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BBC Promenade Concerts 2008 : A preview of this year’s season by Anne Ozorio (AO)

The BBC Proms are, without doubt, the “biggest classical music festival in the world”. They can be heard everywhere, at any time during the season, for the BBC broadcasts them all live, on demand and online.  Indeed, the Proms probably do wonders for Britain’s status in the world because they bring music lovers together across boundaries, wherever radio can reach. The Proms may not be an arm of British foreign policy, but in terms of value for taxpayer money, they represent infinitely good returns, as they are a positive force for the benefit of people the world over. As the Japanese (strong supporters of the Proms) would put it, they are a “living cultural treasure”, a national asset. The Proms represent an ideal of public service, which is perhaps even more relevant now that technology connects the people of this world more directly than at any other time in human history.

The Proms have been running, almost without a break, for 114 years.  Other festivals may be older, but none exist on the scale of the Proms. Some 84 concerts are held each evening over a period of eight weeks. Most take place in the spectacular Royal Albert Hall, itself a monument to the best Victorian values which equated progress with the pursuit of learning. The Proms are a good example of the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain”.

The popular image of the Proms stems from the excesses of the Last Night with its flag waving and sentimentality, but it doesn’t represent the Proms as a whole.  The series is serious about good quality music, over a broad spectrum. Each year, the Proms programme is carefully planned so it presents the best in current performance practice.  This year’s Proms carry on the grand tradition.

Week 1 (18th-24th July)

This year’s First Night, on 18th July, features Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss, but also Messiaen and Elliott Carter, who were born one day apart, one hundred years ago.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard who knew both Messiaen and Carter closely, will be playing Carter’s Catenaires, which he premiered less than two years ago. Aimard also plays Carter and Messiaen at a lunchtime concert on 21st July at the nearby Cadogan Hall.  It’s a smaller hall, well suited to chamber music, but capacity is limited.  Thank goodness for radio, because there will be a huge “invisible” audience listening in from all over the world.  This year, too, there’ll be a “Folk Day” on Sunday with two concerts of folk inspired music by Grainger, Berio and Bartòk and also a BBC special commission from Kathryn Tickell.  One of the very important features of the Proms heritage has been its sponsorship of new work.  The BBC has sponsored many composers over the years and given their work mass coverage. Many commissions have gone into the mainstream, while some will be forgotten, but that’s not quite so important as the fact that this support keeps musical life in this country healthy and vibrant.  Ralph Vaughan Williams was one composer who benefited greatly from Proms coverage, so this season commemorates his anniversary too.  Yan-Pascal Tortelier conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Vaughan Williams’s remarkable 4th Symphony on Thursday 24th, together with a rarity, Bax’s In Memoriam Patrick Pearse which receives its first public performance, 82 years after it was written.  There’ll be plenty of British music this week, with a performance of Finzi’s huge Intimations of Immortality and Elgar’s Violin Concerto on Saturday 19th, by Nigel Kennedy. Years ago his relationship with the BBC was fractious. He’ll never be part of the Establishment, but he’s dynamic, and what’s more, he proves clkassical music can be exciting, without in the least lowering his standards.

Week 2 : 25th–31st July

Simon Holt’s Troubled Light is the big name commission premiered on Friday, 25th July. The next evening, Thomas Adès conducts a concert featuring his own Tevot.  And the day after that, the 27th, Mark Anthony Turnage’s The Torino Scale receives its UK premiere. Three top British composers in three days, and recent work too.  That evening’s concert, though, will be one of the highlights of the season, as it features one of Messiaen’s masterpieces, La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. It’s an ambitious piece for large forces that needs to be heard in a place like the Royal Albert Hall for full effect : don’t miss the opportunity, even though the piece will be heard again in the Autumn elsewhere. Glyndebourne comes to London each year for the Proms and this year it brings Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea This will be a concert performance of the acclaimed current production, performed by baroque specialists, Emmanuel Haïm and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Week 3 : 1st August- 7th August

When news of the “all night Stockhausen” Proms were leaked on the internet, many thought it was a spoof as the leak happened on April 1st.  Luckily, though, it was for real.  Stockhausen Day starts with two well-known works, Gruppen and Stimmung, but between them are two sections of Klang and Harmonium for Solo Trumpet all receiving their first UK performance. This should be quite something as the performers include Nicolas Hodges, Marcus Blaauw, Colin Currie and Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices.  Predictably, there will be sneers and tickets won’t sell out, but Stockhausen is important to modern music, even if he isn’t “mass consumption”. It is brave of the BBC to honour him in this way because its remit is to “inform”, and raise the bar.  On the 6th, George Benjamin conducts Messiaen, whom he knew well, Ravel and Stravinsky, and one of his own works, Ringed by the Flat Horizon.

