Entertainment & Arts

Urban stars raise roof at BBC Proms

Laura Mvula
Image caption Laura Mvula has a degree in composition

A cast of rising British urban music stars brought the Royal Albert Hall to its feet at the first BBC Urban Proms.

Singers Laura Mvula and Maverick Sabre, rappers Wretch 32 and Fazer, and newcomers Lady Leshurr and Jacob Banks were accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jules Buckley.

The event, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 1, 3 and 1Xtra, mixed classical music with grime, rap, soul and R&B.

The Proms have tried to reach out to a younger audience in recent years.

Events have included the Doctor Who Prom, which this year celebrated the TV show's 50th anniversary.

Image caption Maverick Sabre sang on the recent new War of the Worlds album

London-born Sabre had the unenviable task of opening the event but won over the crowd with his soaring soul-tinged vocals.

If some of the regular Prom-goers at first didn't quite know what to make of the sounds, they were forced to give over to the sheer exuberance of the young performers.

Soul singer-songwriter Mvula, 27, showed off her star quality as she performed several tracks from her debut album Sing to The Moon.

A particular highlight was the haunting ballad Father, Father in which she was backed by a lush string arrangement.

During rehearsals, she revealed that it was not her first time performing at the Proms.

"I was probably 14 playing in the school proms, in the orchestra, which I loved doing," she said.

"It was such a special moment, coming down to London on the coach was unreal and I remember we were playing Harry Potter music, which if you know it, the violin part is very hard.

Image caption Lady Leshurr got the audience involved during her performance

"In the Royal Albert Hall, you can hear everything so I was super nervous, my fingers were sweating on the strings but I thought it was a once in a lifetime, I didn't think I would ever come back to do my own stuff.

"It's pretty incredible."

Mvula, whose album showed off her musical abilities - backed by a degree in composition from the Birmingham Conservatoire - said her road manager had warned her not to get too comfortable playing with a full orchestra.

"I'm afraid the first thing I was told was 'don't get any ideas', so I've just been soaking it up these few days and maybe one day we'll have our own."

The Urban Classic Prom uncovered two future stars in the shape of Birmingham-raised Leshurr and fellow Midlands singer Banks.

Diminutive 24-year-old Leshurr was a ball of energy and her fast-flowing verses and constant badgering of the crowd to make some noise were incredibly effective.

Possessed of a rich soulful voice, Banks proved to be a confident performer on his solo work and in a duet with Wretch 32.

The Tottenham rapper's track Traktor was given a dark, epic feel by the orchestra under conductor Buckley.

Image caption Wretch 32 said his approach to music was intuitive

Wretch 32 admitted that his lack of classical training had led to a different method of recording and playing music.

"It's funny to see how we do things," the 28-year-old rapper said.

"Because, with my band, we just go with a feeling but when I came here it's like paperwork and for me, it's just trying to get it to meet in the middle.

"These guys can play but it's just about capturing the feeling which is difficult to get from the paper. I'm the type of person who couldn't tell you what scale to use, but if you played it to me, I'd say: 'Yeah, that feels right'."

Rehearsals for the show took place at the BBC's Maida vale studios - home to the 90-piece BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Buckley said: "It always takes about 24 hours for everybody to get used to the environment and for the orchestral players to get used to the nature of the grooves and the basslines. For the rappers it may be the first time they've experienced a live orchestra."

Buckley also admitted that perhaps the term classical music still carries a stigma for young people.

Image caption Banks was confident performing for such a large audience

"When I was at school, my friend was like: 'Oh yeah, classical music is all elitist.'

But the thing is, that this is completely untrue and I think these kind of projects go some way to show people in a really relaxed way how accessible it is to get in and see an orchestra or an opera or a ballet."

As if to prove the point, rapper Fazer, from the group NDubz had worked with a group of young musicians who made their debut at the Proms.

Seven Chapters, as they were called, lived up to their part of the bargain with an energetic performance.

Speaking to mark the 70th birthday of Radio 3's Composer of the Week programme earlier this month, its host Donald Macleod said he was concerned about whether the classical music world was doing enough to bring a young crowd in.

"It is a huge worry when you go to concerts. I'm now a man of a certain age with white hair and when you look at a sea of white hair all around you, it is kind of depressing," he said.

'Music doesn't have limits'

He added that the price of attending a classical concert could be prohibitive for younger people, though the Proms has to an extent addressed that, offering cheap tickets on the night at the box office.

Mvula, who worked as a substitute teacher in the Midlands prior to signing her record contract said she hoped the mix of music is something her former pupils would have engaged with.

"If this concert promotes some kind of accessibility, then that's cool.

"I have problems labelling music because creatively I like to think that music doesn't have limits - I love all of the music that's been performed in this concert.

"Stereotypes exist everywhere and I know that if I was to ask my mum about dubstep or R&B she'd probably have pre-conceived ideas.

"But she likes my music, which could be called soul, and that just shows the problem that labelling music can cause. I think you just have to come and experience it."

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