★★★★☆ Berlioz’s fantastic passions gets the Australian franchise of the BBC Proms off to a solid start.

Hamer Hall, Melbourne
April 13, 2016

It may only be a miniature replica, but the first international outing for the UK’s largest and most celebrated classical music festival, the BBC Proms, is cause for excitement nontheless. This inaugural season of the BBC Proms Australia, taking place this week in Melbourne, consists of just five concerts, in stark contrast to the 90-plus that take place in London. With so few dates to deliver proof of concept for this imported franchise, shrewd programming as had to be front of mind, so in order to draw a respectable crowd to this pilot year, a leaning towards lighter, more effervescent repertoire, over more earnest works, has clearly been the strategy. 

And who better to helm the first performance in this series than Sir Andrew Davis, one of the Proms’ most seasoned luminaries. In many respects, not least the conspicuous absence of any promenade area for low-cost standing tickets, it’s almost impossible to accurately transplant the Proms from its home at the Royal Albert Hall, but at least with Davis on board, this would a musically authentic experience.

Opening the proceedings of Prom 1, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, was a semi-new piece by Australian composer Nigel Westlake, who is best known for his film scores, particularly the music for Babe, the 1995 adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s cherished children’s book, The Sheep-Pig. This newly commissioned work, Dream of Flying, draws on material from Westlake’s most recent film score, Paper Planes, which tells the story of a West Australian boy’s hopes of competing in the World Paper Plane Championships. 

While I have no doubt that this music would be touching in conjunction with the film, as a concert piece Westlake’s score is of a rather generic ilk, employing a trite harmonic vernacular that rarely dared to reveal a more distinctive voice. Occasionally, colourful moments of innovation, such as the use of a chattering quartet of violins to create a pocket of activity within the wash of the orchestral canvas, made small nods to a more inventive language. Overall however, this was a fairly unremarkable, albeit well-constructed, offering.

Things improved markedly with the second piece of the evening, featuring British-Scandinavian wunderkind Laura van der Heijden performing Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. At just 19, this tremendously charismatic performer displayed a confidence and artistry far greater than her years, delivering a rich, treacly tone warmed with a robust vibrato. This relatively short, single-movement work is not often considered among the greatest cello concerti, but in the hands of musicians of this calibre, it is most definitely worthy of a performance. 

It may lack the heft and technical virtuosity of more popular works, such as the cello concerti of Elgar and Dvořák, but there is an elegance and a bright, buoyant wit in this music, wonderfully illuminated here by the MSO under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. One of this maestro’s most incisive qualities is his understanding of emotional intention, and here the shifting character of this music was astutely observed. From the strident drama of the opening Allegro to the delicate, heart-warming simplicity of the central Allegretto and through the fever-pitched finale, each section was given its own space to communicate, thanks to the combination of van der Heijden’s impressive skill and Davis’s attention to detail.

The evening’s second French fancy was the pièce de résistance of this opening Proms performance: Berlioz’s brilliant and barmy Symphonie Fantastique. Next to the relatively restrained musical language of Westlake and Saint-Saëns, the verve and audacity of Berlioz’s epic ode to actress Harriet Smithson still feels astonishingly pivotal: both a celebration of the symphonic legacy of Beethoven and an incubator for the sumptuous excesses of the late Romantics.

This piece is an expression of passion, explored as both devotion and obsession, and as such its tiniest details must be realised with the same meticulous rigour as its broadest strokes. Fortunately, Davis is the ideal conductor for such mercurial music. His keen, sprightly rapport has cemented a connection to this orchestra with such a fine-tuned level of communication that every quirky gesture and frisson of excitement were brought vividly to the fore. Each of this work’s five parts, which are narratively individual and yet inextricably connected through Berlioz’s idée fixe, were so sharply drawn that they existed as exquisitely crafted entities in their own right. It’s little wonder that the audience, myself included, were moved to rapturous applause between each movement. If the BBC Proms Australia is starting as it means to go on, Melbourne’s music lovers are in for a great week.

The BBC Proms Australia continues at the Hamer Hall, Melbourne until Saturday April 16.