Musical Notes: The BBC Proms 2010

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The BBC Proms 2010: a Preview

Friday 17 July sees the start of the 116th season of BBC Promenade Concerts, known popularly and universally simply as 'The Proms'. Director Roger Wright and his team have put together a magnificent programme of music for the 76 main concerts at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH), and for the eight Chamber concerts at Cadogan Hall.

Anniversaries of Schumann and Mahler

Two anniversaries are marked this year with considerable emphasis: the 200th of the birth of Robert Schumann, and the 150th of that of Gustav Mahler. All four of Schumann's completed symphonies are to be heard, together with the early, incomplete G minor 'Zwickau' symphony– named after the town of his birth and his home for the first 30 years of his life– as well as the ever–popular Piano Concerto. Mahler is represented by no less than six of his 10 large–scale symphonies, plus three song cycles– Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert-lieder. The two composers are even cunningly brought together in Prom 4, which begins with the Mahler-orchestrated version of Schumann's Manfred overture.

Three in a Row

If you're going to throw a party, then start it in style, and this Proms party does just that. In the first three nights alone, we have three massive performances. First Night kicks off with Mahler's gigantic Eighth Symphony– the so–called 'Symphony of a Thousand', an epithet coined by the promoter of the very first performance of this work in Munich, exactly 100 years ago this year1, in reference to the number of performers on the platform. Despite the eye–watering cost involved in staging a performance of this symphony – which demands a huge orchestra, plus an organist, eight vocal soloists, two full mixed choruses and a children's chorus – performances do occur at fairly regular intervals, but of course this year is a bit special.

With no time for you to recover, the First Night is followed next day by a four-and-a-half hour concert staging of Richard Wagner's magnificent, mildly-comic opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with Welsh Wizard Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs, the role he is currently singing for Welsh National Opera for the first time. And if you have anything left in the tank, those two heavyweights are followed on the third night by a semi-staged performance of Verdi's opera Simon Boccanegra, with Plácido Domingo – not in his and our accustomed role as a tenor, but here singing as a baritone for the very first time.

Feature Days

A regular feature now of the Proms are 'feature days'. On Saturday, 24 July, there is a Doctor Who Day. The day starts with a Proms Plus event at the Royal College of Music, just behind the RAH, at which members of the public are invited to join in and perform the theme tune to the TV series2. The main evening concert, to be repeated the following morning, will be hosted by actors Karen Gillan (companion Amy Pond) and Matt Smith (the Doctor) and will include a 40-minute programme of music from the series, together with the popular pieces Mars (from Holst's Planet Suite), O Fortuna (from Orff's Carmina Burana) and The Ride of the Valkyres (from Wagner's Die Walküre). Stirring stuff!

On Saturday, 14 August, there is a Bach Day. This begins with two concerts at Cadogan Hall at which Sir John Eliot Gardiner will conduct the English Baroque Soloists in Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos (three at each concert). These are followed in the early evening by a Bach recital given by David Briggs on the recently-restored Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall. The main evening Prom features the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, playing transcriptions of Bach pieces arranged for orchestra by, among others, Leopold Stokowski and two legendary conductors of Proms past, Sir Henry Wood and Sir Malcolm Sargent.

There are two all-Beethoven Proms. In the first, two of the piano concertos – numbers 1 and 4 – will be played by Paul Lewis and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek; the remainder of the programme comprises the overtures to Egmont and The Creatures of Prometheus. The second all-Beethoven Prom is a not-to-be-missed sandwich: the First and Fifth symphonies, with the Violin Concerto in between, played by the delicious Hilary Hahn. The orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie of Bremen, conducted by Paavo Järvi ,played at the festival in 2009 that celebrated the re-opening of the Alice Tully Hall, part of the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts in New York, where the New York Sun newspaper described them as 'The authoritative Beethoven orchestra of our day.'

The Symphonies

As I said at the beginning, this season celebrates anniversaries of Schumann and Mahler with extensive symphonic performances; Beethoven's First and Fifth symphonies have already been mentioned, and the Fourth and Ninth will also be played. After his impressive début at last year's Proms, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin returns, this time with Prom first-timers the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, in a programme including Beethoven's Third Symphony 'Eroica'.

