Proms 2006: A Personal Introduction From The Editor

Written by: Colin Anderson

With summer comes the music festival, and none are bigger, more diverse or more widely available than the BBC Proms. They begin on July 14. New to the itinerary are four concerts at Cadogan Hall (Sloane Square) on alternate Saturday afternoons, from July 15 beginning at 3 o’clock. These concerts, PSMs (Proms Saturday Matinees, naturally!), should not be confused with the proven PCMs (Proms Chamber Music), eight recitals, also in Cadogan Hall, on Monday lunchtimes at 1 o’clock, from July 17.

Benjamin, George (credit Betty Freeman)Of course, the main Proms business is in the Royal Albert Hall, 73 concerts embracing centuries of music – from the unashamedly popular to the brand-new via the unfamiliar and rare. You can in the two months of the Proms get drunk on music’s power and diversity, thrill to the biggest and most dynamic of musical statements and get sucked into some of the most intimate; among the latter will surely be András Schiff’s late-night Mozart recital (August 17).

The First Night is always a special occasion. This year it is doubly so, for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the backbone of the Proms’ orchestral concerts in terms of number of concerts given, has a new Chief Conductor: Jiri Bělohlávek. A few weeks ago I attended a BBC Radio 3 recording session at the orchestra’s Maida Vale home when the Fourth Symphony of Brahms was painstakingly prepared. I spoke to Bělohlávek about the First Night, which is also his first concert in his new BBC role. “The significance is clearly those two facts and I am just looking forward. I hope, despite this significance, that it will be joyful. I like the programme very much, a big variety.” Indeed. Birthday-boys Mozart (250) and Shostakovich (100) are represented alongside examples of music from Bělohlávek’s Czech homeland – Smetana’s description of the Vltava, the river that flows through Prague, and Dvořák’s uplifting setting of the Te Deum (“a wonderful piece”). Does Bélohlavek play Shostakovich’s most prevalent symphony, the 5th, as pure music or search out its codes? “A combination: a concern for the realisation of the musical text and for Mahler’s belief that the most important thing is what is behind the notes. In Shostakovich 5 the message is clear: that he was able to write a piece that won official acceptance and yet still showed how painful and difficult life in Russia was then.”

This year’s Proms season, then, has lashings of Mozart and Shostakovich, including novelties from both. Mozart’s unfinished Mass in C minor features on September 8 in Robert Levin’s completion (Sir Charles Mackerras conducts) and PSM 3 (August 19) includes Shostakovich film-scores together with some of the footage the music accompanied. Other anniversaries include Schumann and Michael Haydn and numerous senior living composers with significant round-number birthdays, including Dutilleux (90), Henze and Kurtág (80), Reich (70) and Colin Matthews (60). There are new or recent works from younger creators, including Julian Anderson, George Benjamin, Wolfgang Rihm, James Dillon, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Magnus Lindberg; and four Composer Portraits, each a pre-concert in the RAH.

Colleagues from Manchester, Wales and Scotland as well as the ‘independent’ London orchestras and various youth ensembles join the BBC’s London-based Symphony and Concert Orchestras. The National Youth Orchestra (Sir Colin Davis conducting Stravinsky, Janáček and Sibelius, August 5), the European Union Youth Orchestra in Shostakovich’s hair-raising Symphony No. 4 under Ashkenazy (August 12) and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Susan Graham singing about love and the sea, on August 22. There are orchestras from Bamberg, Philadelphia, Berlin, Minnesota, Paris, Hamburg and Pittsburgh, and many famous soloists.

Time now to mention the Proms Prospectus (available in bookshops), that the web-address, below, includes online booking, and that 020 7589 8212 is the number for telephone bookings; you can avoid the booking fee by going direct to the RAH box office at Door 12. All concerts are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and many (including the First and Last Nights) are televised live or recorded on BBC1 and BBC2. BBC4 is taking the last three weeks of concerts. But there’s nothing to beat being there! (By the way, the Proms plays its own TV signature tune this year; Arthur Bliss’s A Colour Symphony, July 23.)

Nott J (credit Priska Ketterer Tudor records)Everyone will have a personal list of anticipated concerts. Mine include the First Night, the Hallé’s concert on July 17 (Mark Elder will also conduct the Last Night on September 9), George Benjamin’s Dance Figures (July 24), the Bamberg Symphony and Jonathan Nott (July 27), and ‘discovering’ conductors such as Marc Albrecht (July 28) and Stéphane Denève (August 4). Elgar’s latest Pomp and Circumstance March (courtesy of Anthony Payne) is on August 2. New works by Julian Anderson (August 6) and James Dillon (August 10) are looked forward to, so too a piece by Hanspeter Kyburz that nestles into a programme of Mozart’s two G minor symphonies and more examples of Colin Matthews’s Debussy orchestrations (Berlin Phil/Simon Rattle on September 1). The Philadelphia Orchestra contrasts two of the most popular of fifth symphonies, those by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, on September 4. Earlier that day pianist Stephen Kovacevich plays Berg and Schubert in Cadogan Hall, and Bernard Haitink will raise the roof with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony on September 6.

If, for those who are involved year-round in London’s musical life, the Proms can repeat or anticipate the seasons either side of the summer extravaganza, the Proms also represent a year of music telescoped into two months. And the standing in the Arena (£5.00 this year and with season tickets available) is something of a ritual. Yes, we get annoyed when some in the audience applaud between movements (it disrupts the flow and the music’s overall shape), but the Proms also has a lure that unites seasoned and beginner music-lovers. In an age dominated by earphones, much intrusive noise (including ghastly and imposed muzak in shops and thumping car stereos), and desultory TV, concerts are a sanctuary for the thinking person. Bring on the Proms, then, to restore some sanity and nourishment.

  • Proms 2006
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 13 July 2006 and is reproduced here with permission

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