BBC Proms 2004: A personal introduction from the editor

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Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 July, 2004
Venue: NULL

The Proms are with us again. This year’s launch remained British, the Library replacing last year’s Museum as the imposing location, Nicholas Kenyon this year having a separate get-together for the press; then the evening proper was signalled by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s brass in the opening movement of Janáček’s Sinfonietta.

The Proms have mass appeal, and nation-wide, nay world-wide coverage thanks to television (increased this year), Radio 3, and the Internet, although the last carrier seems the reason why the Cleveland Orchestra isn’t appearing (it is though at Edinburgh for a concert-threesome). The Cleveland Orchestra isn’t geared-up for cyberspace broadcasting and when required extra monies for this weren’t tabled, there was to be no passage across the border to us Sassenachs. (I wish the BBC had been so prudent over those awful Don King FA Cup trailers on TV!) In fact, there are no American orchestras at the Proms this year. Nick Kenyon said, Cleveland aside, that none are travelling overseas this summer, and suggestions that no American ensembles will be at the Proms for years ahead are just plain wrong.

About this year’s fare, a colleague commented at the press briefing: “Where is the challenge?” Maybe there’s not meant to be one, although there are certainly some concerts that invariably won’t sell well but which will also appeal to people who are curious about new and non-core repertoire. Several anniversaries are marked, although anyone hoping that both Luigi Nono (2004 would have been his 80th-birthday year) and Nikos Skalkottas (2004 is his centenary) would be celebrated will be disappointed. (Given BIS’s superb work on behalf of Skalkottas, including the 36 Greek Dances recorded by the BBCSO, one would have thought something could have been done to make this ascending composer even more accessible.) Similarly, anyone looking forward to a Dvořák symphony earlier than No.6 will be perplexed. There are though several Dvořák rarities.

A shame to note that musicians of the calibre of John Lill, Sir Neville Marriner and Sir Edward Downes are not appearing, and not just because each has a round-number birthday this year; Lill is 60 and the two conductors both reach 80.

The themes this year are “East Meets West” and “1934”. The former takes us down the Silk Road with Yo-Ya Ma, and pieces by Britten and Messiaen continue the process. 1934 saw the departure of Elgar, Delius and Holst, and the arriving of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. All are represented. That year Vaughan Williams completed his Symphony No.4 and Walton his No.1 (more or less!) – but we don’t get either of those masterpieces this season!

We do get though Bernard Haitink in Bruckner 7 (his fourth go at it in recent Proms times) and Mariss Jansons doing another Ein Heldenleben (Bavarian Radio replacing Pittsburgh Symphony), and Jansons also conducts Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Oh, why moan, the season is a fait accompli of course, and magic may happen. And, for many, the Proms are ‘it’ for the year; you don’t see them again until the next Royal Albert Hall stampede. It just depends on an individual’s involvement with music – every day and active or casual and passive – such will determine any one person’s reaction to a particular Proms season.

This is official – The Classical Source no longer uses the words ‘star’ and ‘celebrity’ (except just there!). Rarely have two words been so abused as in recent years. So let’s just say that some well-known names are appearing at Proms 2004 as well as some ensembles with international reputations. Add in the London orchestras, the Hallé, and the backbone band, the BBC Symphony, and you have a familiar mix. One jarring juxtaposition is Maxim Vengerov playing Ravel’s Tzigane straight after Britten’s Violin Concerto! At least he had an interval between the two when he played these very works with the RPO (in the Festival Hall) on 25 May; strange he repeats them at the Proms so soon after.

My personal selection of Proms includes Dvořák’s Dimitrij (Prom 3), and premieres from Birtwistle (5), Zhou Long (6) and John Casken (8). There’s attractive programme of Czech music (7), Ives’s Symphony No.4 from Oramo (11), Pinchas Zukerman in Elgar’s Violin Concerto coupled with Dvořák’s Mass in D (13), and Colin Davis conducting Britten’s War Requiem, which is prefaced by a Britten organ premiere (22). Roger Norrington and the National Youth Orchestra get together (31), there’s Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride (32), Ilan Volkov leads Mahler 7 (36), and Alfred Brendel bids farewell to live broadcasting (note: he’s not retiring); at this concert (No.43) Birtwistle sets some of Brendel’s poetry.

The UK premiere of Henze’s Symphony No.10 under Metzmacher (44) is followed the night after by Wagner’s Das Rhinegold from the OAE under Rattle (45), the first of a four-year Ring project with various performers. Eschenbach combines ‘farewells’ from Berio and Mahler (57), and Leonard Slatkin turns 60 with an intriguing composite of various Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrations (62). Boulez conducts his Sur Incises and Stravinsky’s Les Noces (65), there’s an attractive collection from Staatskapelle Dresden and Haitink (66), and Gianandrea Noseda leads Shostakovich 5 (73, after which Brian Pidgeon, the BBC Philharmonic’s amicable General Manager retires). Finally, a really appealing Last Night (74), which includes Max Davies’s very attractive Ojai Festival Overture, Thomas Allen in Vaughan Williams and songs from the shows, and the usual end-of-term fare.

The season is inaugurated on 16 July with the restored Royal Albert Hall organ in a Bach Toccata, Henry Wood adding the orchestra for the Fugue. It’ll be good to hear Leonard Slatkin conduct Elgar’s The Music Makers.

As for last year, The Classical Source hopes to review every concert – the 74 RAH ones, and the 4 Composer Portraits and 8 Chamber Music lunchtime recitals at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Suddenly it all seems rather fun. Even for the editor!



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