Wednesday 9 June 2021

Hooray for summer! Hooray for BBC Proms! Hooray for Royal Albert Hall! Tony Cooper reports on this year’s musical extravaganza

Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Royal Albert Hall
Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Royal Albert Hall

The world’s largest classical-music festival, the BBC Proms (running from Friday 30 July to Saturday 11 September) is a feast of music like no other and, thankfully, heralds in a summer of live music on a scale not seen since before the pandemic. 

A total of 52 concerts are on offer over a six-week season featuring 30 orchestras and ensembles, over 100 soloists and conductors and more than 2000 musicians. And if you cannot get to the Royal Albert Hall one will be able to tune in at home to BBC Radio 3 who’ll be broadcasting every concert live while twenty Proms will be televised. Furthermore, all broadcasts can be reached on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer.

As in past years, BBC orchestras and choirs remain the beating heart of the Proms and they’ll be joined by a wealth of world-class British orchestras and ensembles. Therefore, some of the best-loved British artists appearing include Nicola Benedetti, Karen Cargill, Lucy Crowe, Sir Mark Elder, Benjamin Grosvenor, Steven Isserlis, Sally Matthews, Sir Simon Rattle, Christine Rice and Roderick Williams while Sir John Eliot Gardiner will surely get the Prommers roar of approval when he steps on stage for his 60th Proms appearance.

So closely associated with Sir Henry Wood (Old Timber) - who, by the way, was no stranger to my home city of Norwich as he was artistic director/conductor of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival from 1908 to 1930 - the Proms are a celebration of the best that classical music can offer. Celebrations all round, really, as the Royal Albert Hall chalks up its 150th anniversary this year while its 80 years since the venue became home to the BBC Proms. Cake all round! 

And marking the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th, the Hall’s magnificent organ will be heard across five concerts while four new works have been commissioned by the BBC to honour the occasion from Augusta Read Thomas, Britta Byström, Grace-Evangeline Mason and Gity Razaz. All of the composers have taken the Hall’s original name The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences as inspiration for their respective works.

Described as ‘the voice of Jupiter’, the Hall’s mighty organ - one of the largest in the world - was designed and built by Henry Willis at a cost of approximately £8000 and built in just 14 months. Prime Minister, William Gladstone, when visiting Willis’s Rotunda Organ Works in Camden Town, commented on its brilliant tone. The organ - whose wind system was originally powered by two steam-engines - was first heard at the Hall’s grand opening ceremony on 29th March 1871. 

A staggering total of 9999.pipes measuring 2 feet 6 inches in diameter and 42 feet high makes up the organ and these pipes weigh almost one tonne while the organ itself - measuring 70 feet high and 65 feet wide – weigh in at 150 tonnes. If laid end to end, the pipes - the smallest one, incidentally, is as wide as a drinking straw - would span approximately nine miles.

The first-ever recital fell to the English organist, William Thomas Best, on 18 July 1871 but over the years it has been played by such notable composers and organists as Anton Bruckner, Charles-Marie Widor, Camille Saint-Saens, George Thalben-Ball, Dr Stephen Cleobury and Dame Gillian Weir and, of course, by a host of contemporary artists including Nitin Sawhney, Eels and McFly.

Sir Henry Wood with Vaughan Williams (top middle) and the sixteen singers who premiered the Serenade to Music in 1938
Sir Henry Wood with Vaughan Williams (top middle) and the sixteen singers who premiered the Serenade to Music in 1938

While everyone relishes the Last Night, the First Night is something to relish and enjoy, too. This year the concert features Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lovely and inspiring work, Serenade to Music, a love song to music and musicians premièred at the Royal Albert Hall in 1938 under the baton of Proms founder-conductor, Henry Wood. For this latest Proms performance the BBC Symphony Orchestra will take to the stage under the baton of their Principal Guest Conductor, Dalia Stasevska, joined by a fine quartet of British singers: Elizabeth Llewellyn, Jess Dandy, Allan Clayton and Michael Mofidian.

The same forces will also give the world première of When Soft Voices Die, a companion piece to the Serenade to Music by Sir James MacMillan, setting a text by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem was first published as ‘To . . . ‘ in 1824 under ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ in Posthumous Poems. It is composed of two stanzas containing two couplets each and its theme encompasses the endurance of the memories of events and of sensations. 

The work had been jointly commissioned by the BBC and Help Musicians in the latter’s centenary year to celebrate music and those who bring it to life. The programme also includes Poulenc’s Organ Concerto performed by the outstanding organist, Daniel Hyde, who succeeded Sir Stephen Cleobury as Director of Music of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, having previously served as Director of Music at St Thomas’ Church, New York.

