Last Friday, 17 July, saw the start of the 115th season of BBC Promenade concerts. It runs until Saturday, 12 September, when the famous Last Night of the Proms (and the Proms in the Park events) will be broadcast to audiences around the world. From simple beginnings in 1895, the Promenade concerts—the Proms—have become one of the greatest music festivals anywhere in the world. They are unique; no other festival even comes close. For the first time, there are more than 100 musical events in the calendar, including 76 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and 19 Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall. This year there is a whole day dedicated to Indian music and dance; in addition to the RAH concerts on the Sunday morning and evening; an afternoon programme offers a free mini-mela in Kensington Gardens. If you are in or near London, you could do worse than pop along and experience something different.
This year seems to have a rich harvest of musical anniversaries: the 250th anniversary of Handel's death (1759), the 200th of Haydn's death (1809), Purcell's 350th birthday (1659) and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809); all four composers are well represented.
There is a concert performance of Handel's rarely-heard Italian comic opera, Partenope, with 1993 Cardiff Singer of the World, Inger Dam-Jensen, and performances of the oratorios Samson and Messiah. For a semi-staged production of Purcell's set of masques The Fairy Queen by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the singers and chorus will be accompanied by The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by baroque music specialist William Christie. A Chamber Prom by the Academy of Ancient Music is dedicated to Purcell. All the pieces to be heard are by the composer, except one, John Blow's tribute Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell.
Music by Haydn includes both The Creation and The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. This later work is neatly juxtaposed with James Macmillan's piece of almost exactly the same name: Seven Last Words from the Cross—continuing the theme of anniversaries: Macmillan is 50 years old this year.
All five of Mendelssohn's symphonies are being performed.
2009 is also the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII, and one of the lunchtime Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall celebrates the event with a collection of songs from Henry's time, including a couple by the King himself.
Cambridge University is celebrating it being 800 years since 1209, when scholars from Oxford took refuge from hostile townsmen there and initiated the role of the town as a seat of learning. One of the Proms features music performed by present (choirs of several colleges) and former students of the university (eg conductor Andrew Davis), in compositions by former staff (eg Stanford) and students (eg Vaughan Williams). The programme also includes the world première of a BBC commission by Corpus Christi fellow, Ryan Wigglesworth.
It is 75 years since the deaths of composers Delius, Elgar and Holst in 1934, and two of the Proms are dedicated to music by these three men. Born in the same year as they died, British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle will (at the time of publication of this column) have celebrated his 75th birthday last week. The London Sinfonietta, conducted by their co-founder David Atherton, are performing three very contrasting pieces by Birtwistle in a late-night Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. In another Prom, Act II of the composer's highly complex three-act opera The Mask of Orpheus receives a part performance—the work has been performed in full only once, in 1986 by English National Opera. This section, entitled 'The Arches' is mainly a concert performance, with what are described as 'a few elements of concert staging'.
Also 75 years old (to the day) is composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, who will be conducting the UK première of his Second Violin Concerto, sub-titled 'Fiddler on the Shore'. The late-night Prom the same evening, performed by the BBC Singers, is also dedicated to the composer's work.
Ten years old this year is Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which comprises young musicians from both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They will perform in two Proms on the same evening, following up the next day with a performance of Beethoven's only opera Fidelio.
It All Starts With...
Stravinsky's Fireworks—orchestral fireworks to be sure, and a suitable opener to launch the season. The First Night concert will be worth watching if for no other reason than to see the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, who will be playing Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos. These two girls never fail to delight audiences with their astonishingly accomplished duetting. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are conducted by Jirí Belohlávek. There will be two further opportunities to hear the Labèques later in the season when they perform Mozart's two-piano concerto K365, and in a separate concert, in the UK première of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's The Hague Hacking; yet another anniversary—the composer is celebrating his 70th birthday this year.
Andris Nelsons, the newly-appointed Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, will be making his Proms début in a concert featuring former BBC Young Musician of the Year Stephen Hough, playing Tchaikovsky's less-often heard Second Piano Concerto. Stephen is playing all three concertos at the Proms, the Third Piano Concerto as part of the First Night concert, and the very well-known First Piano Concerto later in the season.
A young talent making her Proms début is German violinist Arabella Steinbacher. She made her name by delivering a stunning performance of the Beethoven concerto in Paris five years ago, standing in at only three days notice for Kyung-Wha Chung. Arabella will be playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 K216. Young Scottish bassoonist Karen Geoghegan is another débutante, playing the Mozart concerto K191.
Despite now being in his 80th year, this season sees the very first Prom appearance of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He and the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will be playing Haydn's Symphony No 97, the first of the so-called 'London' symphonies, and Schubert's Ninth Symphony, 'The Great C Major'.
Kirill Karabits from the Ukraine, the new Chief Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra makes his Proms début with a programme of music by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.
Two days after the mini-mela I mentioned at the start of this column, the late-night Prom sees another first—and in this instance unusual—appearance, that of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Audience members who play the ukulele are being invited to bring along their instrument and join in.
Too many to mention all of them, but a few are especially worthy of note. Although the shortest item on the programme, Virga by the young Scottish-born composer Helen Grime is likely to be memorable. First performed two years ago, I have yet to hear the piece. By far Helen's most demanding work to date in terms of instrumental forces required, it will be conducted by composer/conductor Oliver Knussen in a Prom that also includes the conductor's own Horn Concerto.
Valery Gergiev's performance of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra should not be missed, coupled as it is with the UK première of Alfred Schnittke's oratorio Nagasaki. The fact that this is the UK première is in itself staggering—it dates from 1958.
One piece I want to hear purely for the fun of it is an arrangement by Villa-Lobos of some of JS Bach's Preludes and Fugues—arranged for 8 cellos! Another, for which being present in the hall is really essential is Iannis Xenakis's Nomos gamma, composed in the late 1960s. The 98 performing musicians will be scattered among the audience!
Worth staying up a little late for is a piece by American composer George Crumb, whose 80th birthday it is this year: Night of the Four Moons. Marking the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to the Moon, it was actually composed during the Apollo 11 flight and ends—in an homage to Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony—with the performers representing the 'Music of Mankind' leaving the stage to a lone cellist, portraying the 'Music of the Spheres'.
My personal choice of a star-Prom, one for which I snapped up a ticket as soon as they were released, is a performance by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra of Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony, in the performing version realised by Deryck Cooke1. This was first performed at a Prom back in 1964—a performance I was fortunate enough also to be present at as a teenager.
...And It All Ends With
The First Night kicks off with fireworks and so does the Last Night: Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks. Also in the first half, Alison Balsom—a finalist in the 1998 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition—will play Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E flat major. The final 2009 anniversary will be the 50 years since the death of cartoonist, humorist and musician Gerard Hoffnung. In celebration of his inimitable style, the second half kicks off with Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture, for 3 vacuum cleaners, 1 floor polisher, 4 rifles and orchestra!
In charge of the Last Night proceedings in the Royal Albert Hall for the first time will be the American-born, London-trained conductor David Robertson, in his capacity as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Simultaneous Proms in the Park events will be taking place at Hillsborough Castle, County Down; Glasgow Green; Hyde Park, London; Buile Hill Park, Salford and Singleton Park, Swansea.
A very fine season it promises to be, so catch whatever you can, whether on radio, television or the Internet.
That's it, so from me, until after the summer break, happy listening.