Monday 22 April 2019

Tony Cooper reports on this year’s BBC Proms, the world’s biggest classical-music festival

Sir Henry Wood with Promenade Concert Performers  by William Whiteley Ltd albumen cabinet card, circa 1897 5 in. x 8 in. (128 mm x 204 mm) Purchased, 2013 Primary Collection NPG P1837
Sir Henry Wood with Promenade Concert Performers  (circa 1897) by William Whiteley Ltd
albumen cabinet card, circa 1897 © National Portrait Gallery, London
As the world’s biggest classical-music festival, the BBC Proms (running from Friday 19 July to Saturday 14 September) offers eight weeks of world-class music-making from a vast array of leading orchestras, conductors and soloists from the UK and around the world. Across more than 90 concerts - and a similar number of free events designed to extend and further enrich the Proms experience - the festival aims to offer a summer of music that allows for the most diverse and exciting musical journeys.

David Pickard, Director, BBC Proms, says: 'The Proms in 2019 gives a snapshot of all that is most exciting in our musical world today. It is the chance to hear some of the most celebrated ensembles and artists from across the globe, a showcase for the vibrant orchestral life that exists in the UK and a celebration of the diversity of contemporary music in the 21st century. All of this is underpinned by the proud tradition of 'Promming' which allows audiences to enjoy this vast range of music for just £6 per concert. As we celebrate 150 years since Sir Henry Wood’s birth, the Proms continues to explore new ground whilst celebrating the founding principles of the festival - to bring the best classical music to the widest possible audience. With every Prom broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 available across a multi-platform and many televised on the BBC, the Proms reaches far and beyond the Royal Albert Hall. This season marks, too, the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Proms founder-conductor, Sir Henry Wood, whose criteria was to bring the best classical music to the widest possible audience.'

Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Proms (Photo from Royal Academy of Music's Sir Henry Wood Collection)
Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Proms
(Photo from Royal Academy of Music's Sir Henry Wood Collection)
Therefore, this year’s Proms will present one of its most diverse programmes yet whilst remaining faithful and true to Wood’s mission statement offering a wealth of genres and styles in a range of contexts whether it be Murray Perahia performing Beethoven or a Prom dedicated to the genius of Nina Simone with Ledisi and Jules Buckley. The quality and range of what’s on offer showcases the very best of music.

Sir Henry Wood (affectionately known as ‘Old Timber’) was arguably one of the world’s first audience developers committed to increasing access to the arts. The Proms’ proudest tradition is that of daily Promming tickets - a Henry Wood innovation to reach the broadest audience possible. This season marks the fourth year that up to 1400 Promming tickets will be available for £6 for every Prom. And to further mark the Promming tradition, a special ‘Proms at . . . ‘ will see all tickets for such an event priced at £6 whilst at the Royal Albert Hall, 100,000 tickets will be available for £15 and under for all concerts.

As an educationalist, conductor and champion of young people, Henry Wood (who, incidentally, was artistic director and conductor of the old Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival from 1908 to 1930) provided countless opportunities for aspiring young artists to get involved in classical music - a proud tradition that the Proms continues to reflect today. For instance, this season celebrates the 20th anniversary of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists’ scheme featuring 12 of its alumni.

Elsewhere, other notable début performances include the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian and the Chinese-American pianist, Eric Lu, who took away First Prize and Gold Medal at last year’s Leeds International Piano Competition. Mr Lu will also make his Norwich début in September opening the new season of Norfolk & Norwich Chamber Music focusing on Schumann’s last composition, the ‘Ghost’ Variations in E flat major. Once again, BBC Proms Learning will offer a diverse range of creative opportunities beyond the concert platform. Initiatives such as BBC Proms Inspire for composers, Proms Youth Choir Academy and the Proms Youth Ensemble will reach out to hundreds of young people this year.

Memorial window in the Musicians' Chapel at St Sepulchre without Newgate (Photo Friends of the Musicians' Chapel)
Memorial window in the Musicians' Chapel
at St Sepulchre without Newgate
(Photo Friends of the Musicians' Chapel)
At the church where Sir Henry Wood is buried, Proms at . . . Holy Sepulchre London will continue the celebration of him with a special concert from the BBC Singers under chief conductor Sofi Jeannin. The Proms at . . . Cadogan Hall series is underpinned by a historical journey through classical music, celebrating some of the most notable women composers of the past from Hildegard of Bingen via Barbara Strozzi and Clara Schumann (both of whom have anniversaries this year) to the present day with a BBC commission from Freya Waley-Cohen. Offering a fresh take on the history of classical music through the eyes of women, each concert in this series will contain at least one work by a woman composer of the time.

From afropop to jazz, East Coast hip-hop to South Italian pizzica and electronica to meditative listening, this will be a truly eclectic celebration of the diversification of music. A Prom devoted to the music of singer, pianist and social activist, Nina Simone, explores her background and enduring influence while an exhilarating evening of dance, song and spectacle features in a rare performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music presented in a Late-Night Prom. From break-dancing to MC-ing and DJ-ing to graffiti art, The Breaks will honour the global phenomenon of hip-hop and, in particular, breakbeat culture. The Late-Night Mixtape Prom will bring together an eclectic range of classical and contemporary sounds whilst bringing the popular concept of a music-mix into a ‘live’ context, this Prom will feed into the experiential model that drives so much of music consumption today where immersion and discovery is a key factor.

