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Sharon van Etten and serpentwithfeet attempted the history of New York music in just over an hour last night

Not your usual pip pip tally ho night at the Proms

The BBC Proms are, of course, overwhelmingly focused on classical music. This year’s series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall opened back in July with a performance of the work of revered English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and will close almost two months later amongst the flag-waving parochial euphoria of the Last Night Of The Proms.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, and jarringly exciting by its sheer difference, is Prom 35 – New York: Sound Of A City, one of the Late Night Proms which, according to the Beeb, “blur the lines of the classical genre”. Last year, for example, there was a show billed The Songs of Scott Walker, featuring Jarvis Cocker and John Grant performing with a full orchestra.

Tonight’s Prom extends that disruptive thread. To try to encapsulate the sound of New York in an hour and fifteen minutes is an almost impossible task, but the guy who put this evening’s programme together – Jules Buckley, leader of the Heritage Orchestra, who provide the musical backdrop to the four artists – gives it a damn good go. He’s joined by Big Apple luminaries Hercules & Love Affair, Sharon van Etten, serpentwithfeet and Nitty Scott.

And it’s not just a show that’s unusual in the wider context of the Proms programme, but in its very format. The sequence of the songs performed sees each of the quartet of artists leave and return to the stage like a musical cuckoo clock, performing a single song before giving way to another.

To see contemporary musicians in front of a full orchestra is nothing new, but ensconced here in the opulence of the Royal Albert Hall, there’s an extra grandiosity. Serpentwithfeet looks strangely at home padding gently back and forth on stage in a fabulous glitter jacket, the synchronised bows of the string section moving as one behind him. His vocals are quick-fire yet hesitant, as if he’s got an awful lot to say but is somehow nervous about you hearing it; meanwhile the orchestra’s music swells and build underneath him, like an ocean in a gathering storm.

Indeed all the artists seem to draw a real energy from the orchestra. Brooklyn emcee Nitty Scott is the most overtly ‘New York’ of these artists, and brings a percussive energy to the show; for the dynamic ‘La Diaspora’, the place erupts into party mode. And Sharon van Etten, returning to the stage frequently, is simply superb; her rich voice resonating around the curved heights of the venue. ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ is particularly glorious, backed by the momentous swell of the brass section.

Hercules & Love Affair, ostensibly the headliners of this collaborative affair, bring a dancey vibrant vibe to the climax of the show. ‘Blind’, their biggest hit, fizzes with a euphoric disco vibe and although the role of the orchestra recedes just a little during their performance, the gap is filled by a relentless, pounding energy. Beethoven this isn’t.

Throughout all of this, the orchestra leader and eclectic visionary Jules Buckley stands conducting his musicians while casually nodding his head like a punter in the fourth row. Buckley encapsulates the irreverent and boundary-pushing nature of tonight’s Prom – a beacon of contemporary collaboration nestled in an institution that’s almost a century and a half old.

Photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

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