Whilst showcasing UK artists, the Proms remains an international festival, too, taking great pride in bringing to London some of the finest international soloists and conductors complemented by rising stars from across the globe. However, because of the world pandemic the Mahler Chamber Orchestra will be the only international orchestra at the festival this year. Their programme will see the world première of a BBC commission by George Benjamin who celebrated his 60th birthday last year. And for the first time ever, the Proms will have four un-programmed mystery Proms to be revealed at a later date, thus allowing the festival to respond to the changing and challenging times that we all find ourselves in.

However, a host of international artists will be beating a path to Kensington Gore and they include the likes of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Joshua Bell, Sol Gabetta, Kirill Gerstein, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Vladimir Jurowski and Stuart Skelton who will join accordionist Ksenija Sidorova and Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, for the Last Night concert.

It’s nice to see the Sinfonia of London making its much-anticipated Proms début under the baton of John Wilson so soon after he re-established the orchestra in 2018. And a night rich in emotion and drama will manifest itself in the suitably-entitled programme To Soothe the Aching Heart with Ben Glassberg conducting the BBC Philharmonic. They’ll be joined by a host of British opera singers - Natalya Romaniw, Sally Matthews, Nardus Williams, Christine Rice, Nicky Spence and Freddie De Tommaso - for an evening of opera exploring the themes of isolation and reunion which are deeply relevant to each and every one of us at this particular time.

A couple of highlights this year comes with Jonathan Cohen directing Arcangelo and the Arcangelo Chorus in Bach’s St Matthew Passion while Glyndebourne Festival Opera turns up at the Albert for their 60th visit to deliver a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde conducted by Robin Ticciati. Bravo!

On a lighter note, though, the BBC Concert Orchestra, under Richard Balcombe, will celebrate the Golden Age of Broadway while Chineke! Orchestra returns for its fourth Proms visit celebrating diversity in composers as well as performers under the baton of Kalena Bovell. And to mark 50 years since the death of Stravinsky, the Aurora Orchestra tackles its most ambitious challenge yet by performing the 1945 suite from The Firebird from memory while Sir Simon Rattle will lead the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme devoted solely to Stravinsky.

Building on a musical magpie, Stravinsky’s reputation for drawing on the music of the past, a focus on composers who have copied, borrowed and quoted from each other runs throughout the festival. Therefore, from Josquin des Prez and Lusitano to Respighi, Nico Muhly and Shiva Feshareki, the Proms range of works this year spans five centuries that look to the past for their inspiration.

Other composer anniversaries being marked include Thomas Adès, Ruth Gipps, Astor Piazzolla, Ariel Ramírez, Robert Simpson, Pauline Viardot and Alexander von Zemlinsky as well as Malcolm Arnold in his centenary year. And the well-loved Monday lunchtime chamber-music series - Proms at Cadogan Hall - returns for six concerts featuring a different anniversary composer each week. 

Sheku Kanneh-Mason with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (Photo  - BBC / Jude Edginton )
Siblings Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (Photo  - BBC / Jude Edginton )

The Proms are commemorating the centenary of the death of the French-born musical prodigy Camille Saint-Saëns and, in stark contrast, a special family Prom, featuring the seven talented Kanneh-Mason siblings, will be joined by former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, in an innovative performance of The Carnival of the Animals, offering a fresh update by a series of witty new poems penned by Morpurgo plus a new companion piece by Daniel Kidane. A digital project for families, working with partners across the UK, will accompany the Prom.

The Proms has a long history, too, of encouraging and developing new talent and more than 50 of the hottest new classical artists are making their Proms début. They include ground-breaking ensemble Manchester Collective, tenor Freddie De Tommaso, conductor Jonathon Heyward, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and soprano Nardus Williams. 

Showcasing new works by established and emerging composers has always been an integral part of the Proms therefore premières will be seen by the likes of Thomas Adès, Mason Bates, George Benjamin, Charlotte Bray, Unsuk Chin, Laura Jurd, Daniel Kidane, George Lewis, Sir James MacMillan, Ella Milch-Sheriff, Samy Moussa, and Elizabeth Ogonek. 

No doubt, Sir Henry Wood would have been suitably impressed by this rota and in the spirit of his vision of bringing the best of classical music to the widest possible of audiences at affordable ticket prices, his legacy in this respect is still being honoured today. For instance, seated tickets range from as little as £7.50 (half-price for under-18s) while Promming day tickets are priced at £6 plus booking fee. However, one needs to check the BBC Proms website for confirmation of whether Prommers will be able to stand.

David Pickard, Director of the Proms, says: ‘Planning a Proms season in a pandemic isn’t easy. We have relied on the creativity and collaboration of many people to offer a programme of such ambition, scale and quality and we are proud to celebrate so much outstanding British talent this summer. We are looking forward to welcoming live audiences back to the Royal Albert Hall in its 150th anniversary year and to sharing six weeks of live music with audiences in the Hall and at home on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC TV. We believe arts and music makes the world a better place by bringing people together through shared experience and understanding, providing a place of inspiration and a means to navigate a complex world. Therefore, I do hope you’ll join us for a summer filled with music.’

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