BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor to lead First and Last Nights at this year’s BBC Proms
Sakari Oramo, who began his term as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO) at the First Night of the Proms three years ago, is set to deepen their acclaimed partnership this summer with four concerts at the 2016 BBC Proms. The Finnish conductor, hailed as “a master of cohesion” by The Arts Desk and tipped for “National Treasure status” by The Daily Telegraph, opens the BBC’s annual music festival with a compelling First Night of the Proms programme on Friday 15 July. He will also join the BBC SO for his second outing as conductor of the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 10 September. In between Oramo and his orchestra are scheduled to perform everything from the Proms premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No.34 and the world premiere of Charlotte Bray’s new cello concerto, a deeply personal response to the Syrian conflict, to the mighty fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler.
“Music is always at the centre of every Proms concert and that is what makes them so special,” comments Sakari Oramo. “Of course they include well-known soloists and the world’s finest orchestras. But everything starts with the celebration of music. The Proms are a true festival of music and, as such, a wonderful part of British and international cultural life.” The conductor has chosen to launch this year’s Proms with Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’, reviving a work that was once a staple of the concert repertoire in order to mark William Shakespeare’s quartercentenary. “The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overture has fallen out of orchestral programmes simply because it’s a bit too long to be a concert opener and a bit too short to stand in the second half,” Oramo observes. “But it is a true masterpiece, brilliantly crafted and extraordinarily inventive.”
The First Night of the Proms continues with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, performed by rising-star Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta for her Proms debut. Sakari Oramo chose the work before deciding on its soloist. “I watched Sol Gabetta’s performance with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Stéphane Denève online and thought that she nailed every aspect of the Elgar. She’s on the verge of a very big career and I am looking forward to working with her very much.” The First Night’s second half is devoted to Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, a vibrant cantata forged from the composer’s 1938 soundtrack score to Sergei Eisenstein’s eponymous film.
“It’s such an obvious Proms choice, for its artistic quality and involvement of large quantities of the BBC family,” the conductor comments. The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be joined by the combined forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC Symphony Chorus, while the majestic Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina is set to perform Prokofiev’s heart-breaking lament on ‘The Field of the Dead’. “Alexander Nevsky has to be heard as a portrait of the time in which it was written and a reflection of the tensions between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Last year we performed Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony in 2013. I thought it was time to shift from the British choral scene to one of the most dramatic of all Russian pieces for choir and orchestra.”
Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO return to the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 10 August to mark Henri Dutilleux’s centenary year with the Proms premiere of the French composer’s Timbres, espace, mouvement. Dutilleux retrospectively stated that his work, written in 1978 for large orchestra minus violins and violas, was inspired by van Gogh’s La nuit étoilée (‘The starry night’) and that it sought to evoke the painter’s states of mind, not least his fervent desire for spiritual peace and stability. The composer revised his score in 1990, adding an interlude for a dozen cellos between the work’s original two movements. It will be performed in company with the London premiere of HK Gruber’s Busking, a wildly exuberant 30-minute work created in 2008 for trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger. The piece also includes prominent solo parts for banjo and accordion. Gruber recalls that he had the Spanish verb ‘buscar’, ‘to seek’, in mind when composing the piece together with Picasso’s 1921 painting Three Musicians. “It’s a wonderful piece,” notes Sakari Oramo. “As its name suggests, it’s about street music-making and the clashes between competing buskers.” Hardenberger will share centre stage at the Proms with banjo player Mats Bergström and accordionist Claudia Buder.
Since taking charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo has drawn critical praise for his programming. The conductor favours the idea of combining diverse works within the same concert and inviting audiences to discover their own connections between them. For his second Prom of the season he has decided to follow Dutilleux and Gruber with Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. “I think it’s much more fun than thinking about works by Belgian composers beginning with G! What are the links, for example, between street music and Beethoven Five? One can discuss that eternally because Beethoven always creates more questions than answers.”
Oramo adds that when he performs works from the past, he always looks to uncover their relationship to the present. “I relate Beethoven Five to the crisis in Syria; the first movement is like the Syrian civil war. The listener doesn’t necessarily need to know this, but it helps me to set the right frame of mind in performance: Beethoven lived under dark and difficult times and worked on that piece while Napoleon’s troops were occupying Vienna. In my view it’s not pure music, divorced from the outside world; I refuse to accept that notion. It is very much to do with the politics, life and atmosphere of the early 1800s. This is a genuine attempt to understand Beethoven’s musical language with the help of contemporary events.”
Syria and the plight of her people are brought to mind once again at the Proms on Sunday 14 August with the world premiere of Charlotte Bray’s Falling in the Fire. The work, a cello concerto written for Guy Johnston, gives voice to the 33-year-old British composer’s ‘moral outrage’ at the recent destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by Islamic State forces. “I have heard Guy play the piece with Charlotte’s piano reduction of the score,” recalls Sakari Oramo. “It is very strong as a composition and as an artistic statement. I’m hugely looking forward to bringing it to life at the Proms.”
Bray’s piece will be prefaced by Haydn’s Symphony No.34 in D minor, possibly written in the mid-1760s as a curtain-raiser to Carlo Goldoni’s play The English Philosopher. “It opens with a heartbreakingly beautiful slow first movement, almost tragic in nature,” comments Oramo. “And then the rest of it is incredibly jolly. I want to contradict the Early Music movement, which seems completely to have taken over performing works from this period of music history. I have nothing against period ensembles performing these early symphonies but I am against it if they believe they are their exclusive property. It is good for symphony orchestras to remind themselves of where their repertoire started.”
One of the great landmarks of Late Romanticism, Mahler’s Symphony No.5, is set to occupy Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in their 14 August programme’s second half. The conductor regards the Royal Albert Hall as the work’s natural home, ideally serving the composition by its vast scale and warm acoustics. “Mahler’s music gains in so many ways from the Albert Hall,” says Oramo. “The place is ideal for his brass writing, which can sound harsh in a smaller hall, and allows the music to gain momentum. It has been a dream of mine to perform Mahler Five with the excellent players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra here. We will do everything we can to make it memorable for the Proms audience.”
Sakari Oramo brings the BBC’s annual festival to a close with his second appearance as conductor of the Last Night of the Proms. He says that he is particularly pleased to include Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, a setting of words from the fifth act of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The piece, for sixteen vocal soloists and orchestra, was written in 1938 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the conductor Sir Henry Wood’s first concert. The Serenade to Music received its first Proms performance under Wood’s direction in August 1941, following the wartime cancellation of two earlier attempts to present it during the festival.
“I’m delighted to be doing this piece with sixteen fine young singers and as our Last Night tribute to Shakespeare,” says Oramo. “To open the Proms with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overture and almost finish the season with the Serenade to Music, which is such a beautiful and evocative piece, is a tremendous joy for me. I’m also looking forward to working with Juan Diego Flórez in some big operatic hits, including ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and ‘Ah! mes amis’ from the same composer’s La fille du régiment, and in a Latin American medley. For me the Last Night is a festive occasion for people to enjoy and a great opportunity for everyone who hears it to worship music.”