Written by Thomas Joy
New York: Sound of a City is the latest in a line of ambitious late-night Proms overseen by the maverick Jules Buckley alongside the Heritage Orchestra, designed as a musical portrait of modern-day NYC featuring artists across the musical spectrum.
Whilst the Proms is perhaps traditionally a bastion of middle-England, the first thing that you notice at this performance is the audience: an ethnically diverse, and noticeably young audience who were obviously here to have a good time, and they certainly weren’t disappointed.
serpentwithfeet. kicked the evening off with effortlessly cool orchestral soul, blending his classically-trained vocal talents with the Heritage Orchestra into a style echoing Benjamin Clementine (though his voice is a lot lighter in tone). That said, one man’s effortlessly cool is another man’s flippancy; this is the Royal Albert Hall, you have a Proms crowd in the palm of your hand, nonchalance seems a bit out of place. Sharon Van Ettentreated us to some brilliantly intense numbers throughout the evening, and whilst I think she may have struggled with nerves in the opening couple of numbers (including an oddly placed ‘The End of the World’, a la Skeeter Davis / Julie London), as her confidence grew, so did her vocal power, delivering Florence Welch-esque vocals, which when paired with The Heritage Orchestra, soared.
But, it took the concert a good six pieces to find a rhythm that resonated with the audience, with the gentleman next to me leaving within the first half hour. Whilst the orchestrations were truly accomplished, to kick off a concert where everybody is geared up to have a good time, with four or five slower, downbeat numbers seemed to take the momentum out of the evening. Nitty Scott, having told the audience: “come on London, I came all the way from New York for this!”, finally got things moving, her stage presence was electrifying, bringing fresh, modern, orchestral rap to the Albert Hall. The highlight of the evening was certainly Hercules & Love Affair, and a brilliant couple of numbers from backing vocalists Vula Malinga, Brendan Reilly, and Sam White had the audience on their feet, clapping along, dancing, and having the party I think everybody had been hoping for.
For me, the biggest issue was that the concert totally lacked any continuity. When curating an event that covers such a wide variety of genres, a narrative is needed to help the evening flow. The artists rotated on and off stage with no introduction, and as an audience member, it felt a little stilted. A piece would end, there would be applause, then an awkward silence, then the next artist would walk on and just leap straight into the next song to a smattering of ‘oh, should we be applauding them walking on?’ confusion. In terms of ‘bringing Brooklyn to Britain’, the lack of continuity was jarring – if you’re going to present a tapestry that defies genres, then that tapestry needs to be woven.
Writing for this evening’s programme, Hugh McIntryre comments: “the music they’re making might not lead them to success in conventional terms,” but “they want to experiment for the sake of experimenting.”. I think that’s accurate. When this prom succeeded, it was magnificent, with Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra demonstrating versatility, innovation, and a sound that leaves you with shivers. Buckley’s orchestra, alongside the brilliant Hercules & Love Affair, crossed so many genres, and yet with each new piece and style, the ensemble delivered perfect, invigorating performances. In one 90-minute performance, we got soul, disco, rap, dance, funk, gospel, jazz, and I’m sure there were references to genres we didn’t even notice, and I liked the concert, I really did!
Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.
Thomas Joy is a theatre-lover and musician. Follow him on now Twitter: