MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Guest Report: Tom Luce on the BBC Proms

In this guest post, Tom Luce offers his reflections on the 2018 BBC Proms:

This year’s two-month season of the British Broadcasting Corporation Promenade Concerts based in London’s Royal Albert Hall ended on Saturday, 8 September, with the iconic “Last Night” celebration.

The preceding 90 concerts followed the pattern of recent years in providing full coverage of classical music but extending still further the boundaries of performance and repertoire.

Of 23 world premiere commissions, more than half were from women composers. A Tango Prom included some dancing on the stage, and a late evening concert introduced the Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour and his adventurous mixture of West African and Cuban popular music. Another featured electronic music associated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

An emphasis on young performers included a concert given by recent members of the BBC’s “Young Musician” program. And one of them – 19-year-old Jess Gillam – was the brilliant soloist in the saxophone and orchestra arrangement of Milhaud’s Scaramouche played during the festive final concert. There were several impressive appearances by the BBC’s “Proms Youth Choir” drawn from young singers all over Britain.

Three centenaries were recognized in the programming as well.

The end of the First World War was marked with much interesting and reflective music from that period, as well as requiems by Verdi, Brahms, and Benjamin Britten. A new commission from Anna Meredith for the opening concert illustrated the separation stress of war for fighters and their families. For the final concert, a commission from Roxana Panufnik covered both the miseries of war and the prospect of reconciliation.

Debussy’s death in 1918 was commemorated with his own and other French music of the same epoc,h including a semi-staged Pelleas et Melisande from Glyndebourne Opera and a concert performance by Simon Rattle and his London Symphony Orchestra of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Several pieces by Lili Boulanger, the talented French composer who died very young in 1918, movingly reflected war losses.

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth was celebrated by stunning semi-staged concert versions of West Side Story and On the Town, much of his orchestral music, and, in the companion Proms chamber series, some songs.

Seattle readers will be interested to know that Ludovic Morlot led a fine concert of Debussy and other French music with Britain’s City of Birmingham orchestra, standing in for their musical director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who was on maternity leave. And also that Thomas Dausgaard, his designated successor at the Seattle Symphony, conducted four concerts. Two were with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, which Dausgaard currently directs. The others were a pair of concerts by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra he also directs, which included all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and six “companion pieces” newly commissioned from half a dozen contemporary composers.

The BBC is a British public corporation. It operates under a Royal Charter requiring it to provide services which “inform, educate, and entertain.” Another requirement is that its services “should be distinctive … and should take creative risks, even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.”

These obligations explain, and probably inspire, the creative and adventurous programming the Proms series features, and also the very high quality of associated presentation material. All the main concerts are preceded by free lectures on their most interesting features. The quality of the concert program notes is invariably outstanding.

This year’s program confirms that, in scope and quality, the series has no equal. To my knowledge, it is not unusual for Americans and others from abroad to plan their summer holidays in London so that they can attend Proms concerts to experience classical music performances of exceptional breadth and quality within a consistently innovative framework.

All of the concerts are broadcast and most remain for thirty days globally accessible through the BBC’s Radio 3 Proms website.

Making recommendations amongst such riches still available is difficult. For big symphonic events, I would go for the Morlot and Rattle concerts on 15 and 18 August already mentioned; the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s program on 22 August including Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony; his Third Symphony given with great power on 2 September by the Boston Symphony; an astonishingly vigorous and harmonious Beethoven Seventh symphony given later on the same day by the Berlin Philharmonic under Kiril Petrenko, their new music director-designate; and, finally, a Berlioz concert on 5 September, in which John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra accompanied Joyce Didonato in two movingly delivered deaths — of Cleopatra and then Dido — followed by a superb performance of Harold in Italy.

Of at least equal interest are more-intimate experiences. On 29 August, András Schiff in a late-night concert (starting at 9.30pm and finishing close to midnight) played all twenty-four Preludes and Fugues in the Second Book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to an impressively absorbed audience of some 3,000 people. And on 6 September, close to the end of the series, and following a fine performance of Britten’s War Requiem earlier the same evening, Peter Philips and the Tallis scholars sang a somber and touching program of Compline music entitled Before the Ending of the Day.

–Tom Luce, London 9 September 2018

Filed under: BBC Proms

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