Sunday, 18 October 2020

Classical-music aficionado, Tony Cooper, looks in on the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s special anniversary year

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in 2014 (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in 2014
(Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)

As the BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 90th birthday on 22 October 2020 with a concert conducted by its Principal Guest Conductor, Dalia Stasevska, our correspondent Tony Cooper looks back over the orchestra's distinguished histor.

The pioneering and well-loved BBC Symphony Orchestra - in which I have heard on so many occasions not least by attending the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall for the past decade - has been at the forefront of British musical life since it was founded by Sir Adrian Boult in 1930, who, incidentally, was no stranger to my home city of Norwich often here conducting a host of British orchestras (most notably the London Philharmonic) at meetings of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival in St Andrew’s Hall.

Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1932
Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1932
Under Boult’s stewardship, the orchestra - firmly in celebratory mood this year chalking up its 90th birthday - received a thorough grounding in a wide and diversified range of music while this well-loved English-born conductor invited leading guest conductors to the podium including the likes of Serge Koussevitzky, Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter, thus bringing international attention and prestige to the orchestra. By the end of the decade of the orchestra’s founding, Arturo Toscanini arrived in London to conduct the orchestra in a Beethoven symphony cycle which proved, by all accounts, to be a triumphant occasion.

While championing living composers across the globe the orchestra has enjoyed a long association with new music and has giving world premières of works by such luminous composers as Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Frederick Delius, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy, Claude Messiaen, Heitor Villa-Lobos and William Walton as well as by such leading contemporary composers as John Adams, Sally Beamish, Helen Grime, Olivier Knussen, Kaija Saariaho, John Tavener and Mark Anthony Turnage.

The orchestra has also championed the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Manuel de Falla, Ferruccio Busoni, Béla Bartók (including performing the world première of his Cantata profana), Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and Karol Szymanowski while giving the UK première of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Therefore, new music alongside the promotion of living composers remains vital to the orchestra’s work today and among those commissioned in recent years are Tom Coult, Zosha Di Castri, Bryce Dessner, Peter Eötvos, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Raymond Yiu.
Many composers have conducted the orchestra in performances of their own works, too, among them such salutary names as Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Olivier Messiaen, Igor Stravinsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Oliver Knussen and the American minimalist composer, John Adams.

Always looking at new ways of presenting and highlighting a composer’s work, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented its first Composer Focus Festival at the Barbican in January 1985. The first festival focused on the iconoclastic German-born composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, widely acknowledged by critics as one of the most important (but also controversial) composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries, well known for his ground-breaking work in electronic music.

Other composers honoured over the years include Luciano Berio, Alban Berg, Witold Lutosławski, Kurt Weill, Sofia Gubaidulina and Judith Weir. A change in format took place from the 2008-09 season ushering in Total Immersion Days with multiple focuses spread throughout the season

However, on the very day the BBC Symphony Orchestra turns 90 (22 October 2020) it will celebrate with an afternoon birthday concert, Dalia's Mixtape, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios conducted by the Ukrainian-Finnish conductor, Dalia Stasevska, who took up the post of Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra in July of last year. Stasevska was recently announced to have been nominated for the Royal Philharmonic Society's Conductor Award 2020 (other nominees are Martyn Brabbins and Jonahon Heyward)

Dalia's Mixtape programme - featuring the London-born baritone, Roderick Williams - comprises a time-travel journey through Finnish and British music inspired by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first international tour to Sweden, Norway and Finland in 1956 under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent, who also had a strong link with Norwich as he was artistic director and chief conductor of the city’s Triennial Festival for many years as, too, was the founder of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, while Sir Thomas Beecham, Norman Del Mar and Vernon Handley held the same post

However, one significant work weaving through the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 90th birthday programme is a rare performance of Sibelius’ patriotic piece, Scènes historiques, part of which was played during the orchestra’s 1956 tour at one of two concerts given at the Sibelius Festival in Helsinki honouring the 91-year-old composer whose work was championed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, another well-loved English composer who regularly conducted at the Triennial Festival.

Interspersed among the musical scenes depicting Finland’s history in Scènes historiques will be a host of British works spanning four centuries ranging from Henry Purcell to Ralph Vaughan Williams and from Gerard Finzi to Benjamin Britten while honouring today’s Master of The Queen’s Music, Judith Weir.

Incidentally, the day following the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert, Sibelius invited Malcolm Sargent and a coterie of his players to Ainola (Aino's Place) his home standing on the scenic shores of Lake Tuusulanjärvi in Järvenpäähe which he shared with his wife Aino and their family from 1904 to 1972. The house now serves as a museum to Sibelius’ life and work. This visit, however, cemented a close relationship between his music and the orchestra that is still felt today.   

