BBC Proms Dubai review: Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and composer Mohammed Fairouz shine bright on opening night

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor stole the show and the night marked the UAE premiere of Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz’s first tone-poem Pax Universalis.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra perform at the opening night of the BBC Proms Dubai at Dubai Opera. Courtesy: Dubai Opera
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The 24-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor stole the show at the first night of the BBC Proms Dubai, sitting down to play Benjamin Britten's Piano Concerto — a piece the British composer premiered behind the keys himself at the Proms some 79 years earlier, at the time also just 24 years of age.

Stacked any way, the work offers its interpreter a brazen show of virtuosity from a composer eagerly affirming his mark, and compatriot and Proms favourite Grosvenor bathed himself in the score’s showy trills and dramatic runs, especially in the Toccata’s extended unaccompanied piano solo.

But soon this first movement’s youthful exuberance gives way to moods pastoral and pensive, satisfied and otherwise. At the Piano Concerto’s premiere in 1938, Britten’s prodigious international fame as a composer of operas was still on the horizon — beginning with masterpiece Peter Grimes in 1945 — but the maddening vision and ambition of Britain’s greatest 20th century composer was already loud and clear.

Indeed it was a distinctly and fittingly patriotic programme which announced the arrival of this most brazenly British concert series in Dubai — only the Proms second foreign posting in a 112-year history.

In residence is the renowned BBC Symphony Orchestra which — under the baton of distinguished Proms veteran Edward Gardner — gave over the evening's second half to William Walton's Symphony No. 1, a formulaic assault of pomp, grandeur and cliché which, premiered in 1935, chimed a wantonly oblivious note of pride from an empire on the slow march towards collapse.

Light-years more engaging was the evening’s opening, with two short contemporary pieces, both from 2015. The programme began with Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville — which premiered opening the London Proms in the same year — a thrilling, frenetic, seat-grabbing ride, poised precariously on the precipice between order and disorder.

Far greater applause was showered on the evening’s one non-British feature, the UAE premiere of Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz’s first tone-poem Pax Universalis, a joyously uplifting, unashamedly sentimental plea for universal peace.

Dedicated to children who have fallen victim of global conflict, a sense of timeless innocence permeates Fairouz’s vivid orchestrations, while the BBC Symphony’s crisp dynamic ebbs and flows exploited the score’s glowing interplay of contrapuntal melodies. Throughout, a sly percussive pulse sounds, both an unconscious invitation to the party, and the human heartbeat uniting us all.

This night significantly marked the first time a major orchestral work by New York-based Fairouz has been performed in his hometown, but the week will be topped with the world premiere of Fairouz’s second opera, The New Prince, at the Dutch National Opera on Friday, March 24.

The Proms Dubai continues until Friday, March 24, tickets from Dh50, see