The 123rd season of The Proms gets underway at the Royal Albert Hall
Calling all music lovers: the 123rd Proms season is now underway. Running from now through to September, the range of concerts – some 90 in all – is extraordinary. Principally a celebration of classical music, featuring the greatest and most familiar composers from the past 400 years, the Proms also provide a springboard for new music, new musicians and new musical ideas. The series attracts the most famous orchestras, conductors and soloists from all over the world, and the audiences flocking into the hall or tuning in at home (every concert is broadcast by the BBC) are completely international, too. But what makes this festival so very special?
Evolution … and Revolution
David Pickard, in his second season as director of the Proms, says he hopes to maintain founder Sir Henry Wood’s ambition to bring classical music to the widest possible audience, but he’s also gradually broadening the festival’s scope to include new venues and new directions. The film scores of John Williams, soul music from the American South, classical music from India and Pakistan, competing big swing bands playing material from the 1930s and ’40s and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! feature alongside more traditional fare from Brahms, Berlioz and Mahler.
This year marks the 100th and 500th anniversaries, respectively, of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, so Pickard is also exploring the inspirational effect that these events had on the development of classical music. Revolution informed the work of 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Prokofiev who all feature this year, while political power is explored in the three operas on the programme – Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The Reformation is celebrated in several concerts devoted to the new form of religious music that followed the translation of the Bible and church services from Latin into the vernacular so that everyone could participate in worship. Luther himself wrote and inspired huge numbers of hymns and chorales, which led to choral retellings of the Passion. These culminated in the work of J. S. Bach – listen out for his St John Passion on 20 August, and for The Bohemian Reformation concert on 26 August.
Centuries, Birthdays and Firsts
Special birthday celebrations for singer Ella Fitzgerald and big- band trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who would both have turned 100 this year, should prove a magnet for jazz fans. Singer Dianne Reeves and trumpeter James Morrison pay tribute to their heroes in a special late night concert on 4 August.
Fans of minimalist classical music, meanwhile, will warm to birthday concerts in honour of Philip Glass (80) and John Adams (70). The very first complete live performance of Passages, a piece by Glass and Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar, will feature in a late-night prom on 15 August, played by the Britten Sinfonia under conductor Karen Kamensek. They are joined by Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar.
Britain’s first ever BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) orchestra Chineke! is thrilled to be making its Proms debut. Spokeswoman Chi-chi Nwanoku says: “To play at the Proms is every orchestra’s dream – and we will be the youngest orchestra ever to debut at the Proms: we will be just under two years old when we perform in August.” The orchestra’s exciting programme features BBC Young Musician of the Year for 2016, schoolboy cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, performing David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. The set will also feature a world premiere of a piece by British composer Hannah Kendall and a Proms premiere of Lyric for Strings by 95-year-old African-American composer George Walker. Nwanoku says: “It’s been George’s lifelong dream to have his music played at the Proms and we think it’s about time he got his wish.”
Audience, take a bow
“Everyone who performs at the Proms talks about the extraordinary silence in the hall when they are playing. Prom audiences listen with a particular intensity, which in turn inspires the players to give something special. It’s wonderful when orchestras visit the Proms for the first time and are completely overwhelmed by the experience,” says Pickard. “Audiences find something unique in the Royal Albert Hall – a huge space that manages to be intimate as well. The whole experience of ‘promming’ is unlike any other concert experience. You can be standing with 900 others in the arena, right up close to the performers, or lying down at the back of the gallery hearing the sound waft up from below.”
Being part of that audience himself is a must for Pickard. He saw every single concert last year and is hoping to do the same this time. “It’s a privilege,” he smiles. “Proms in the Park presents a bit of a challenge, but I will certainly go to the start before taking my place in the Royal Albert Hall. And as long as the trains run on time, I reckon I should be able to catch some of Handel’s Water Music in Hull before getting back for Beethoven’s Eroica.”
"The whole experience of ‘promming’ is unlike any other concert experience. You can be standing with 900 others in the arena, right up close to the performers, or lying down at the back of the gallery hearing the sound waft up from below.”
Proms regular opera singer Roderick Williams, who starred in the Last Night celebrations in 2014, believes performers find the Proms so special because of “the sense of fun and openness that the audience displays. They are not uneducated – they know what they are listening to – but somehow there is a sense of summer holiday in that we, audience and performers alike, are all there to enjoy the live concert experience to the utmost. There’s nothing stuffy or po-faced about this festival. The Proms audience knows they are hearing the very best that live music has to offer and it is happening in London, in our own backyard.”
In contrast to the grandeur of the 6,000-seater Royal Albert Hall, Cadogan Hall in Chelsea is an intimate space with capacity for 900 guests. Each year, its contribution to the Proms is a 13-week lunchtime chamber music series that features some of the finest vocal and instrumental ensembles and soloists. This year kicks off with the amazing vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, who specialise in early music. The concert is a 450th-anniversary tribute to Monteverdi, featuring eight of his madrigals; the cherry on top here, however, is a piece commissioned by the BBC from baritone and composer Roderick Williams entitled Là ci darem la mano. This will be its world premiere and, for once, Williams (who joined I Fagiolini when he was at Oxford) will be part of the audience rather than performing.
All in all, there’ll be 15 world premieres at the Proms; add to these the vast array of well-loved music on offer and you’ll be absolutely certain to find something that’s music to your ears...