Week 4 : 8th-15th August

Because the Proms are, despite being British, internationally prominent, there’ll be a tie-in with the opening of the Olympics, in Chen Yi’s Olympic Flame, a BBC commission. Surprisingly, the programme doesn’t include much in the way of sports related music, but Vaughan Williams 6th Symphony is included.  This is the third of the five Vaughan William’s symphonies in this year’s Proms. It was a wise move not to include them all, because they will be performed so often this year. Instead, the Proms more imaginatively feature works like Flos Campi (on 17th August) where the BBC’s special forces, like the BBC Singers, can bring something unique. They will be singing in an unusual concert on the 10th, where Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte will be interspersed with Manchicourt’s Missa Veni Creator Spiritus”. The BBC Singers will feature again the next evening, in a concert performance of Puccini’s Il tabarro, with Barbara Frittoli as Giorgetta and Lado Ataneli as Michelo. Monteverdi’s Vespers will fill the late night performance on the 12th. It finishes near midnight, which will be very atmospheric, at least for those who don’t need to rush to catch public transport afterwards. Again, radio comes to the rescue, as the concert can be heard live at home and later online. There will be a big international audience, too, for Daniel Barenboim.  He’ll be conducting the West Eastern Divan Orchestra in two Proms on the same evening, the 14th.  This orchestra truly is unique for its members cross political boundaries.  They are a symbol of hope that, through music, people can learn to live in harmony. What better choice to represent the ideals of the Olympics ? An extremely intelligent piece of programming, this.  They will be playing Haydn, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez and Brahms’s 4th Symphony.

Week 5 : 15th-21st August

Pierre Boulez then conducts an all Janàcěk Prom on 15th August.  This will include the Sinfonietta, the Concertino and the original version of The Glagolitic Mass. Although Boulez has long had the Sinfonietta in his repertoire, and more recently From the House of the Dead, but he has long been interested in this composer. Recordings bear little relationship to what happens in the music world, so the Proms are important in the sense that they reflect the “real” world of performance. Moreover, Boulez is likely to bring fresh, unexpected insights to the Glagolitic Mass, showing just how much more there is to Janàcěk than convention would suggest. This, again, is why frequent live performance matters so much.  Every time a piece is played, it gives performers a chance to explore and develop, and that keeps music alive.  This ties in with Jiřì Bělohlávek’s concert performance of Janàcěk’s Osud. Bělohlávek is an excellent interpreter of Czech music, and his Janàcěk has been extremely original and stimulating.  The prospect of hearing Boulez and Bělohlávek conduct Janàcěk within days of each other is exciting. They will be very different, yet both are conductors of such intelligence and integrity that it will be worth even more.  In between Boulez and Bělohlávek, Mackerras conducts Handel’s Belshazzar. Equally interestingly, there’ll be a chance to hear the Glagolitic Mass in the context of Beethoven’s Mass in C, in a Prom conducted by Hickox, two days later.  The day after that, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony can be heard, together with Elliott Carter’s Soundings written in 2005, receiving its UK premiere.  One of the good things about BBC Proms programming is that it confounds the obvious, and tries out lively ideas, mixing music in ways that stimulate deeper thought.

Week 6 : 22nd-28th August

Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra bring even more unusual juxtapositions in Prom 48, where Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler combine with Stockhausen, and Schubert songs are adapted by Colin Matthews and Detlev Glanert.  In 2005, Glanert’s Theatrum beastiarum was written specially to make full use of the unique sound space that is the Royal Albert Hall, and its organ in particular. It was a strikingly imaginative piece which grew on repeated hearings. This Schubert Retüschen won’t in itself be much, but it will be sung by Angelika Kirchschlager.  The organ is being used extensively this year, for several Proms feature organ works that show its range to good advantage – Messiaen, of course, with Latry and Jennifer Bate, for example – but Bach is always special.  Sunday is “Bach Day” appropriately. In the afternoon, Simon Preston plays various pieces for solo organ, and in the evening, there’s a full scale St John Passion. John Eliot Gardiner conducts his Monteverdi Choir and a good range of soloists, including Mark Padmore. Then, there’s a late night concert of three Bach cello suites played by Jiang Wen.  Vaughan Williams also gets a whole day now, his Symphony No 9 flanked by Job, a Masque for Dancing, the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis and the always spectacular Serenade to Music. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony in what should be one of the highlights of this years Vaughan Williams commemorations. The week ends with Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in a programme of Gershwin, Steven Stucky and Stravinsky.

