Prom 1: BBCSO/Stasevska review – energy, ovations and defiance open season

The first night of the BBC Proms season is always an event. But it isn’t necessarily always a big occasion. The launch of the 2023 season at a packed Albert Hall was undoubtedly the latter. This was down to the well chosen programme, of course, and the on-form musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but it drew at least as much on the audience’s palpably energised mood.

Even before the start, it was as if a switch had already been thrown. Part of this reflects the new controller Sam Jackson’s determination to make a bigger than normal noise about the Proms on Radio 3 in the run-up. But it also felt as if the penny has at last dropped with audiences that classical music is under threat in Britain. This concert felt like a fight-back.

Conductor Dalia Stasevska had a lot to do with it too. The evening’s engaged and outgoing programming reflected her press-on musical personality - she is not a conductor who lingers over the score, but given her own Ukrainian origins and her Finnish citizenship, her defiance in the choice of works and the performances was hard to miss, and the impact unerring.

BBC Singers can never have been greeted with such an ovation as they were here. It was that kind of evening.

That was especially true of the electrifying, only occasionally heard, choral version of Sibelius’s Finlandia with which the Prom began. The Albert Hall shook with the sound. This hit another sweet spot by showcasing both the BBC Symphony Chorus and the currently reprieved, but still threatened, BBC Singers. The latter can never have been greeted with such an ovation as they were here. It was that kind of evening.

They all returned after the interval for a real Sibelius rarity, the “improvisation” Snöfrid, written at the same time as the original Finlandia. This is a hybrid, comprising two folkloric choruses separated by a narration, grippingly given (in English) by Lesley Manville. The opening chorus seems to prefigure Sibelius’s distinctive later sound world, while the second is still firmly late-romantic.

Ukrainanian composer Bohdana Frolyak’s short orchestral study, Let There Be Light, was a world premiere, the first of nine in this season. Her programme note explicitly linked its theme - light which must defeat darkness - to the current war. The scoring for large orchestra is sumptuous but restrained, with moments of reflection that melt into scarcely audible breaths, like wind in the corn, rather spoiled by too much audience coughing.

Two established pieces completed the programme. Paul Lewis gave a beautifully poetic account of the first two movements of Greig’s Piano Concerto, before letting his inner showman off the leash in the finale. Hats off to him for not playing one of the unnecessary encores that can plague Proms concerts; let’s hope other soloists follow his example this season. After a brief interruption from what seemed, from the other side of the hall, to be a benignly handled Just Stop Oil protest, Stasevska rounded the evening off with a characteristically vigorous rendering of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. In the end, it was – and is – all about the music.

Available on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer until 13 August. The Proms continue uhtil 9 September.