Fifty years after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the Proms ponders how composers across the centuries have imagined and created the sound of space. The first work to be heard in this context is a BBC commission and world première from Zosha Di Castri entitled Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, inspired by this monumental event. On the very day that marks the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings, a performance of Holst’s The Planets will be complemented by John Adams’ ever-popular piece, Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The CBeebies Prom (which will be broadcast on the channel) offers families the chance to travel through time and space with some famous faces including Mr Tumble and Chris Jarvis hosted by YolanDa Brown featuring the Chineke! orchestra under Kwamé Ryan.

Other highlights in this strand include the UK première of Anna Thorvalsdottir’s Metacosmos - a musical metaphor for falling into a black hole - conveniently timed just three months after astronomers captured the first-ever image of a black hole. Public Service Broadcasting orchestrate their ground-breaking 2015 concept album, The Race for Space, a mix of music and broadcast recordings portraying the tale of the US/Russian ‘Space Race’. And in a Proms ‘first’, the Sci-Fi Film Music Prom features scores from cult space and sci-fi films such as Steve Price’s Gravity and Mica Levi’s Under the Skin presented by the London Contemporary Orchestra under Robert Ames.

A number of concerts targeted specifically at families will use compelling storytelling to highlight topical debate. An exploration into our roles as guardians of our planet complements a study of the solar system. Alongside famous works inspired by the natural world, three new works highlight how music can be relevant to the times in which we live and, in this case, support the conversation around sustainability and protection of the planet. The Lost Words Prom - based on Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’ popular book about the disappearing language of nature - will feature spoken word and beat-boxing. John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth - a huge, landscape-inspired choral work - will feature four community choirs with over 600 singers. Finally, a brand-new work by Hans Zimmer, Earth, will receive its world première.

Sir Henry Wood
Sir Henry Wood
The Proms has always been at the forefront of cultural and musical innovation, bringing the best new works to audiences. As a global visionary, Sir Henry Wood gave the world and British premières of hundreds of works at the Proms including Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. This year, the Proms celebrate 33 of the pieces that Wood introduced to UK audiences alongside 33 new works for 2019.

New music highlights include Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood curating a Late-Night Prom culminating in the world première of his Horror vacui. The piece simulates electronic sound using 68 string instruments played acoustically. Proms at . . . Battersea Arts Centre will showcase boundary-crossing and provocative composer-performers featuring experiments at the cutting-edge of music and technology with Jennifer Walshe, Crewsdon & Cevanne and Oliver Coates. Elsewhere, Martyn Brabbins will present a 21st-century companion to Elgar’s Enigma Variations 120 years on. Based on a new anonymously-written theme, this work features variations by 14 living composers including the likes of Sally Beamish, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Dai Fujikura and Judith Weir.

Sir Henry Wood’s Proms seasons were famous for nights dedicated to one composer. In celebration of that concept, the final week of the 2019 season replicates Wood’s original programming: a Monday evening of Wagner, a Wednesday evening of Bach and a Friday evening of Beethoven. More than a century ago, these concerts were perhaps the first example of ‘box-set binging’. As part of a celebration of Berlioz at 150, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique will present the rarely-performed opera Benvenuto Cellini and Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra will deliver a dramatic treatment of Symphonie fantastique featuring actor, Mathew Baynton. Other composer anniversaries include Louis Andriessen at 80, Peter Eötvös at 75 and Sir James MacMillan at 60. There’ll also be a special focus on the Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin, Mieczysław Weinberg, who would have been 100 this year. A rare performance of his String Quartet No.7 will be heard as, too, will be the London premières of his Cello Concerto and Symphony No.3.

Across more than 90 concerts over eight weeks, the Proms draws the world’s greatest classical musicians to London. From Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim to Joyce DiDonato and Sir Antonio Pappano, the festival will amplify the work of today’s most- acclaimed artists. Mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton, will feature at the world-famous Last Night of the Proms, Sheku Kanneh-Mason will perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Nicola Benedetti and Pekka Kuusisto will contribute to a season-wide survey of well-loved and lesser-known violin concertos. Of particular note in the bicentenary year of Queen Victoria’s birth, Stephen Hough will perform Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.1 on her very own piano loaned from the Royal Collection Trust by courtesy of Her Majesty the Queen. This will be the first time the Sébastien Érard gilded piano has been played outside of Buckingham Palace. The programme also includes songs written by Prince Albert.

BBC Proms 2019
The BBC Orchestras and Choirs as usual form the backbone of the BBC Proms appearing in over a third of the concerts. Newly-appointed Chief Conductor Designate of the BBC Philharmonic, Omer Meir Wellber, as well as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dalia Stasevska, both will be making their Proms début while Karina Canellakis becomes the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms. Alongside the BBC Orchestras there’s a wealth of international orchestras lined up ranging from the Vienna Philharmonic with Bernard Haitink and Andrés Orozco-Estrada to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons while the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra will be making its Proms début in its 140th year under the baton of Long Yu.

