MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

BBC Proms 2021

The recently concluded BBC Proms concerts are available online. Here’s a guest review of the 2021 edition of the Proms by Tom Luce:

BBC PROMENADE CONCERTS 2021: REVIVAL OF PUBLIC MUSIC-MAKING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Last year, in compliance with pandemic restrictions, the BBC had to limit both the number and accessibility of its annual Promenade Concert Festival concerts. There were fine and interesting concerts as usual in London’s huge Albert Hall. They were all broadcast but had no public audiences present.

This year, with great skill and imagination, the BBC has achieved a full program which complies with pandemic public health precautions. The Albert Hall stage was enlarged so that orchestral members could social distance from each other and the audience, and the public were admitted after showing proof of double vaccination or negative Covid tests. So nearly a year and a half after the near closure of public music-making, it has been revived.

The 46 concert programs had great diversity in content and performers. The classical composers and their modern successors were fully represented, but there was also a lot of non-European music and popular and folk-based items. How many festival programs have included not only Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with the usual Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Stravinsky, etc., but also music by Florence Price and Gity Razaz, n accordionist playing a Piazzolla tango, an evening devoted to a jazz saxophonist and composer, and another to the Golden Age of Broadway?

International travel restrictions meant that nearly all performing groups were based in the UK. As well as the BBC’s own and other regular British orchestras, a fine concert was provided by the Chineke! orchestra, and a chamber group consisting largely of members of the Kanneh-Mason family (cellist Sheku having memorably played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Seattle Symphony three years ago), which delivered a charming performance of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.

All of the concerts remain internationally available on BBC Sounds until mid-October. It’s hard to pick those most worthwhile to hear out of such a fine collection. My own preferences include a wonderful St. Matthew Passion performance by the Baroque-style Arcangelo group under their founder and director Johnathan Cohen, who with excellent soloists delivered both the dramatic crowd interventions and the intimate and reflective arias and recitatives with equal effectiveness (9 September); a magnificently played and conducted Tristan und Isolde from the Glyndebourne Festival (3 September); John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi team in a Bach cantata and a stunningly energetic performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus (1 September); Simon Rattle and the London Symphony in a Stravinsky program (22 August); a fine delivery of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by an orchestra of pandemic-impoverished freelance musicians specially brought together by the BBC (8 September); the Chineke! Orhcestra’s fine evening with rarely performed but very welcome  music by Florence Price, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Taylor, and Felo Sowande, as well as a Vivaldi concerto (24 August); and a superb rendering of Mozart’s last three symphonies by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1 August).

In accordance with British tradition, the first and last nights were national events. I have elsewhere described the first night’s programming as very suitable to pandemic circumstances. A remarkable feature of the last night was a  beautiful choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Arranging the words from the Agnus Dei (“Grant them rest……….Grant us peace”) to this celebrated expression of grief was a wonderful addition to a public concert  occurring on 9/11, 20 years after the tragic events in the USA — a commemoration subtly conveyed by Hall ushers gently lifting the Stars and Stripes as it was sung.

All of the concerts I observed were attended by thousands in the Albert Hall, who responded very strongly, and these performances were no doubt heard by millions via radio. To experience such a public revival of real concerts and the profound effect of music on society has reminded me of two historic observations on music’s importance:

-Plato’s comment: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe and wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm to sadness and gaiety to life and to everything”.

-”Musica: Laetitia comes medecina dolorum” (“Music: pleasure’s companion: grief’s remedy”), the inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson.

Filed under: BBC Proms, review

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