Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview: BBC Proms 2009



“Full of energy in its 115th year”. That’s how the BBC describe their premier classical music festival, and few could argue, given the depth and breadth of this line-up.

Long gone are the days when the Royal Albert Hall played host to all musical events.

Now we have smaller arenas down the road and parks around the country to pick up on the Proms themes. Perhaps more importantly, we have the mediums of radio and television, the form through which the real magic of the Proms can be experienced, in its ability to snuggle up with the listener in the comfort of their own room.

This year, as with every year, is bigger than the one that went before. A sizeable ballet cycle, tens of New Generation Artist concerts, a focus on ‘England at the crossroads’, and a ‘Multiple Pianos’ day are just some of what the BBC has in store. And that’s before you even approach the four ‘composers of the year’, all given plenty of stage time, and a host of visiting orchestras.

The ballets first and a cycle of all the Stravinsky works written for the form. This ought to prove a fascinating collection, for despite the over familiarity of The Rite Of Spring or The Firebird, these works have obscured the Russian composer’s other masterpieces. It’s good to report performances for Orpheus, Jeu De Cartes, the rarely performed piano spectacular Les Noces and Agon, heralding as it did the final stylistic phase of Stravinsky’s career.

In 1934 Stravinsky was on the move to Paris and English classical music was about to change, abruptly, forever. The Proms examines this year in what it terms ‘England At The Crossroads’, for in that year three of our greatest composers left us Elgar, Delius and Holst. While Elgar has enjoyed plenty of exposure in recent years, Holst remains something of an enigma outside of The Planets, a more forward adventurous composer than is generally acknowledged.

A Holst of riches

The festival addresses that oversight in part with the First Choral Symphony (Prom 14) but stops short of including such wonderful pieces as Beni Mora, Egdon Heath or A Somerset Rhapsody. Prom 14 also includes Delius’ Brigg Fair, one of his most enduring and less sentimentalised orchestral works, while two Proms earlier there is a rare chance to hear A Song Of The High Hills. Delius splits opinion arguably more than any British composer of the 20th century, so for this undecided writer at least it will be interesting to consider his output afresh.

Two of Radio 3’s ‘composers of the year’ are English (or one and a half, depending on how you view Handel!). Each has had a special weekend thanks to the station’s imaginative programming, but there is a lot to be said for performances of seldom-heard works such as Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang and Reformation symphonies, his Second and Fifth respectively and part of a complete Proms cycle. Lobgesang (Hymn Of Praise) is perhaps the culmination of the composer’s ‘Bach’ period and runs for an hour, while the Reformation, a fine ‘sturm und drang’ piece, ought to work well under the extremely promising conductor Yannick Nzet-Sguin in Prom 20.

A good Haydn

The Haydn selection is arguably less adventurous, though a starry cast is assigned to the exultant oratorio The Creation in Prom 2, overseen by Paul McCreesh. All three chosen symphonies are from the late ‘London’ period, which feels like a missed opportunity, though the ‘Military’, no.100, should go off with a bang under Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Prom 62).

There is a lot of Handel once again, with complete performances of Samson (The English Concert, Prom 47), Messiah (Nicholas McGegan, massed choirs and the Northern Sinfonia, Prom 68) and the lesser known opera Partenope, given in a Royal Danish Opera performance in Prom 4. The pick, however, is a Prom 36 performance of the Coronation Anthems, in the capable hands of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen.

Purcell devotees will want to mark two concerts in their diaries Prom 7, a semi-staged performance of The Fairy Queen, really stands out with William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, while the last Proms Chamber Music concert, PCM 19, includes a tribute to the composer by John Blow with the Academy of Ancient Music.

New generations

Yet the Proms are all about new things, too and with a Cadogan Hall series devoted to ‘New Generation’ artists, plus the customary new music commissions, the old and the new are juxtaposed ever more vividly this year. The artists will get their turn in the spotlight over the last weekend of August, the hall playing host to no fewer than a dozen concerts over the bank holiday weekend. Of particular intrigue is a 1934-themed concert (PCM10) with songs by Holst, the Delius Cello Sonata and the Violin Sonata of Sir Edward Elgar, played by Jennifer Pike and Tom Poster. Meanwhile PCM16 features Sharon Bezaly, widely acknowledged as one of the best flautists in the world, joining an ensemble in a vivid programme of J.S.Bach and Villa-Lobos.

Everywhere you look there is new music, but a few choice excerpts include Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood‘s Popcorn Superhet Receiver, part of a concert to mark Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 75th birthday, the UK premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ second Violin Concerto, played by Daniel Hope on an evening whose late night Prom includes his Solstice Of Light, and a Darwin-inspired work for orchestra by Goldie. Viewers of BBC2’s intriguing Maestro program last year will have seen the drum and bass producer getting to grips with the orchestra and loving every minute, so it’s good to report that passion looks set to last and bring a whole new audience potential to the festival, if only briefly. This will be part of concert called Evolution, which focuses on the world of Darwin with the help of Sir David Attenborough.

Philip Glass gets a welcome night in the spotlight, having been relatively shunned in his 70th birthday year. Dennis Russell Davies and Gidon Kremer make an enticing double act for the Violin Concerto in the late night Prom 37, which also includes the UK premiere of the Seventh Symphony. Late night Proms tend to start at 10:15pm this year, a wise move that allows the organisers more time to make the transition from the early evening events.

Something for the weekend

Each Proms season has a weekend where it focuses on a particular style of music or instrumental combination. This year’s one is rather odd a keyboard frenzy in works written for more than one piano. Showcased on opening night, where the Labque sisters play Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, ‘Multiple Pianos’ day the title doesn’t quite whet the appetite will include Saint-Sans Carnival of the Animals in an afternoon concert with the Britten Sinfonia, and the London Sinfonietta taking on Bartk’s masterpiece, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, in the evening.

While we’re preoccupied with the piano, Stephen Hough will perform each of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra as the festival progresses, which will mean a welcome and rare performance for the Second Piano Concerto in Prom 16, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Visitors are always welcome to the Proms, and they don’t come more prestigious than Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who will perform Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the Great. It will be interesting to see how much the conductor imposes his thoughts of the period on proceedings, as it will be in Haydn (Prom 73).

As always there is not quite enough room to do every concert justice here, so a suggested next port of call is the BBC Proms website, which offers more information on themes, composers and performers alike. What is clear, however, is that the Proms has once again managed the trick of pleasing newcomers and stalwarts alike, with some intriguing summer evenings of music ahead of us.



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