I’ve always thought that if you’re going to cover a song you should improve on it, make it different, make it better. Making Bowie better is arguably an impossible ask, but different is doable. This prom was pitched as a reimagining of Bowie’s work and sounded promising. A number of composers had been asked to rework the great man’s songs and as John Cale, his friend and founding member of The Velvet Underground, explained: “There are three songs that I was asked to arrange. Happily for me, there were no boundaries as to how the arrangements would go.”
Which is how I found myself in a packed Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Late Night Bowie Prom to see and hear curator/director André de Ridder’s reinterpretation of Bowie’s enormous volume of work. De Ridder is the artistic director of Musica Nova Helsinki and founder of the collective s t a r g a z e, a network of European musicians who performed here brilliantly tonight. One of the first concerts he saw was the 1987 gig Bowie gave in front of the Reichstag, singing Heroes to thousands on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Now there’s a concert I’d like to have seen. De Ridder now walks past the apartment Bowie lived in during the Berlin years every day and says tributes and flowers are still being laid.
And so, several months after our hero’s death, people are still paying tribute to a man who loved to work with new groups and musicians, but what on earth would he have made of this? “This is not a wake, it’s a celebration,” announced American singer Amanda Palmer at the start of the show, and certainly along with a fine orchestra the stars were out tonight.
One high point was Laura Mvula singing Fame. She described this prom as “like a masterclass” and her vocals were controlled and boundary breaking. Marc Almond wowed with Life on Mars, making a big song as big as it gets, and Paul Buchanan from Scottish group The Blue Nile sensitively interpreted I Can’t Give Everything Away. Also powerful were voices of Anna Calvi, who shone with Lady Grinning Soul, and Amanda Palmer, who sang a folky-sounding Heroes; the two duetted beautifully on Blackstar. Neil Hanlon from The Divine Comedy sang This is Not America exactly as Bowie did (annoyingly, a vision of a National Express bus popped into my head at this point – if you know Hanlon’s work you’ll get the reference). Counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky’s version of Crashing in the Same Car was a complete reimagining of the song, and towards the end of the evening a skirt-wearing John Cale pulled apart and reassembled Valentine’s Day and Space Oddity, the latter lifted by the House Gospel Choir.
But there were awkward moments, too: Elf Kid’s rap was well received but described in The Guardian as “pretentiousness for pretentiousness sake” and I have to agree. Once Marc Almond encouraged the audience to sing along to his rendition of Starman, a karaoke note was hit.
It was this pretentiousness plus the sing-along-a-Bowie spirit that didn’t sit easily with me. But judging by the audience and the chap in the seat in front of me waving his arms around throughout the concert, people were loving it. The proms spirit was here in bucket-loads – the singing along, the clapping and by the end the roof raised with most of the audience on their feet – and this really was a celebration of Bowie’s work. I couldn’t help wondering what the man himself would have made of it all. We’ll never know. He would have felt the love; there was plenty of that in the room. But Bowie broke boundaries across the decades and got into music in the first place because it was a subversive thing to do. And herein lies the rub: a classical interpretation at the Proms can certainly capture his musical genius and versatility but can it ever really capture the essence of that subversive soul? Probably not, but what we can do – and everyone did here tonight – is celebrate the music he left behind.
Prom 19: David Bowie Late Night Prom took place at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 29th July 2016 as part of this year’s BBC Proms. For more information on forthcoming events and to book tickets please visit the website. Images by Mark Allen.