MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Overview of the 2019 BBC Proms

The following is a guest contribution by Tom Luce, who offers an overview of this year’s  2019 BBC Proms season, which took place between 19 July and 14 September:

This year’s edition of the BBC Promenade Concerts  ended on 14 September with the last of more than 80 concerts over a bit less than two months. It marked the 125th season since the Proms were inaugurated.

As is to be expected from the modern model for the series, there was a wide range of music. The classical repertoire remains the bedrock and was very fully covered, but some show music, jazz and folk were also featured.

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was marked with some space-related programs: Holst’s The Planets, of course, music from space movies, and various commissioned pieces.

Climate concerns were also reflected — not least through the first European performance of In the Name of the Earth by John Luther Adams a composer well known in Seattle, sung by 600 unaccompanied choral singers with some audience participation.

A good proportion of the newly commissioned world premieres was from women composers, reflecting a BBC objective of gender equality in its music commissioning. Some neglected older works were given rare performances. These included a fine symphony, a powerful cello concerto, and an interesting string quartet by Mieczysław Weinberg, a contemporary and protégé of Shostakovich.

Performers and ensembles of global stature were well represented. Orchestras came from Vienna, Leipzig, Dresden, Paris, Shanghai, Prague, Munich, Bremen, Hanover, the Middle East, and the United States. Conductors included Barenboim, Haitink, Rattle, Jansons, Dausgaard, Salonen, Bychkov, Grazinte-Tyla, Andris Nelsons, Andrew Davis, Eliot Gardiner, Pappano, and Sakari Oramo.

This year, the main contribution from the United States was youthful and collaborative. Musicians from the Juilliard Orchestra combined with London’s Royal Academy students in one concert. Another was given by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, which gave an outstanding program of fascinating contrasts. The first half consisted of Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’Été, ravishingly sung by Joyce DiDonato. The second offered Richard Strauss’s monumental Alpine Symphony, in which the ensemble was supported by some extra brass players from Britain’s National Youth Orchestra. Under Antonio Pappano’s direction, they excelled equally in the delicate subtleties of the Berlioz and the huge power and energy needed for Strauss’s lengthy and demanding Alpine expedition. They diplomatically concluded with a touching rendering of Elgar’s Nimrod variation. Equally diplomatically, in their program, the Shanghai players chose the Beatles’ Hey Jude as an encore.

As usual, the series attracted high attendances. For the main orchestral concerts, the attendance rate apparently averaged 89%. In its Proms configuration, the Royal Albert Hall’s capacity is 6000 — double or more than that of most large concert halls. So on average, around 5,400 people attended each of nearly 60 concerts on consecutive days over two months, many of the programs including new or unfamiliar music. It is doubtful whether so great an outreach has ever been achieved elsewhere.

All of the concerts are broadcast by the BBC and can be heard internationally on its website for up to 30 days. Of those still accessible — though not now for long — I would choose the superb performance of Berlioz’s neglected masterpiece Benvenuto Cellini that was  led by John Eliot Gardiner on 2 September, as well as a profoundly moving performance on the following day of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic under the inspired direction of Bernard Haitink, who has now retired permanently.

By way of contrast, I would also choose an item from the final concert, the Last Night of the Proms (14 September). The first half of this iconic event has a variety of fairly short pieces, including some songs. The solo singer re-emerges in the second half to lead the audience in popular patriotic songs traditional to the occasion.

This year, the American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was the soloist. Advance publicity heralded an emphasis on diversity, including LGBT rights and other minorities fighting bigotry and oppression. The opening, a newly commissioned piece by Daniel Kidane, was entitled Woke.

In the second half, Barton led the audience in Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule the Waves… The tradition is that towards the end the singer unfurls the British flag. But on this occasion, it was different. As the London Times’ critic reported: “Half way through her blazing performance of Rule Britannia, Jamie Barton produced a large gay pride rainbow flag, which she waved as vigorously as she sang. I have rarely heard a bigger cheer in the Albert Hall.”

I would also recommend Barton’s performance of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow in the first half. It was ravishing, not least because of the sensitive and nuanced delivery of the song’s subtle harmonization and changes of tempo and mood by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their conductor, Sakari Oramo — a concluding illustration of their magnificent contribution to the whole series.

Filed under: BBC Proms

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