The impression with the 2010 BBC Proms is that Roger Wright is really hitting his stride as director. Three years in, he is now able to more fully impose his ideas on the season – though it is not his style to try to be different for the sake of it. Instead he has come up with a carefully weighted blend of innovation and tradition, meaning the season comes up with the classic, the unexpected and the new.
The ‘classic’ refers to the traditional marking of significant anniversaries. Gustav Mahler, born 150 years ago, receives the most obvious fuss, though by nature a Mahler symphony usually comprises two thirds of any concert. Through this summer we will hear six of the cycle, the rest presumably coming next year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his death. Special mention, however, should be made of Robert Schumann, whose influence is ever growing. It has been fashionable to criticise Schumann’s output for a lack of consistency and even for his orchestration. Indeed Mahler himself took a revisionist’s pencil to the symphonies, though Schumann’s own models will be heard this Proms. Cadogan Hall’s first two concerts of Proms chamber music, meanwhile, will delight in the tragic song cycle ‘Dichterliebe’, and the exuberant Piano Quintet.
In the same year of Schumann’s birth, another celebrated composer-pianist came into the world. Frederic Chopin receives just two Proms, but both are not to be missed – Maria Joo Pires playing a selection of Nocturnes in the late night Prom 7 (21 July) and Nelson Freire playing the second piano concerto (Prom 36, 12 August).
Paul Lewis, a highly promising and already well respected Beethoven interpreter, will embark on a daring cycle of Beethoven piano concertos, accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a clever program devoted to the composer in Prom 6 (21 July) whilst offering the ‘Emperor’ as the rightful culmination of the cycle in Prom 69 (6 September).
Last year appearances by the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain and the Silk Road Ensemble showed how adaptable the Proms can be, following on from groundbreaking appearances by Nitin Sawhney and Ravi Shankar. This year’s wild cards, so to speak, are Jamie Cullum and the Penguin Caf Orchestra. Both have late night slots, Cullum teaming up with the Heritage Orchestra for a wide ranging program in Prom 55 (26 August) and Arthur Jeffes‘ ensemble taking to the Royal Albert Hall stage with guests including celebrated Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell in Prom 73 (8 September).
The idea of the unexpected is one of the things the Proms do so well, and Wright has been mindful to include British composers as he explores the musical backwaters. This year the spotlight falls on Hubert Parry, one of the ancestors of the 20th century music revival in Britain. All too often restricted to performances of his hymn ‘Jerusalem’ on the last night, Parry enjoys exposure through his Symphonic Variations (Prom 68, 5 September), the rarely heard fifth symphony (Prom 9, 23 July) and the poignant Elegy for Brahms, a composer under whose influence he fell early on (Prom 31, 8 August).
The music of Scriabin is another matter altogether. Here is a composer noted for his fantastical visions of the world, the mysticism referred to in his philosophising reflected in his music. Few 20th century pieces for orchestra are more outrageous than the Poem Of Ecstasy, part of an intriguing Prom 46 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia. However the Divine Poem, the composer’s third symphony, is a substantial work too – and conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy in Prom 52 (24 August), this should make a considerable impact, as should the First Symphony, a no holds barred choral utterance that Valery Gergiev will take on with the LSO in Prom 41 (16 August).
The new is an aspect of the Proms that makes it enviable, an ability to commission new music and program first performances unrivalled in a major music festival. This year we get to hear Arvo Prt’s fourth symphony for the first time in the UK, Julian Anderson‘s new work Fantasias, George Benjamin’s Duet, Colin Matthews’ Violin Concerto and Mark Anthony Turnage‘s Hammered Out, a co-commission between the BBC and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Opera fans are well and truly spoilt in the festival’s opening weekend. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger will dominate Prom 2 (17 July), with Bryn Terfel taking the role of Hans Sachs for the first time, while Placido Domingo is perhaps the Proms’ biggest international visitor, singing the title role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in Prom 3 (18 July). Elsewhere productions and excerpts well worth seeking out are Hansel and Gretel (Prom , ) and while Monteverdi’s Vespers are not exactly opera, they are bound to offer some heavenly vocal music under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner on the penultimate night (Prom 75, 10 September).
It is impossible to cover all the Proms in one feature, so here are some suggestions for the concerts ahead:
For a no-holds barred adrenalin rush, we recommend the Orchestre National De France, performing three great works premiered in Paris – and culminating with the Rite Of Spring, conducted by Daniele Gatti (Prom 71, 7 September) – or, for something a bit different, the double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo And Juliet and Janáček’s Taras Bulba, with the European Union Youth Orchestra and Matthias Bamert (Prom 32, 9 August).
For an abundance of good melodies, Dvořák’s Eighth symphony more than fits the bill, ending an imaginative concert from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir John Eliot Gardiner (him again!) that includes Martinu’s Sixth Symphony and works by Janáček and Grieg (Prom 58, 29 August).
For family fun, the two Doctor Who Proms given by the BBC Welsh National Orchestra will be hard to beat (Proms 10 and 11, 24 and 25 July), while for a lesser heard gem, Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony opens a cracking program with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt in Prom 62 (1 September). This includes Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen sung by the outstanding baritone Christian Gerhaher, and ends with Bruckner’s all-encompassing ninth symphony.
For late night musical therapy, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra‘s program of wind serenades by Dvorak and Mozart will take some beating, though will sadly now take place without Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm (Prom 17, late night 29 July). Meanwhile Arvo Prt’s St John Passion, occupying Prom 43 (late night 17 August) will doubtless win fans for its slowly shifting harmonies.
For a set of performances you are bound to remember for a long time to come, the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle will be unmissable in their triptych of Second Viennese School composers (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg in Prom 66, 4 September) – with the considerable added bonus of Karita Mattila performing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.
It is well worth remembering you can catch all of the concerts on BBC Radio 3, as well as no fewer than 30 on BBC television, all accessible for at least a week afterwards on the iPlayer and often repeated later in the season. The Proms website, of course has all you need to know and chances to interact also. The whole festival has moved with the times where technology and broadcasting are concerned – but crucially has not forgotten the route taken on the long and wondrous journey.