Prom 37, presented by the Royal Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Dinis Sousa, was a late morning concert. It included a performance of the Oboe Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with soloist Nicholas Daniel, which was part of a thread for the season featuring concertos for less usual solo instruments as well as being part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth. The concerto is in three movements and is relatively brief–19 minutes. It’s also musically quite concise (except maybe for the last movement) and as well conceived for the instrument as one could wish. It’s a lovely piece, with all the good and bad connotations of that description. The performance was as good as one could ever hope to hear. The program also included an arrangement of an arrangement of the final aria of Kaija Saariaho’s fist opera, L’amour de loin, from 2000. The first arrangement, entitled Vers toi qui es si loin, made by the composer in 2016, was a more straightforward excerpting of the aria for soprano with a reduced orchestration of strings, harp, and piccolo. The second arrangement–same title– which she made in 2018, presented here, recast the soprano part for solo violin, and allows an even greater sense of distance and musical space. The piece is, in fact, magical, and that quality was enhanced by the playing of the soloist, Maria Wloszczowska, who was also the leader (i.e. concertmaster) of the orchestra. In this concert it was followed without a break with the Beethoven Fourth Symphony. The playing of the Royal Norther Sinfonia all the way through the concert, which opened with the Haydn Sixth Symphony, was strikingly beautiful.

The Prom later that night, presented by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, was maybe the most egregious example of sticking a modern piece in between two crowd-pleasers, maybe hoping that the audience won’t notice. The concert started with twenty five minutes of excerpts from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky and ended, after intermission, by forty-five minutes of excerpts from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. (In an interview included in the program, Rouvali said he thought the programming of the ballet music would ‘fit well with that kind of audience and setting,’ which aside from being condescending, seems to reflect a lack of knowledge of the history and traditions of the Proms.) After the Tchaikovsky and before intermission, Jennifer Koh and the orchestra played the first European performance of the Violin Concerto ‘Procession’ of Missy Mazzoli, which was a BBC co-commission with the National Symphony Orchestra (of Washington, D. C.), and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Given the placement of the concerto in terms of the repertory of the concert, it’s hard to know exactly what the people who put together the program thought about the expectations they might be setting up by putting in quite large type an excerpt from the review of its first performance in the Washington Post, which began ‘Koh..attacked short solos as if she were sawing through a pipe…”

Conceived and written during the covid pandemic lock down, the five movements of the piece represent a move towards healing, which is led by the violin, who Mazzoli describes as ‘a soothsayer, sorcerer, healer, and pied piper-type character.’ The first movement, ‘Procession in a Spiral,’ which is relatively slow, processes in circles, as if getting nowhere. The second is dedicated to St. Vitus, the patron saint of dance, and is, as one might expect, lively and rhythmic. The third, ‘O My Soul,’ is a deconstructed hymn. The fourth, ‘Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood’ referring to a 9th-century incantation for curing broken limbs, is another fast movement. The final movement, ‘Procession Ascending’ is the material of the first movement reorganized and given direction, so that the violinist, as Mazzoli says, ‘leads the orchestra straight into the sky.’ Koh’s playing was resplendent and compelling, and that of the orchestra was equally beautiful. I was not able to locate a moment which sounded as though anybody was sawing through a pipe.