readings in multiple languages permeate the orchestral swell like ghostly interjections, soprano Grace Davidson’s haunting, soaring voice echoes out towards us, and Richter’s stark solo piano notes seem to linger on the now-chilly night air. Kaleidoscopic patterns are projected onto the giant Lovell Telescope, seemingly reacting to the intensity of the stellar music, all met with reverential hush from the assembled throng. It feels like being in the middle of a slow, all-consuming warp drive, as you’re transported to another dimension. Utterly life-affirming.