Practically every note the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays is broadcast either on BBC radio or television while the orchestra forms the backbone of the BBC Proms performing round a dozen concerts each year including the First and Last Nights. The orchestra also performs around 20 to 30 studio sessions each year and these studio concerts are free admission for members of the public to attend while it also presents its own season at London’s Barbican Centre where it has been Associate Orchestra since 2000.

An education and outreach programme began in 1992, introducing the orchestra’s work to families, schools, young people and amateur musicians, continues to this day. Recent work has engaged with thousands of young people during Lockdown through BBC Ten Pieces, BBC Young Composer and Connecting the Dots initiatives.

The orchestra’s pioneering work, rich and varied, forms part of its day-to-day working life and it performs an unrivalled range of established, recent and brand-new repertoire, all led by a distinguished artistic team. Recent seasons have seen adventurous new takes on the concert format characterised by collaborations with physicist and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox and writers David Sedaris and Armistead Maupin. And last year, Jules Buckley, who has worked across grime, hip-hop, dance, jazz and classical, was appointed Creative Artist in Association. His first project in this role (in February of this year) featured an acclaimed orchestral collaboration at the Barbican with singer-songwriter, Lianne La Havas.

The orchestra has long-established ties with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers and together they are set to move from the iconic Maida Vale Studios (the orchestra’s home since 1934) to a new home at East Bank, the cultural and learning hub currently under construction at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.

The Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki-born Sakari Oramo, who took up his appointment in 2013, had this to say: ‘Very often in these strange times my thoughts go back to a miraculous few days in 2012 when all of a sudden I found the most exciting artistic partnership of my life - the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The inaugural programme I conducted with the orchestra included Arnold Bax’s Tintagel and Sibelius’ Third Symphony as well as vocal works by Sibelius and Kaija Saariaho featuring my dear friend, Anu Komsi [Finnish operatic/concert soprano]. What a quintessentially BBC SO programme that was and yet probably one that hadn’t been dreamt of before.

However, this is the very strength of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s programming concept: strong on content, always looking for purposeful combinations of masterpieces old and new, well known and, above all, less familiar. The ability of this miraculous orchestra to transform itself according to the music it plays (literally any music) in tandem with its warm-hearted supportiveness, instinctive brilliance and ability to capture the essence of what makes a great musical performance, makes the orchestra unique.

'From our studio concerts and recordings to our Barbican concerts as well as our performances on tour in the UK and abroad not forgetting, of course, the BBC Proms, including three editions of the famed Last Night, I have relished and enjoyed every single performance.'

What more can one say apart from Happy Birthday!

22 October 2020 - Dalia's Mixtape - BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dalia Stasevska, Roderick Williams - further information from the BBC website.

BBC SO Chief Conductors
1930–1949           Adrian Boult
1950–1957           Malcolm Sargent
1957–1962           Rudolf Schwarz
1963–1966           Antal Doráti
1967–1971           Colin Davis
1971–1975           Pierre Boulez
1975–1976           Rudolf Kempe
1978–1981           Gennady Rozhdestvensky
1982–1989           John Pritchard
1989–2000           Andrew Davis
2000–2006           Leonard Slatkin
2006–2013           Jiří Bělohlávek
2013–present    Sakari Oramo