Week 7 : 29th August-4th September

Maazel and the New York Philharmonic return the next day in a programme of Bartòk, Ravel and Tchaikovsky, Symphony No 4. Traditionally, this is “international orchestras” time at the Proms. This year brings the formidable Berlin Philharmoniker in two Proms with Sir Simon Rattle.  These will, again, be highlights of a very star-studded season and for good reason. On the first night, they will be performing Messiaen’s Turangalĭla-symphonie, a Rattle speciality, so it should be interesting to hear how he does it with the Berliners.  It’s also interesting because he has Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tristan Murail on piano and ondes martenot.  Both are, of course, Messiaen specialists, Murail having played on Rattle’s recording with CBSO many years ago. Next day, Rattle and the Berliners will perform Brahms’s 3rd Synmphony and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. It may be more standard repertoire but the Berliners are always worth hearing.  The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra will play Rachmaninoff (Lugansky), Sibelius Symphony no 1 and the UK premiére of Magnus Lindberg’s Seht der Sonne, which interestingly received its world premiére in 2007 with Simon Rattle in Berlin. Lindberg has become quite a fixture at the Proms, with a new work nearly every year, and for good reason.  He’s good. Then the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester plays Sibelius Symphony no 2 under Sir Andrew Davis.  More interesting BBC Proms programming ! And in the middle of the week, Bělohlávek returns to conduct Verdi’s Requiem with soloists Violetta Urmana, Olga Borodina, Joseph Calleja.and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, the BBC Symphony Chorus, The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Crouch End Chorus.

Week No 8 : 5th -11th September

Bernard Haitink usually appears at this point in the Proms season. This time he’s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this year with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On the 7th, they will be playing Mahler’s 6th Symphony paired with the UK premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Chicago Remains, written specially for the orchestra, celebrating their city. Haitink’s Mahler is well known, so it will be interesting to hear how he deals with the very different Turnage. He conducted the first performance of this work in Chicago last year.  The following day he conducts Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, and in Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerto no 24 with Murray Perahia.  Christoph Eschenbach is another Proms regular. This year he will be conducting the Orchestre de Paris, which is extremely good, much underrated in this country, so their Mahler Symphony no 1 should be far from ordinary. Also on the programme will be Matthias Pintscher’s Hérodiade-Fragmente. Pintscher may be fairly young, but he’s making tremendous waves, several of his works being performed in the UK this year, under conductors as eminent as Jurowski and Boulez, who, at this stage in his career, doesn’t conduct what doesn’t interest him.  Pintscher is a composer to keep ears open for.  The really striking features of this week are the two relatively rare operas. On Friday 5th, there’ll be Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschey the Immortal.  It’s only a one act opera but full blooded and highly coloured, so should be quite an experience, especially as it’s followed by Stravinsky’s The Firebird.  Vladimir Jurowski conducts, another reason why this will be fun. But the real star attraction, arguably of the whole Proms season, if not of the wqhole Messiaen year, barring the Boulez concert in December, will be Messiaen’s only opera, St Francis of Assisi.  This is magnificent, scored on a grand scale and isn’t easy to stage, which is probably why it will be heard to advantage in the Royal Albert Hall.  This is a concert version of the Amsterdam fully staging directed by Pierre Audi. The cast will be slightly different, though Rodney Gilfry will sing St Francis on both occasions.  Ingo Metzmacher will conduct the Hague Philharmonic and the Chorus of the Netherlands Orchestra.

Week 9 : 12th-13th September

Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 is a Proms perennial because it sums up what the Proms are all about. Nowadays audiences are limitless, since the whole world is wired and the BBC has embraced internet technology. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügeln wielt”.  People all over the world are brought together, wherever The Proms “wings” can reach.  The license fee funds something so powerful and enduring that it’s probably the best use of public money there is. Politicians should take note. Beethoven’s symphony is the “real” end of the Proms, while the famous Last Night is a kind of end of term party, where people can let their hair down and romp about in funny hats if that’s their thing.  Yet even on the Last night, there’s decent music. This year includes Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy which should be interesting to hear right after the Choral Symphony. But where would a Proms season be without Elgar and Parry ?  Some things don’t change, and why should they ?

For more information, the BBC Proms website  is here :

Anne Ozorio

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