It’s been quite a few years since we last saw John Wilson conduct a piece by Gilbert and Sullivan; that was The Yeoman of the Guard at the Royal Festival Hall.
This time the short piece Trial by Jury is teamed with a selection of other pieces from the oeuvre of G&S, presented in a witty and entertaining programme on the South Bank.
Programme for Trial by Jury
Although all the guest singers were exceptional, it was especially enjoyable to hear patter king Simon Butteriss as The Learned Judge as well as sharing The Mikado‘s “little list” and regaling us of the tale from HMS Pinafore about “ruling the Queen’s navy”.
He was joined by Louise Alder, a light and colourful soprano; tenor Robert Murray (the Defendant, who started his case from within the audience, and who also sang “Is Life a Boon” from the aforementioned Yeoman); baritone Simon Bailey (Plaintiff’s Counsel and a lively devil in the first half); and baritone Michael Craddock as an amusing Usher.
John Wilson rehearsing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are a accomplished group of musicians, expert in the works of Handel, Bach and Beethoven, but having fun with the 19th century operetta on show here.
Their choir are also wonderful, incorporating six of each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses (one of which did duty as Trial by Jury‘s foreman). Their ensemble pieces in the first half were clear and bright, and they added to the amusement once the main piece started.
The BBC Proms always seems a ‘British’ affair whatever the music on offer, and this First Night proved that to the hilt with no fewer than four English composers represented with five pieces, each conducted by a different person in a sort of classical homage to the Olympic relay.
The programme was eclectic despite the geographical link – a new percussion and brass-heavy piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage (‘Canon Fever’), conducted by Edward Gardner’; Edward Elgar’s superb ‘In London Town’, with its playful instrument interplay, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; Frederick Delius’ setting of Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem ‘Sea Drift’, sung by Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by Sir Mark Elder; Michael Tippett’s ‘Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles’, with its folk melodies and Irish jig section, conducted by Martyn Brabbins; and finally Elgar’s overblown ‘Coronation Ode’, originally composed for the crowning of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and revived for their successors George and Mary, conducted by Gardner again. It ends with an early version of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ which seems rather out of place so early in the season. Joining the chorus to perform the ‘Ode’ were Susan Gritton, a light soprano, Sarah Connolly, a feisty mezzo, Robert Murray, a melodious tenor, and Gerald Finley, a serviceable bass-baritone.
The conducting ‘relay’ was rather novel but didn’t really work, and I would have liked to see more of Norrington in particular, who is a fascinating conductor to watch, particularly with reportoire he obviously knows so well and enjoys. Still, in this Olympic year the Proms should be applauded for trying something different, and for presenting a programme of music from ‘home’.