Notable world premieres   (* = BBC commission)
Frederick Delius: A Song of Summer (1931)*
Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto (1933)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 (1935)
Walton: Symphony No. 1 (complete) (1935)
Hindemith: Symphonic Dances (1937)
William Walton: March 'Crown Imperial' (1937)*
Benjamin Britten: Piano Concerto (1938)
Benjamin Britten: Canadian Carnival (1940)*
Bax: Violin Concerto (1943)
Eric Coates: The Three Elizabeths - suite (1944)*
Vaughan Williams:  Symphony No. 5 (1945)
Benjamin Britten: Occasional Overture (1946)*
Rubbra: Symphony No. 5 (1949)
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Symphony No. 7 (1949)
Elisabeth Lutyens: Viola Concerto (1950)
Elizabeth Maconchy: Symphony (1950)
Elizabeth Maconchy: Proud Thames (1953)
Michael Tippett: Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953)
Arthur Bliss: Violin Concerto (1955)*
William Alwyn: Symphony No. 3 (1956)*
Michael Tippett: Symphony No. 2 (1958)*
Nicholas Maw: Nocturne (1960)
Elisabeth Lutyens: Symphonies (1961)*
Robert Gerhard: Concerto for Orchestra (1965)
Olivier Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1966)
Michael Tippett: The Vision of St Augustine (1966)*
Harrison Birtwistle: Nomos (1968)*
Thea Musgrave: Clarinet Concerto (1969)
Peter Maxwell Davis: Blind Man's Buff (1972)
Nicola LeFanu: The Hidden Landscape (1973)*
Pierre Boulez: Rituel (1974)*
Michael Finnissy: Pathway of Sun and Stars (1976)*
Richard Rodney Bennett: Actaeon (1977)
Alexander Goehr: Babylon the Great Is Fallen (1979)*
Oliver Knussen: Symphony No. 3 (1979)*
Alfred Schnittke: Symphony No. 2 (1980)*
John Tavener: Akhmatova Requiem (1981)
Naresh Sohal: The Wanderer (1982)*
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Night Dances (1983)
Anthony Payne: The Spirit's Harvest (1985)*
Harrison Birtwistle: Earth Dances (1986)*
Andrzej Panufnik: Symphony No. 9 (1987)
John Tavener: The Protecting Veil (1989)*
Poul Ruders: Symphony No. 1 (1990)*
Witold Lutosławski: Chantefleurs et chantefables (1991)
Colin Matthews: Broken Symmetry (1992)*
Louis Andriessen: De snelheid (revised version) (1993)
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Your Rockaby (1994)*
Judith Weir: Moon and Star (1995)*
Kaija Saariaho: Graal théâtre (1995)
Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising (1998)*
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Fractured Lines*; Another Set To* (2000)
Sally Beamish: Knotgrass Elegy (2001)*
David Sawer: Piano Concerto (2002)*
Magnus Lindberg: Concerto for Orchestra (2003)*
Zhou Long: The Immortal (2004)*
Detlev Glanert: Theatrum bestiarum (2005)*
Kalevi Aho: Clarinet Concerto (2006)*
John Adams:  Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007)*
Anna Meredith: Froms (2008)*
Huw Watkins: Violin Cocnerto (2010)*
Helen Grime: Night Songs (2012)*
Raymond Yiu:  The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured (2013)
Charlotte Seither: Language of Leaving (2013)*
John Tavener: Gnosis (2014)*
Eleanor Alberga: Arise, Athena (2015)*
Lotta Wennäkoski: Flounce (2017)*
Roxanna Panufnik: Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light (2018)*
Dimitrios Skyllas: Kyrie eleison (2020)*

January Composer Weekends
1985       Karlheinz Stockhausen (spread over a month)
1988       Harrison Birtwistle
1989       Pierre Boulez
1990       Luciano Berio
1991       Hans Werner Henze
1992       Alban Berg
1993       Leoš Janáček
1994       John Tavener
1995       Paul Hindemith
1996       Charles Ives
1997       Witold Lutosławski
1998       Bohuslav Martinů
1999       Olivier Messiaen
2000       Kurt Weill
2001       Alfred Schnittke
2002       John Adams
2003       Mark-Anthony Turnage
2004       John Cage and the New York School
2005       James MacMillan
2006       Elliott Carter
2007       Sofia Gubaidulina             
2008       Judith Weir

Total Immersion Days
2008/9            Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Tristan Murail
2009/10         George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Wolfgang Rihm
2010/11         Brian Ferneyhough, Unsuk Chin, Peter Eötvös
2011/12         Jonathan Harvey, Brett Dean, Arvo Pärt
2012/13         Oliver Knussen, Sounds from Japan, New from the North   (Denmark and Finland)
2013/14         The Rite of Spring (centenary, 2013), Thea Musgrave, Heitor Villa-Lobos
2014/15         John Tavener, Percussion, Pierre Boulez
2015/16         Henryk Górecki, Louis Andriessen, Henri Dutilleux
2016/17         Richard Rodney Bennett, Philip Glass, Edgard Varèse
2017/18         Julian Anderson, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bernstein (centenary of birth, 2018)
2018/19         In Remembrance: World War I (centenary of war's end, 2018), György Ligeti,
Lili & Nadia Boulanger
2019/20         Family Total Immersion: Lift Off! (50 years since first person on the Moon, 2019); Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch, Anders Hillborg

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Six Songs of Melmoth: premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's new song-cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival  - concert review
  • A song is a song is a song: composer Errollyn Wallen on her multi-faceted career and her forthcoming EP with King's College Choir  - interview
  • From early Schubert to late Geoffry Bush: Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • Author of Light: The Sixteen in an engaging and uplifting programme of Tudor music at Temple Church - concert review
  • Glyndebourne's outdoor Offenbach comes indoors with a terrific ensemble cast - opera review
  • Their job is to be advocates for the music: Rakhi Singh of Manchester Collective on the group's recent EP Recreation  - interview
  • Rarity & intensity: Ermonela Jaho's debut recital, Anima Rara, explores repertoire associated with her great predecessor Rosina Storchio - CD review
  • Intimacy, grandeur, a new work and a new edition: Purcell odes and more from the English Concert - concert review
  • Haydn, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky from the Mithras Trio at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Illuminating with wit what it is to be an accompanist: Helmut Deutsch's memoirs translated by Richard Stokes  - book review
  • Bach, contentment and our perception of time: the OAE and Dr Fay Dowker at Kings Place  - concert review
  • Home

 

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