Since it was first introduced in 2017, the Relaxed Prom has become one of the most popular events in the Proms calendar. This year it returns to offer a relaxed performance around a core classical repertoire of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. The Prom will be fully accessible to family members of all ages, children and adults with autism, sensory and communication impairments and learning disabilities as well as individuals who are deaf or hearing impaired, blind and partially-sighted or living with dementia. Henry Wood’s vision brought to life, this event is truly open to all.

Once again, BBC Radio 3 will enable the festival to reach millions each year by broadcasting every single note and, new for this year, audiences now have ready access to the Proms through the BBC Sounds app allowing them to engage with the festival anytime and anywhere. There are 25 Proms on TV for audiences to enjoy and the popular Proms magazine show returns to BBC 2 on Saturday nights throughout the festival.

Alan Davey, Controller, BBC Radio 3, BBC Proms, BBC Orchestras and Choirs, says: ‘This year’s Proms celebrates the legacy of Sir Henry Wood - whose avowed aim was for the greatest music to be heard by the widest possible audience - values that are lived by the Proms, by Radio 3 and by the BBC Orchestras and Choirs today. From outer space to the environment on Earth, from Perotin to Thorvaldsdottir via Duke Ellington, from new artists to those who are established, from chamber music to massed orchestral and choral forces, the Proms brings the best of music to an enormous audience in this country and beyond. Only the BBC can do this in such a bold and ambitious way. Long Live the Legacy of Sir Henry!’

Since it launched in 1946, the Third Programme/BBC Radio 3 has been a pioneering force in the cultural world and one of the world’s foremost presenters, creators, commissioners and curators across classical, contemporary music, folk, world, jazz and opera to drama, philosophy and ideas. The station is also the most significant commissioner of new and contemporary music in the UK with 35 new works commissioned annually and broadcasts over 600 concerts a year including live broadcasts from the BBC Proms, the greatest classical music festival in the world. Radio 3’s In Concert programme alone reaches the equivalent of 250 packed concert halls a week and the BBC Orchestras and Choirs give around 400 concerts a year in over 60 UK locations. The station has always nurtured extraordinary artistic talents, provided a platform for important scientific and political debates/announcements and broadcast ground-breaking experimental drama whilst always delivering its core aim of connecting audiences with pioneering music and culture.
Tony Cooper

Update: The horn player in the header image is Adolph Borsdorf, one of the founders of the London Symphony Orchestera. His, rather tragic, tale is unfolded at the LSO website. His son was a distinguished horn player too (he retired from ENO in 1976 age 77!) and the horn in the picture is likely to be the one that Adolph Bosdorf's grandson the son gave to the Royal Academy of Music. Many thanks to Anneke Scott for the update.

Update: The clarinet player in the header image is Manuel Gomez.

Royal Albert Hall (Photo BBC)
Royal Albert Hall (Photo BBC)
  • Tickets are available online ( or (020 7070 4441) and in person (Royal Albert Hall).
  • Season and Weekend Promming Passes are available to purchase from 9.00am on Thursday 9th May. Proms Chamber Music Series Passes are available to purchase from 9.00am on Thursday 9th May.
  • Tickets for the CBeebies Prom (Proms 3 & 5), Relaxed Prom (Prom 24) and The Lost Words Prom (Prom 49) including a limited number of Promming tickets are available to purchase from 9.00am on Friday 10th May.
  • General booking opens at 9.00am on Saturday 11th May.
  • ‘Proms at …’ concerts (excluding the Proms Chamber Music Series at Cadogan Hall) are available to purchase from 9.00am on Friday 14th June. Booking opens for the Proms participatory events on 14th June, too, via the Proms website.
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Remarkable revival: the Academy of Ancient Music presents Handel's Brockes Passion in a new critical edition (★★★★) - concert review
  • Education is key: I chat to conductor Nicholas Chalmers about Nevill Holt Opera & its new theatre - interview 
  • Commemoration & celebration: Sir James MacMillan conducts the BBC Singers at the St John's Smith Square Holy Week Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • The topsyturvydom effervesced: HMS Pinafore from Charles Court Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • A very human St John Passion: Solomon's Knot in Bach without conductor and from memory (★★★★) - concert review
  • Piano day: two venues, three pianists, two pianos - Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Barrie Kosky’s imaginative production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story returns to the Komische Oper, Berlin - music theatre review
  • Small-scale delights at the edge of Handel’s London: Chandos Anthems & Trio Sonatas at St Lawrence Whitchurch (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The stars shine in Verdi's La forza del destino at Covent Garden despite a rather disappointing production (★★★½) - opera review
  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
  • In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live  - concert review
  • Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill Shaw goes Wilde  - interview
  • A musical encounter between two traditions: classical guitarist Christoph Denoth's exploration of tango - Tanguero: Music from South America  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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