The Angry Planet at the BBC Proms

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“I felt really happy when everyone was clapping at the end. I enjoyed it because it brought happiness to the crowd.”

The Prom was the climax of the first two years of the Bach Choir’s Outreach project, a climax almost unimaginable in 2010 when a few volunteers from the Choir made their tentative approaches to schools in relatively deprived parts of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea.

The Angry Planet sprang from an idea of the Bach Choir’s Musical Director David Hill’s for a choral work about the environment. He discussed it with the composer Bob Chilcott and the Bach Choir commissioned Bob to write the music. He in turn asked the poet Charles Bennett to write the words.

The children were involved from the start. Charles and Bob asked children in the schools involved in the Outreach project for ideas. Charles took their thoughts home and composed the poems that would form the words of the cantata. When it was ready, Charles, Bob and David Hill, with the Outreach volunteers from the Bach Choir, introduced it to a large group of children gathered in one of the project schools.

It was a huge undertaking. The Bach Choir has more than 200 members. The National Youth Choir has some 180. The BBC Singers, the professional group also conducted by David Hill, are 30 and we hoped for about 200 children from the schools involved in the Bach Choir’s Outreach project. That’s some 600 voices. What’s more, the whole work lasting 45 minutes was to be unaccompanied.In the end, we had well over 500 voices. The BBC, because of David Hill’s position with the Singers, decided to stage the premiere as part of the 2012 Proms. The BBC Singers have their own outreach project in the London borough of Harrow so schoolchildren from Harrow joined “our” children from Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. Rehearsals with Bach Choir volunteers went ahead through the school year.

Being part of the Proms and singing in the Royal Albert Hall was a tremendous privilege and thrill for the children, many of whom had never sung in public, let alone in one of the world’s most famous concert halls.

The one drawback was that having the concert in school holidays meant it was harder to ensure that all children who wanted to would be able to take part. One school withdrew when they were unable to provide enough teachers to act as chaperones.

However, the day came, the coaches bringing the children arrived and David Hill rehearsed the assembled forces on the stage of the Albert Hall. A surprise for many of us, and a bonus, was the addition of a signing choir – that’s signing, not singing – from Great Baddow High School, and an interpreter, Dr Paul Whittaker, founder of the Huddersfield charity Music and the Deaf. We believe this was the first appearance of a signing choir at the Proms.

The Prom, on a Sunday afternoon, attracted a good-sized audience and it was clear that many of those present were there for the first time, witness several crying babies, and that was an achievement for the project.

The Guardian review spoke of “Bob Chilcott’s finely crafted choral writing” and others were impressed by the scale and complexity of the project, but perhaps more important were the reactions of members of the Bach Choir, the children themselves, their teachers and parents, and others in the audience. Here is a selection:

“What a triumph for The Bach Choir! The huge amount of work undertaken by the Outreach Team and the incredible logistics involved in bringing such numbers to the platform were breath-taking. The children all, clearly, thoroughly enjoyed themselves. We met lots of parents in the auditorium who were bursting with pride. Big smiles all around.” A member of the audience

“Magic ending when all the children signed THE WORLD.” A member of the Bach Choir

“The children realised how they were an important integral part of the work, performing alongside ‘experts’. They consequently felt very proud of their part in it.” A teacher.

“It was really exciting. She’s been dreaming about this for weeks” A parent.

“A once in a lifetime experience. Not everyone can say they have sung in the Royal Albert Hall.” A child.