MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Guest Report: Tom Luce on This Year’s BBC Proms

During a recent London stay I got to more than a dozen of this season’s BBC Promenade Concerts and have heard many of the others through the BBC’s website.

It is 90 years since the BBC first promoted and managed the series. In recent decades the Corporation has progressively enlarged its boundaries without losing a strong representation of core classical music. The boundaries stretched include the number and timing of concerts, their venues, the repertory performed and the number and provenance of its performers.

This year there are 92 concerts – on average nearly two concerts a day for the eight week season. 74 are in London’s Royal Albert Hall the series’ traditional venue, 10 being late-night concerts following conventionally timed evening events.

There are weekly chamber concerts in a smaller London hall, and concerts in venues chosen to reach people for whom central London concert halls are geographically inconvenient or socio-culturally unfamiliar– Hull on the North-East coast, a South London multi-storey car park, and an East London Music Hall for example.

New music has included 10 BBC commissions given world or British premieres and a rather larger number of other pieces given first British or European performances. The core repertory from the seventeenth century to our own is comprehensively covered but there are excursions into high quality examples of other musical traditions.

This year’s offerings include a brilliantly staged, sung, danced and played Oklahoma, a late night celebration of Indian and Pakistan’s classical music (very late – scheduled to end around one in the morning), and a fascinating cross-fertilisation of that tradition and US minimalism in a performance of Passages, jointly composed by the young Philip Glass and the late Ravi Shankar.

Some concerts mark the achievements in their own fields of such icons as Charlie Mingus, John Williams, Scott Walker, and “Ella & Dizzy”. Family concerts also feature, as does – an interesting innovation this year – a short “Relaxed Prom” for “children and adults with autism, sensory or communications impairments or learning disabilities…”.

Each season marks major composer anniversaries or world events reflected in the repertoire. This year the 80th birthday of John Adams, the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and the 100th of the Russian revolution were influential on the programmes.

48 orchestras and ensembles play the concerts led by over 60 conductors. The BBC’s in-house orchestras, based in London, Wales, Scotland and Manchester, between them make nearly 30 appearances.

Other British orchestras and groups from London and the regions take a large share of the others but there are 14 from abroad – for example Berlin, Vienna, St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milan, Bremen, Freiburg, Oslo, Stockholm and the European Chamber Orchestra. Fine choirs from Latvia and Spain have also made contributions.

Judging from my attendance and listening this year and in other recent years standards of performance range from high to superlative. Performances of Elgar’s two completed symphonies, Harrison Birtwistle’s new major work Deep Time, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto by Daniel Barenboim with violinist Lisa Batiashvili and the superb Berliner Staatskapelle were at a level that I do not expect ever to hear equalled.

The same is true of the Gurrelieder concert given by the London Symphony and a huge chorus under Simon Rattle and a profoundly moving and accomplished performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo. Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust given by John Eliot Gardiner and his teams came as close to a definitive performance of that fascinating but elusive and challenging work as one can ever hope to hear or imagine. 

Equally memorable was a performance of Bach’s St John Passion by John Butt and the Edinburgh-based Dunedin ensemble. This was placed within a re-enactment of a Lutheran Good Friday service. Short organ pieces by Bach and Buxtehude, as well as three chorales briefly pre-rehearsed and then sung by the entire audience (all 5,000 of us), were wrapped around the Bach Passion, and there was a beautiful liturgical anthem by Jacobus Handl to end the 3 ½ hour event.

The Bach performance was itself excellent (and, wisely, the audience participated only in the extra service chorales, not the chorales within the Passion setting), but experiencing Bach’s masterpiece in this wider liturgical context did deepen understanding.

The concerts generate a strong audience response. Many are sold out or nearly so. The Albert Hall can hold 5,500 in its Promenade Concert configuration, when the central arena at stage level and the highest gallery are available only to those willing to stand for the performances. Up to 1,200 people do this “promenading”.

Acoustically the hall is a paradox. Its huge size and famously resonant acoustic make it ideal for massive choral works such as the Berlioz Requiem, Mahler’s Eighth and Second Symphonies and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. But smaller groups and even solo instrumentalists can come across surprisingly well. A sequence of late night concerts in the 2015 season covered Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas played by Alina Ibragimova, Yoyo Ma playing all six cello suites and Andras Schiff delivering the Goldberg Variations. This is not barnstorming stuff, but each and every note got across to large and enthusiastic audiences.

The hall’s shape and configuration help to explain the paradox. Its oval footprint means that there are seats behind and alongside the performers as well as to their front. This gives a “music in the round” feeling and means that sections of the audience can see each other as well as the performance stage, which creates a sense of communal participation lacking in the conventional rectangular concert hall design.

Prom audiences are characteristically absorbed and attentive while the music is played but enthusiastic to the point of exuberance when it stops. This, the bullish and celebratory tone of the BBC’s radio announcers and some of its promotional material attract criticism from those who prefer music to have a more austere and perhaps more introverted aesthetic.

But it is all part of the BBC’s successful policy of broadening the repertory and outreaching to wider audiences. The concerts are generously accessible. Promenade tickets allow access for less than US $8, and season promenade passes work out at less than $5 a concert. All concerts are broadcast on BBC Radio, and some on TV as well. All are streamed on the BBC website in high quality audio which is available to UK and international audiences for up to 30 days after each performance.

A handful of concerts remain before the present season ends on 9 September. Two are by the Vienna Philharmonic – Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on 7 September, and a Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven concert on 8 September with Emmanuel Ax on piano and Michael Tilson Thomas on the rostrum. The late night concert on 7 September features Andras Schiff playing in its entirety the first book of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. On 6 September there are two concerts – a Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich concert in the Albert Hall followed by a late night Open Ear Prom at Tate Modern featuring new music from the London Contemporary Orchestra.

So the final week illustrates the whole series – the highest possible quality in the classic repertory coupled with exciting and exploratory innovation. The Proms series is indeed unique.

–Tom Luce

Filed under: BBC Proms

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. David Brooks says:

    Thank you, Tom (and Thomas). It’s good to know that the core of quality and innovation are as strong as ever. My wife and I first met, standing in the arena, at the August 29, 1968 Prom, between Beethoven 4 and Brahms 4 (we plan to go back from our US home to celebrate our golden jubilee next year), and I’m sure ours was not the only relationship that began in that arena.

    There were “only” 52 concerts that year; I stood through 42. The point about the absorbed audience is well-taken; you don’t stand up for 100 hours or so of music unless is really means something to you, and musicians who have visited have said it is the most attentive audience in the world.

    1968 was a tumultuous year, of course, and the most intense memory, still fresh in the ears, was of Slava Rostropovich playing the Dvorak concerto with a Soviet orchestra the day of the Prague invasion. He topped it off with a Sarabande from a Bach cello suite, weeping. The season began with Colin Davis conducting a Malcolm Sargent memorial, included some particularly unlistenable premieres (this was the 60s after all) and Stockhausen’s Kontakte – just consider the quadrophonic sound in that hall – and ended with the usual Last Night party; you’ll love it.

    • Tom Luce says:

      I’m glad the Proms evoke such important memories for you. I too was at the 1968 Prague invasion day concert and vividly remember it.
      Tom Luce.


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