Three of Bruckner's get an outing: the Fourth 'Romantic', the Seventh and the Ninth, as do Dvorak's Eighth and Ninth and Elgar's always-popular First Symphony, the latter conducted by Donald Runnicles, the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Runnicles returned last year to Europe after 17 years with the San Francisco Opera, to take up not only the Chief Conductorship with the BBC SSO, but also as General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

We shall hear three symphonies of Shostakovich: the Fifth, Seventh'Leningrad' and the Tenth, and Sibelius's masterly Second and Fifth symphonies. The above list is by no means exhaustive; other fine symphonies such as Albert Roussel's delightful Third Symphony are also on offer.

The Concertos

As well as the Prom including First and Fourth, all five Beethoven piano concertos will be played during the course of the season. Other major concertos for the instrument to be played include the Grieg A minor, Liszt's First, Chopin's Second and Bartok's Third. A comparative rarity in concert programmes is Scriabin's concerto in F-sharp minor, so it's a welcome visitor to the Proms this year.

As you would expect, the violin equivalent is also well represented, with concertos by Berg, Bruch (No.1), Erich Korngold, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich (No.1) and Tchaikovsky. In addition to these seasoned works, we can look forward to the London première3 of Colin Matthews concerto, played by Leila Josefowicz and the BBC SO, conducted by Oliver Knussen, and the world première of that by Huw Watkins. Born in 1976, Watkins, a former student at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, already has a considerable body of work behind him.

Choral Music

Apart from the very obvious exception of the Mahler Eight on First Night, music for choirs takes a relative back seat this season: no Handel Messiah or Elgar Dream of Gerontius or Mendelssohn Elijah for example. Having said that though, there is representation: the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by their Finnish Music Director, Osmo Vänskä; the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus join the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor, David Robertson, for a performance of Bartok's Cantata profana; the Monteverdi Choir, the London Oratory Junior Choir, Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and the English Baroque Soloists get together with period brass ensemble, His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts, all conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, for a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610.

New Music

It is a measure of the stature of the Proms that this season no less than 11 pieces are receiving their world premières and 15 their UK or London premières. These include the London début of three Interludes from James MacMillan's latest opera, The Sacrifice, and a first hearing of Mark-Anthony Turnage's percussive piece for orchestra, Hammered Out. Also on a world first outing is another BBC commission, 82-year-old Thea Musgrave's evocation of the homecoming of Odysseus, Ithaca.

Youngest new composer is Alissa Firsova (b.1986) with a BBC commission to re-interpret a movement from a Bach sonata (originally for viola da gamba I think) for orchestra. This is included in the Bach Day evening programme.

A percussion concerto entitled exactly 'a table of noises' by Simon Holt (b. 1958), inspired in part apparently by a table of tools kept by his great-uncle, a taxidermist, gets its first London sounding. Sounds interesting!


As well as the appearances of Plácido Domingo, Bryn Terfel and Leila Josefowicz already mentioned above, Valery Gergiev will be conducting two Proms: in one Mahler's Fourth and Fifth symphonies, and in the other Scriabin's First Symphony together with the complete Stravinsky ballet The Firebird.

Sir Simon Rattle will conduct three Proms, one with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in which the principal work is a concert performance of Act II of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde, and two concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In the first we shall hear Beethoven Fourth and Mahler's First symphonies; in the other, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila sings Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs before Rattle conducts three defining works of the Second Viennese School: Schönberg's Five-, Webern's Six- and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra.

American soprano Renée Fleming will be producing the vocal fireworks at the traditional Last Night of the Proms in September. Good heavens, so we come to the end of the season and I haven't even mentioned the Late Night Proms yet, two of which feature Jamie Cullum and the Heritage Orchestra, and Penguin Cafe respectively. Add to these the Last Night Proms in the Park events, and we have a glorious season to look forward to. Enjoy as many performances as you are able to, whether in person, on television, on radio or via the internet. I'm confident you won't be disappointed.

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111 September, 1910.2Note this event is now fully subscribed.3The world première was given in September 2009 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham by the same soloist and conductor, but with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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