Friday 28 May 2021

Six weeks of live music involving 2000 musicians with live audiences: the BBC Proms 2021

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
How it was: the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 2019

The good news is that this year's BBC Proms will be happening, at the Royal Albert Hall and with a live audience, running from 30 July to 11 September 2021, with six chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall. Of course, things are somewhat different this year and at the BBC Proms launch yesterday (27 May 2021) David Pickard, director of the BBC Proms, admitted that planning had not been easy. They have tried to balance caution with optimism and the six-week programme currently has a number of gaps in it, to allow for flexibility.

Whatever we might feel is missing, there is much to celebrate - 52 concerts, 30 ensembles, 100 conductors and soloists and 2000 musicians. Practicality means that there is only one visiting orchestra (the Mahler Chamber Orchestra bringing the world premiere of a BBC commission by George Benjamin, belatedly celebrating his 60th birthday last year), but Pickard sees this as way of celebrating UK orchestras and supporting UK musicians. The Proms will not solve the problems of all the musicians with cancelled gigs, but six weeks of live music feels very much like a symbolic start.

Amongst the UK orchestras, there are some new ones so that the Manchester Collective will be making its Proms debut whilst John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London will be giving their first public concert. Performers making their Proms debuts include tenor Freddie De Tommaso, conductor Jonathon Heyward, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and soprano Nardus Williams.

Also new will be 11 world premieres and eight UK premieres including four new works commissioned by the BBC from Augusta Read Thomas, Britta Byström, Grace-Evangeline Mason and Gity Razaz, plus premieres of works by Thomas Adès, Mason Bates, Charlotte Bray, Unsuk Chin, Laura Jurd, Daniel Kidane, George Lewis, Sir James MacMillan, Ella Milch-Sheriff, Samy Moussa, and Elizabeth Ogonek

There are also older composers being re-thought and re-discovered including Ruth Gipps (her Sea-Shore Suite and Symphony No. 2), Florence Price (performed by Chineke!) and Joseph Horovitz (born 1926) whose only previous Proms performance was Noah and the Floating Zoo and whose Jazz Concerto will be performed this year by the Manchester Collective.

The Royal Albert Hall is 150 this year, so the festival is marking the anniversary. Not with Ethel Smyth's Mass which was premiered in the hall, but requires rather larger forces than present restrictions allow, but with RVW's Serenade to Music which was also premiered at the hall and which opens the First Night, in the version for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, performed by Elizabeth Llewellyn, Jess Dandy, Allan Clayton and Michael Mofidian with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska. Also in the concert is the world premiere of When Soft Voices Die, a companion piece to the Serenade to Music by Sir James MacMillan, setting texts by Shelley. This is co-commissioned by the BBC and Help Musicians in the latter’s centenary year to celebrate music and those who bring it to life.

The festival is also celebrating the Royal Albert Hall organ with a host of organ works, including recitals and Poulenc's Organ Concerto at the First Night with Daniel Hyde as the soloist.

Stravinsky's anniversary is commemorated with Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra performing the 1945 suite from Firebird from memory. And the idea of Stravinsky gives rise to a thread related to the idea of composers borrowing ideas from other composers from a Josquin parody mass to Respighi's Concerto Gregoriana. Other anniversaries being marked include Malcolm Arnold, Astor Piazzolla, Alexander von Zemlinsky (restrictions prevent us from getting one of his large-scale works and there is a chamber work in one of the Cadogan Hall chamber proms), Robert Simpson and Pauline Viardot.

Camille Saint-Saëns, who died 100 years ago, is celebrated in a special family Prom as the seven Kanneh-Mason siblings and musical friends are joined by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo for The Carnival of the Animals, and a new companion piece by Daniel Kidane. A digital project for families, working with partners across the UK, will accompany the Prom.  

Other highlights I spotted in the programme include Sir John Eliot Gardiner (in his 60th Prom appearance) conducting Bach and Handel with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Jonathan Cohen directing Arcangelo, Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde conducted by Robin Ticciati, marking 60 years of Proms performances by the opera company

Currently the audience in the Royal Albert Hall is capped to 1000 (it can hold up to 5000), and no decision has been made, yet, about whether there were be standing promenade tickets though Pickard emphasises that whatever is ultimately decided, there will still be places available at promenade prices. The first tranche of booking does not open until 26 June, to allow for decisions being made after the government's June announcement.

Other questionable items include the possible participation of the BBC Symphony Chorus. The regulations around amateur singers rehearsing have been controversial ever since announced, and there seems to be new guidance and the BBC is hopeful that the BBC Symphony Chorus can soon start rehearsing again.

The restrictions have not only affected the size of forces available to play repertoire, but the present circumstances have affected the programming directly. Usually, Pickard emphasised, the Proms does not replicate what is happening at English National Opera or the Covent Garden, but this year seemed different. So there will be an opera evening, with Natalya Romaniw, Sally Matthews, Nardus Williams, Christine Rice, Nicky Spence and Freddie De Tommaso joining forces for an evening of opera exploring themes of isolation and reunion which are particularly relevant at this time.

Every concert will be live on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC Sounds, whilst 20 will be televised and on BBC iPlayer. One question at the launch was whether, with a reduced audience, it would be possible to live stream all the events. But the BBC cannot generate income from such live streams, so this year it would unfortunately be too expensive. The BBC is enormously reliant on ticket sales for the Proms, and this year that will be significantly reduced.

Full details from the BBC Proms website.

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