REVIEW: Prom 35: New York: Sound of a City

Nitty Scott
Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

BBC Proms 35: New York: Sound of a City
(Royal Albert Hall, 8 August 2018. Late night Prom. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

It was clearly an intriguing premise: a full orchestra accompanying hip hop, dance and singer-songwriters. At 21h00 around the Royal Albert Hall the traditional suited elderly Prom cohort morph into a more eclectic younger group to see what the Heritage Orchestra has been cooking up. It's an excitingly unusual range of experiences for the audience, and it's also clearly a very different experience for the performers themselves.

serpentwithfeet
Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

serpentwithfeet (Josiah Wise) walks on stage with conductor Jules Buckley, and after a brief confusion over who stands where, is brought in by conductor and then let loose to sing, with musings on names and an engaging bless ur heart. Alone upfront looking around the cavernous space imploringly for a connection, Wise comes across as a story-teller who might thrive off more casual and intimate scenarios than the formality of the RAH.

He is one of a pair for the opening brace of songs, alternating between two tender and earnest singers. Sharon Van Etten swaps in with tinges of melancholy with a clean Americana vibe on Skeeter Davis's The End of The World, and occasional angst on Memorial Day. Accompanied by restrained arrangements with regulation string sweeps and held horns, her songs were pinned on the drumbeat and small traditional format rhythm section, with Van Etten herself looking a little lost without a guitar to clutch centre stage.

Sharon van Etten with Jules Buckley and the Heritage Otchestra
Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

The Heritage Orchestra are meticulous and accomplished, but the pared back songwriting lent itself to pared back arrangements. It was only when Nitty Scott arrived that the tone of the orchestration changed.

Joyous and natural, Scott is seemingly comfortable on any stage, and the percussion and arrangement that accompanied her on Flower Child gave a hip hop kick to the atmosphere. She addressed the crowd with defiant honest messages on Still I Rise, and called for participation on La Diaspora. With these songs there was real meat for Buckley to arrange – whether the first violin playing the opening lick loop, the muted trumpet high lines, or carefully layered percussion.

Andy Butler instead opted to blend into the orchestra and hide at his keys, but from comparative anonymity he contributed a genre-crossing Hercules & Love Affair mini dance set of his own with Krystle Warren, Van Etten or the three backing singers taking on vocal duties. Referencing Prince, Madonna and shoegaze, in this format they delivered the richest moment of the evening with Hercules Theme, a romping '70s dance funk theme to make Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes proud.

It takes a bold enterprise to claim to be able to distill the sound of such a melting pot of a world city. And while the diverse genres and featured collaborators could claim to represent much of New York, the Heritage Orchestra probably cannot claim to represent a diverse London.

Singers Vula Malinga, Brendan Reilly, Sam White
Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

But the Heritage Orchestra aren't masquerading as such. Indeed they're not masquerading as anything except a contemporary experimentation outfit with talent and depth in numbers, and an aim to bring different music together. It is partly up to the audience to decide how to react.

In the RAH, cowed by the environment, it started as a respectful hush with an occasional well behaved heckle/declaration of love. With the arrival or return of each performer, there was nearly as much polite clapping as for your improvisation-heavy jazz quintet. But by the end of the set musical barriers were broken, and the crossover between a classical orchestral format and any contemporary popular music available to hand had won over a crowd. It's exciting variety-show stuff – and I hope continues to be a Sound of the Future.

Prom 35 is available for 28 days on BBC iPlayer

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