It would not be at all surprising to see a Tricolore flying over the Royal Albert Hall this summer, and for the usual rendition of The National Anthem on the Last Night to be replaced by La Marseillaise, as this year’s Prom season has a conspicuously French flavour to it. The decision to mark the centenary of the deaths of Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger has contributed to this, and works by the two composers feature in the programme.
More exposure of Boulanger’s music is welcome, as she is very much an unsung genius (and is often eclipsed by her sister Nadia, who seems to have taught practically every 20th-century composer). As well as some of her shorter works – D’un matin de printemps, D’un soir triste (Prom 8), Nocturne for violin and piano, Trois morceaux pour piano (Cadogan 8) – there is also a chance to hear her impressively vast setting of Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme (Prom 44).
Debussy’s works for piano are surprisingly absent, but he is represented by a semi-staged performance of Pelléas et Mélisande (Prom 5) and a sample of his orchestral and chamber works, including La Mer (Prom 28), Nocturnes (Prom 44) Jeux (Prom 45) and the ever-popular Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prom 44). There are plenty of works by Maurice Ravel, including Boléro (Prom 44), Daphnis and Chloe (Prom 2), Concerto for the Left Hand (Prom 28), La Valse (Prom 65), and a concert performance of his opera L’enfant et les sortilèges. Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Dukas, Widor and Franck appear in the programme, and the era of Le Roi-Soleil is briefly brought to London for the second Cadogan Hall concert, which features music by Couperin and Rameau. Hector Berlioz gets a whole Prom to himself (Prom 71). Olivier Messiaen is granted a small but significant look-in with Turangalîla (Prom 6) and Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (Proms at Roundhouse), and there is a new work by Thierry Escaich (Prom 10).
2018 is the last chance to mark the centenary of the First World War, and Lili Boulanger also makes an appearance here with Pour les funérailles d’un soldat (Prom 41), her moving work for orchestra, chorus and baritone; the concert also includes responses by Vaughan Williams and Elgar to the conflict: Dona nobis pacem and the Cello Concerto. Holst’s The Planets (whose ‘Mars’ foreshadows mechanised warfare) is joined, for the First Night by Five Telegrams, a BBC Commission from Anna Meredith/59 Productions, a setting of words sent home by young soldiers in 1918; another reaction to war by Holst, Ode to Death also features in Prom 17. Proms at Roundhouse features a clutch of world premières by Luca Francesconi, Georg Friedrich Haas, Isabel Mundry and others, written in answer to The Great War.
2018 also marks the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, and this year’s season gives the listener a chance to hear not only his top-billing works – West Side Story (in a concert version, which, given its direction by the immensely popular John Wilson, is scheduled for two performances as Proms 38 and 39) and On the Town (Prom 57) – but also some rare vignettes such as Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (Prom 69) Conch Town (Cadogan Hall 7), and the first two symphonies (Proms 37 and 60). In a left-field take, Bernstein’s broadcasting career is celebrated in Prom 58, The Sound of an Orchestra, a homage to the composer’s 1960s televised presentations of classical music to young viewers.
Opera buffs may be disappointed that there is little Grand Opera to tempt them this year, apart from a concert performance of Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre in Prom 36, as the operatic mix is eclectic. The aforementioned Debussy and Ravel are the only full-length operas this season, with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (Proms at Lincoln Drill Hall) and the jolly romp of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial By Jury (along with some other suitably flowery Victoriana by Sullivan’s contemporaries) at Proms at Alexander Palace squeezing in as make-weights. Handel’s oratorio Theodora (Prom 74) offers consolation.
There are, as ever, plenty of new commissions and premières this year, including works by established contemporary composers such as Sir James MacMillan (Britannia, Prom 3) and Mark-Anthony Turnage (Maya, Prom 29). The lunchtime Proms at Cadogan Hall make a welcome return, and each of the eight programmes features at least one new piece by a younger composer, including Lisa Illean (Sleeplessness… Sails, Cadogan 2), Laura Mvula (The Virgin of Montserrat, Cadogan 6), Eve Risser (Furakéla, Cadogan 2), Nina Šenk (Baca, Cadogan 8) and Jessica Wells (Rhapsody for solo oud, Cadogan 3). A fascinating set of contrasts is explored in The Brandenburg Project (Proms 39 and 40), in which each of Bach’s six Brandenburg concerti is paired with a new companion-work for the same forces by Uri Caine, Brett Dean, Anders Hillborg, Steven Mackey, Olga Neuwirth and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
For those seeking the grandiose, several works are on offer: Messiaen’s Turangalîla (Prom 6); Lili Boulanger’s Du fond de l’abîme (Prom 44); Mahler’s first, third, and eighth symphonies (Proms 37, 67 and 11), Britten’s War Requiem (Prom 72), Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (Prom 4) and the now seemingly performed-two-out-of-three-seasons Verdi Requiem (Prom 64). As quiet, late-night contrasts, Sir Andras Schiff returns to complete his performance (begun last year) of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with Book 2 (Prom 63), and The Tallis Scholars present a plainchant-interspersed hour or so of a cappella choral music (including works by Tallis, Hildegard of Bingen and Arvo Pärt) in Prom 73.
The ‘non-classical’ material is the usual exciting and ecumenical mix. For the first time, British and Irish folk music (un-mediated by the English pastoralists) makes an appearance in Prom 27. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra’s Prom (Prom 46), while featuring a performance of Rhapsody in Blue also promises dazzling performances from young British jazz musicians. Other Proms leavening the classical mix include Jacob Collier and Friends (Prom 7), a couple of steamy-but-cool late-night explorations of genres from Jamaica and Cuba in Havana meets Kingston (Prom 23) and New York in New York: Sound of a City (Prom 35); there’s also a touch of the West-African griot tradition (along with a fusion of rumba, soul and hip hop) from Youssou Ndour & Le Super Étoile de Dakar (Prom 53).
The BBC Proms website opened on 19 April for planning your summer’s Prom concerts, and tickets can be booked online (bbc.co.uk/proms or royalalberthall.com) or by phone (020 7070 4441) from 12 May at 09:00.