Opera + Classical Music Features

Festival Preview: BBC Proms 2005

Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

This year the BBC Proms have reached the ‘Nelson’ figure: 111 not out, and showing signs of strengthening each year. This term there are 74 concerts at the Albert Hall, their brief as always to take in a wide range of visiting ensembles and soloists, not to mention composer anniversaries and themes chosen for the festival. With ever extended media coverage meaning half the concerts will be televised, the profile of Henry Wood’s creation could scarcely be higher.

And yet the festival still shows the signs of imaginative programming that led Birtwistle to become such an unexpected part of the last night a few years back. This time the last night’s playground antics will be presided over by Paul Daniel, overseeing the BBC Symphony Orchestra in its current state of transition before Jiří Bělohlávek takes up the reigns on the first night next year. Twelve different conductors will conduct the orchestra at the Proms, with the first night duties falling to Roger Norrington, who takes up two of the summer’s main themes.

The first is the centenary of the birth of Sir Michael Tippett. From a few years in relative obscurity, Tippett’s music is back with a bang (some would say too much!), with no fewer than a dozen of his works scheduled for performance over the season. Of course that befits a major landmark for an important British composer, but for Tippett to get this treatment ahead of Alan Rawsthorne’s one work is unlucky for the latter composer, whose centenary also falls this year. Tippett’s most popular work A Child Of Our Time is a fine choice for the first night curtain raiser, with a fine cast including Ian Bostridge and Sir Willard White.

The next theme is that of the sea, taking in a couple of pertinent dates – two hundred years since the Battle of Trafalgar, and a centenary performance of Debussy’s La Mer, given by Esa Pekka Salonen on the penultimate night (Prom 73, 9 September). An imaginative set of works on nautical themes runs all the way from Telemann’s exuberant Hamburger Ebb und Flut overture-suite, performed by the Academie fur Alte Musik Berlin on the late night Prom 29 (4 August), through to the premiere of British composer Thea Musgrave‘s Turbulent Landscapes, a work based on Turner seascapes and overseen by Osmo Vanska in Prom 6 (10 July). With overtures from Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Walton complemented by larger scale works from Vaughan Williams (Richard Hickox conducting the Sea Symphony in Prom 11 on 23 July) and Sullivan, whose HMS Pinafore appears in Prom 2 (16 July), pretty much every form is covered. Not only that, but Henry Wood’s Fantasia On British Sea Songs will get a centenary performance at the last night.

Along with the sea, the Proms will be looking at Fairy Tales, in the wake of Hans Christian Andersen’s bicentenary, and this selection is rather less convincing in its bias towards French and Russian composers. This doesn’t represent a compromise in musical quality however, with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen an early beneficiary under Paul McCreesh in Prom 3. Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition will be a big draw when performed by the CBSO and Sakari Oramo in Prom 16 (27 July), as will an all Tchaikovsky program under the excellent Vassily Sinaisky for Prom 42 (15 August). A few novelties have slipped into programming, too, and there are welcome outings for exquisite Liadov tone pictures (Prom 15, 26 July) and Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid), ambitiously paired by specialist James Conlon with Brahms’ German Requiem (Prom 67, 4 September).

But of course the real attraction of the Proms is the opportunity to see top notch classical artists put through their paces, and this they promise to be. None more so than debutant Placido Domingo, singing a Wagner role for the first time as Siegmund in Prom 4’s concert performance of Die Walküre on 18 July. Anne Sofie von Otter‘s appearance will be keenly awaited also, as she joins Neeme Jarvi in Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, part of an outstanding program for Prom 30 with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (5 August). The highly regarded violinist Joshua Bell will be the centrepiece of Prom 18 (28 July), during which he will perform the UK premier of John Corigliano’s Red Violin Concerto, as taken from the film score.

This is one of many Proms that will include a pre-concert talk, with composer Corigliano and conductor Marin Alsop present. These talks will typically take place an hour and a half before concerts are due to start, a point worth noting as several evening concerts are timed to start at 7pm rather than 7:30pm.

Once again the visiting orchestras will provide plenty of discussion, and, inevitably, controversy. The Cleveland Orchestra should be appearing this year, following their cancellation last year due to the proposed Internet streaming of their Proms. This time they will be performing two epic compositions – Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Prom 62, August 31st) and Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony no.3 (Prom 60, August 30th). The Vienna Philharmonic will also appear, although it is disappointing to note that once again Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring has been chosen as the centrepiece of a major orchestra program. Far preferable for me is Prom 72 (8 September) where Christoph Eschenbach will be conducting Bruckner’s Eighth symphony.

The continued popularity of Mahler and Shostakovich is evident in the programming, with Bernard Haitink‘s conducting of the latter’s wartime Eighth symphony bound to be a highlight (Prom 51, 22 August). But the Proms continues to thrive on musical diversity, and that will be most evident in Ravi Shankar‘s Sitar Concerto, played by his daughter Anoushka in Prom 27 (August 3rd), the first Proms appearance by Baba Maal, who will take over the late night Prom 40 on 13 August, and Bobby McFerrin, who will once again be crossing boundaries with the African Children’s Choir in a matinee for Prom 32 (7 August).

Proms in the Park will once again swell the last night, and Paul Daniel will be adding Hull to the list of cities to greet. Again there will be weekly chamber music recitals on a Monday lunchtime, this time in the Cadogan Hall, a chance to elaborate further on the festival themes in the company of Thomas Allen, Leila Josefowicz and other big names. There will also be four films expanding said themes, free to all.

Comprehensive booking and works information can be found on the excellent Proms website, an ideal spot from which to mull over your next move. Let the music begin!

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