BOWIE PROM | BBC Proms 2016

The most important thing, I think, is that we feel like this is not a wake for David Bowie; this is an amazing art-forum-hall secular celebration,” announced singer Amanda Palmer at the start of the concert, to which the audience roared with applause, shaking the Royal Albert Hall. Unusually for the BBC Proms, the auditorium was completely packed; even the upper standing gallery was bursting with David Bowie fans, many of whom had been queueing in the rain for over four hours.

But you could be forgiven for thinking a wake is exactly what the s t a r g a z e ensemble were going for: the concert opened with Warszawa (a mainly instrumental track from the 1977 album Low), a funereal dirge, starting with slow monotone on low trombones and piano. Somber tones reigned supreme throughout the concert, which featured a myriad of singers but a small, chamber ensemble of only a few string, wind and brass players. Piano, percussion, synthesiser, electric guitar, and the world famous Royal Albert Hall organ all had featured moments, but overall the orchestral textures throughout were thin, dark and empty sounding.

There were moments of contrast away from this melancholy atmosphere. For example, the light, bouncy rhythms on wind for the encore of Bowie’s hit Let’s Dance (also including the woodblock), which led to some awkward English half-dancing in the audience. Singer Laura Mvula lent her gutsy, soulful voice to Fame (from the 1975 album Young Americans), and the short use of deafening organ in Lady Grinning Soul (the final track from the 1973 album Aladdin Sane) was mesmerisingly dramatic.

Moments of traditional celebration however felt awkward. Tainted Love singer Marc Almond, sounding a bit vocally shaky, encouraged the audience to clap heartily along to Starman near the end of the concert and join him in the la-la-las. We did, but the orchestral arrangement for this iconic Bowie hit felt far too delicate for this to be appropriate.

One of the express aims of the concert was to show off the depth of Bowie’s compositions, in an experimental way. Unfortunately, we only got limited orchestral timbres, and a strangely homogenous treatment of Bowie’s extraordinarily varied back catalogue, which didn’t really seem to do it justice. The new arrangements tended to follow exactly the same harmony as the original, with lots of semibreves or repeated notes, often less interesting than the original arrangement.

Perhaps not a celebration then, but this didn’t stop the enormous crowd of fans from giving this prom a standing ovation, and constant roars of applause throughout. I just wonder how much of that applause was intended for the people on stage, and how much of it was intended for Bowie.

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