Vasily Petrenko conducting the RPO in the rehearsal before the Prom

On Wednesday 4 August 2021, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra stepped back onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in front of a live audience for the first time in almost eight months.

The concert not only marked the return to a staple of the RPO’s regular appearances at the Hall, but also the first performance for which Vasily Petrenko picked up the baton as the Orchestra’s Music Director. He adopted the title at the start of August 2021, three years after it was first announced.

See some exclusive photos from our rehearsal for the BBC Prom and read about what some of our players and soloist Sayaka Shoji had to say about being back in front of a live audience.

A programme of new beginnings

Described by Classical Source as ‘programme of consummate musicality’, the concert featured Vaughan William’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Respighi’s Concerto gregoriano and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.5, ‘Reformation’. The evening before the concert, Vasily described in a conversation with Katie Derham on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune that ‘all three pieces are connected by a religious theme, but also by resurrection and reformation… we are all looking forward to a new beginning.'

For RPO Principal Flute Emer McDonough, who played the opening solo of the final movement of the Mendelssohn symphony, this return to the stage with a live audience meant that this Prom carried a lot more anticipation and emotion than they have in previous years.

I’m one of those people who downplays most things in life - outwardly anyway. Returning to the Royal Albert Hall wasn’t going to be a big deal in my mind. The reality is that the RPO has been at the RAH during the lockdown doing streamed performances, so the familiarity with the space has been tenuously kept alive (ish).

 RPO Blog Return to Proms Emer McDonough

(L-R) Principal Flute Emer McDonough, Principal Oboe John Roberts and Sub-Principal Oboe Tim Watts

So on the night, as I grappled with the familiarity of my concert shoes, my Achilles’ tendons screaming as they were brutally contracted by the 6-inch heels, I teetered unsteadily onto stage and I was sincerely shocked by the sight and sound of the large audience. I certainly had to steady myself mentally and immediately smother any slight jitters this sight induced. The Proms has an atmosphere like no other occasion but there was an added buzz of anticipation, perhaps heightened by my own adrenaline as I had a solo to play in the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Over the years I’ve played more mournful Irish airs at more emotionally charged sacraments than I care to mention so that I’ve developed a kind of calm switch that has come in really handy throughout my career. It’s important to stay calm so quite simply you don’t partially spoil the experience for all those people who have been desperate for live music! BBC Proms or not, we always have to balance expressing what the conductor wants and of expressing oneself, and most importantly imparting something beautiful or provokingly meaningful to the listener.

Vasily Petrenko is brilliant and demanding of course but this, in my opinion, has never been more welcome. Especially so because of how awful it has been since the music abruptly stopped in March 2020, and still is a deeply worrying and stressful time for everyone involved in the arts. This personally inevitably caused a waning in hope, motivation and momentum which I’m sure others have felt too. I feel that welcoming a new principal conductor has recharged us and revitalised us musically. Last Wednesday’s Prom meant so much more than previous Proms. For once I can’t downplay it. It was so much more than just "grand": it felt like our very own Reformation.

RPO Blog Vasily Petrenko conducting

Premieres and reflections

Making their Prom debuts were both Sayaka Shoji and Respighi’s Concerto gregoriano, a violin concerto which was written one century ago this year. The young violinist from Japan was given a warm reception after the concerto and subsequent encore of the Sarabande from Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.4

 RPO Blog Sayaka Shoji

RPO Sub-Principal Oboe Tim Watts reflects on the experience of performing at the Royal Albert Hall under Vasily's direction. While the Hall was open at full capacity, the the Orchestra members maintained 1.5 metres of social distancing between each other on the stage.

For the RPO returning to the Royal Albert Hall feels a bit like coming home. We have played so many concerts there over the years, playing there again really feels like meeting up with an old friend.

We were in the hall earlier in the year with Vasily to record some concerts for streaming, but performing to a live audience at the Proms feels so much more exciting. Of course with the orchestra being so spread out and with the Prommers standing further back from the stage than is customary, the concert lacked the intimacy of a normal prom. Nevertheless, Vasily is a very reassuring presence on the rostrum in these challenging conditions, where it is sometimes difficult to hear one another. He prepares the Orchestra thoroughly by imbuing a strong sense of style - I felt this was particularly apparent in the Reformation symphony - and is extremely clear in his direction during the concert. Overall, despite the difficulties, the whole experience was overwhelmingly positive and the future for the RPO under its new Music Director looks bright.

RPO Blog Orchestra on stage of the RAH

 You can still listen back to the concert via BBC Sounds until Friday 3 September.

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