Written by: Leonard Slatkin
This year marks a very special time for me. I will lead six Prom concerts including the first and last nights.
For all of these occasions we have planned some very special works. Some are tied into the themes for the summer and some are just plain favorites of mine. The opening is a good place to begin, however.
Traditionally, the first concert features a big choral work and this year there is no exception. But for the past couple of seasons, the concept of having just one work has been altered and the inclusion of a soloist has been added. Actually, we will have seventeen of them if you include the singers for the Vaughan Williams “Serenade to Music”. Following Colin Matthews’s new fanfare, we will play his orchestration of an unwritten overture. With the use of a highly American story, Benjamin Britten created a genuine folk opera, “Paul Bunyan”. The composer rejected the overture, and this is a small gesture to introduce people to motives that occur in the stage version.
John Adams’s “Harmonium” for chorus and orchestra concludes
the concert. This was the first large-scale work by the composer and really put him on the concert map. There are no soloists and the work shows John truly in command of both orchestral and vocal forces. Even though the texts are by Dickinson and Donne, they only serve as a springboard for the musical thought. In a way, the texts are secondary. There are not so many choral works from the last century that have secured places in the repertoire. This is one of the few.
A few days later Emanuel Ax will give the European premiere of “Seeing” by the American composer Christopher Rouse. This concerto takes as its point of departure the afflictions suffered by both Robert Schumann and the lead singer of the 60s rock group, Moby Grape. Not much in common there, you say. Well, just wait. This is a remarkable piece in which virtuosity reigns supreme for everyone, not least the soloist. The Fifth Symphony by Mahler is also on the program.
In August I return for two more concerts. One is a combination of original works by Americans – Copland, Barber and Bernstein. The second half has works by two Russians who emigrated to Los Angeles but rarely spoke to one another, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. We often forget about Rachmaninov’s mastery of formal structure. Even though his Symphonies seem sprawling, they are beautifully constructed. No more perfect set of variations can be found than his “Paganini Rhapsody”. From first note to last there simply is not a superfluous bar in this piece. The piano is used in a concertante fashion, sometimes soloist, and sometimes part of the orchestral fabric. When we arrive at the sublime 18th variation, it is so natural that we forget it is basically an inversion of the main tune. Even after all these years, the work still holds surprises and perhaps that is what makes it so wonderful.
A bit later in the week I will do my first late night prom. This has the unusual feature of both the BBC Symphony and the BBC Big Band, who play together in one work, Duke Ellington’s tone poem “Harlem”. We also have the London premiere of a piece by the pianist/composer Michel Camilo. This is a piano concerto in the manner of a Latin Gershwin and should be quite something as Michel is capable of playing more notes per square inch than any
pianist I know.
Finally we come to September and the final two concerts. The first will have the Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams and a new work by Alexander Goehr.
But I imagine all of you want to know what we have planned for the last night. Sorry, but you will have to come or tune in to find out. But one note of reassurance. All the traditions of the last night will stay intact save for the accent of the conductor during the speech. It is worth noting that our soloist is not only making her last night debut, but her Proms debut as well. She is Frederica von Stade and I could not ask for a more wonderful colleague to share the stage.