In hands less capable than those of the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the Central Band of Her Majesty's Royal Air Force, Sunday afternoon's extravaganza commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall might have been little more than a flight of nostalgia. But with the skilled direction of conductors Kenneth Alwyn and Wing Commander Barrie Hingley, this well-paced program touchingly evoked the indomitable spirit of those who faced such terrible adversity a half-century ago.
The concert gave an alarming power and fixity to the music and spirit of the times.
Performances, impressively executed, were made even more trenchant with the liberal and effective inclusion of taped speeches by Roosevelt and Churchill. Further narrations by actress Mary Law drew the tableaux together seamlessly.
But what really impressed were the shrewd and provocative sound effects Alwyn used to highlight and segue between selections: Edward German's "O Peaceful England" (sung deliciously by the BBC Singers with a magnificent solo by soprano Jennifer Adams) was rudely interrupted by the sound of Hitler's voice at a rally and screams of "Sieg Heil!" -- which in turn gave way to a stunning performance of "Mars" from Gustav Holst's "The Planets" suite. Similarly, the sounds of an air crew going through its preflight checks and the ear-splitting engine noise of Hurricanes welded dramatic effect to "Speedbird Salutes the Few," a celebratory work commissioned by British Airways.
Soloist Joan Savage (performing with a dislocated shoulder) and Alwyn (here conducting with a broken leg) have had their share of battle scars on this tour. One would never have guessed their discomfort from Savage's plucky performance of "We're Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Ziegfried Line," lump-in-the-throat rendition of "There'll Always Be an England" or the dozen of other English and American wartime classics sung to Alwyn's mellifluous conducting and the BBC/RAF's sterling accompaniment.