BBC Proms: Thoughtful Brahms from Violinist Leonidas Kavakos

By Inge Kjemtrup

The concert was late, but the Prommers were patient. What’s a Prommer? Well, anybody can be Prommer. All you need is £6 and a little time to spare for waiting in line before a BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and you too can secure a standing space in the arena or in “the gods” in the top balconies. In these cheap yet covetable spots, you can enjoy a fine view of the world’s greatest orchestras and players.

Normally by the time the rest of the concertgoers show up, the Prommers have already made the mad dash inside to stake out the best spots. But tonight, Friday, August 25, something was up. It was 15 minutes before the 6:30 PM concert start, and Prommers were still in a long line, eating sandwiches, and looking for the doors to open for this concert with the Filarmonica della Scala conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Top of the bill was Leonidas Kavakos playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D.

I walked in to collect my ticket I noticed a sign announcing the concert would  start 15 minutes late—simply unheard of on the tight Proms schedule. All concerts are broadcast on Radio 3 and planned to the minute, especially when, as was true tonight, there’s another concert to follow. I imagined there was a lot of tension and pencil-breaking in the Radio 3 booth tonight.


I subsequently heard that delayed unloading of luggage and instruments at Stansted Airport had brought the orchestra to the hall two hours later than planned, depriving them of their scheduled rehearsal and allowing only for a brief sound check as the Prommers were finding their spots.

It was less than ideal circumstances for the Filarmonica della Scala, founded in 1982 by Claudio Abbado and musicians of the La Scala Opera Orchestra, to make its Proms debut. Yet the trademark of an orchestra that spends much of its time in an opera pit accompanying wayward sopranos and memory-lapse suffering tenors is that it doesn’t panic easily (see also: the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra).


Riccardo Chailly conducts the Filarmonica della Scala in Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, at the BBC Proms 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Riccardo Chailly conducts the Filarmonica della Scala in Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, at the BBC Proms 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

That was certainly the case at this Prom. The Filarmonica’s burnished sound was first heard in the Brahms Concerto in the long orchestral passage before the violinist enters. Kavakos was as ever clear and even-toned. He played the first movement in a meditative fashion, caressing phrases and allowing himself rhythmic largesse. The second movement was nearly a prayer, as Kavakos sought out the softest dynamic levels. It is hard not to be transfixed by Kavakos’ tender playing, and yet this beauty sometimes came at the cost of losing the overall shape of the movement.

The Brahms is, as is often noted, a highly symphonic work, making the symbiosis between orchestra and soloist all the more crucial, so it was a relief Kavakos left his reverie and returned to the world in the final Allegro giocoso, leading the orchestra in an exuberant dance.

At the intermission of every Prom, the Prommers, or some of them at least, enjoy a moment in the spotlight, as they chant in unison to announce how much money they have collected for musical charities at the Proms. (The total was around £75,000 as of the date of this Prom.) The Prommers are a boisterous at times and famously opinionated, but they listen silently and intently to the performers.

In the concert’s second half the Filarmonica played two of Respighi’s Rome trilogy tone poems: Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Having read that water rationing was introduced in Rome this summer, I found it hard to get in the mood for first piece, which describes the joy of Eternal City’s flowing and burbling fountains. But I had my hiking boots on to join the Filarmonica in their essay of the Appian Way, the final movement in the Pines of Rome, an impressive orchestral tour de force.