The first Prom to welcome an audience back into the Royal Albert Hall began with a work of low-key celebration, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music. As its last chord died away, something else took its place: a collective silence, the kind that’s conjured when hundreds of people hold their breath, all listening intently to the same thing. This kind of delicious communal moment is what was missing last summer, when the Proms were performed with no audience in the hall.
Things aren’t quite back to normal yet. This season runs for six weeks, not eight. To make more room for distanced orchestral players, the stage has been expanded. And although seats are being sold with no social distancing and there’s the potential for audiences to reach something approaching 5,000, that wasn’t the case: the arena can’t have held more than 150 prommers standing, and anyone daunted by the idea of sitting up close to a stranger for two hours will have been reassured to see plenty of empty seats. But the audience was big enough to create a buzz. As the conductor Dalia Stasevska greeted the audience with a delighted wave, the mood was jubilant.
The Vaughan Williams, which sets lines from The Merchant of Venice, was the perfect opener for the occasion, its wistful melodiousness just joyous enough, and showcasing four distinctive soloists. The BBC Singers, high up in the choir stalls, added to the moonlit atmosphere with disembodied voices off that belonged more to The Tempest.
Poulenc’s Organ Concerto was the work that you won’t hear anywhere else – every good Proms programme has one. It’s a curious piece, gothic and severe one moment, delighting in souped-up harmonies the next. Daniel Hyde tamed the beast that is the Albert Hall’s 9,999-pipe organ, revelling in the instrument’s possibilities yet always in conversation with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s strings.
All the best Proms also include something new, and here it was James MacMillan’s When Soft Voices Die, an almost-too-close companion to the Vaughan Williams. Michael Mofidian’s pitch-dark bass, Allan Clayton’s clarion tenor and Jess Dandy’s velvet mezzo-soprano all delivered Shelley’s words eloquently, but it was when Elizabeth Llewellyn’s soprano soared above the full orchestra that the piece really glowed. Finally, there was Sibelius’s Symphony No 2. Was it at times too breathlessly driven for this acoustic? Forse, yet on its own terms Stasevska’s pacing was masterly – a coiled spring of a performance to push the current uncertainties of the music world from our minds.