Classical music: Embarrassment of riches

The world's biggest music festival, the BBC Proms, opens tonight. Martin Anderson selects the best of the 105th season

Nicholas Kenyon, the chap who plans the Proms for the BBC, has one of the most agreeable jobs in the world: being asked to fill two whole months with an orchestral concert every night is the musical equivalent of getting both the keys to the toyshop and unlimited ice-cream. Planning the Proms, of course, is a high-visibility balancing act, since you have to please a disparate audience of hugely divergent tastes. And Sunday's two Proms, which offer "One Thousand Years of Music in a Day", indicate how much ground has to be covered. But the Proms presents such a huge canvass that you can thread all sorts of themes through it (every arts festival has to have its theme these days) and so get everyone on the donkey. Last year's eclectic, enterprising season was a hard act to follow - but Kenyon seems to have managed it, expanding the range of music on offer this year without compromising on core repertoire and new music.

The threads woven through this year's programmes are four-fold. Millennium fever accounts for two of them. "The Ascent of Man" is basically a tour of the transcendental, a documentation of aspiration in music, of how composers have measured man against the vastness of space and history. The plates are set spinning tonight with Sir Michael Tippett's cosmic oratorio The Mask of Time, which occupied him, off and on, from 1973 until 1982. It's a bold choice for a First Night, too, since Tippett's cornucopic vision requires some concentration from its audience - reflected in the fact that, highly unusually, there are still tickets left for tonight's concert. The Mask of Time is uneven and has, I fear, its structural problems - it strikes me as being four cantatas strung end to end - but it contains some glorious music, and if you can get along to the Albert Hall tonight, I doubt that you'll regret it.

Among the works brought in under the "Ascent" umbrella (and the advantage of such a vague theme is that you can chuck in what you want) are Schumann's rarely heard Scenes from Goethe's Faust (28 August), a visionary score that contains some of his finest music; Lili Boulanger's Du fond de l'abime (20 July), a setting of Psalm 130 that indicates what a powerful composer Boulanger might have become if she hadn't died in 1918, at the age of 24; and Antoine Brumel's exhilarating "Earthquake" Mass, from the turn of the 16th century (26 August), a contrapuntal (12-part) choral edifice of astonishing impact.

The other millennial theme is that of "lateness": here we are at the end of an era, so let's look at composers' last works. The American Conlon Nancarrow, who died two years ago, wrote music of such rhythmic complexity that it is normally tackled only by player-pianos, so it will be fascinating on 10 August to see how mere humans cope with the premiere of the Study for Orchestra that occupied Nancarrow's last days.

Lutoslawski's luminous final symphony, his Fourth, crops up in a concert that, with the Sibelius Seventh and Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphonies, is all meat and no vegetables (3 September). And one of the most tantalising of all late visions is Vaughan Williams's Ninth Symphony (29 August): here is a man in his mid-eighties just discovering an entirely new soundworld.

Mind you, Kenyon missed a treat by not featuring the archetypical "late composer", Havergal Brian, who is still better known as a statistical quirk (having composed 21 of his 32 symphonies after his 80th birthday) than as one of Britain's most profoundly individual voices. Brian's massive, moving Gothic Symphony would have made at least as good an opening night as The Mask of Time.

The third theme is French music, with three operas among the works featured - Rameau's buoyant Les Boreades next Monday, Poulenc's Les Dialogues des Carmelites on 4 August, and Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande on 30 August.

Kenyon's fourth thread is this year's featured composer. An excellent idea, this, to allow the kind of conspectus of a man's work that can't otherwise be acquired in the concert hall - and it's in the hall, live, that the sheer physical impact of a work like the Fourth Symphony of the Dane Carl Nielsen, the anointed of 1999, has to heard. The last four of Nielsen's six symphonies can be heard on 2, 11, 13 and 22 August, and his enchanting folk-cantata Springtime on Funen on 29 July.

One of the strengths of the Proms, of course, has always been the commitment to new music, and this year's premieres are an exciting lot. To judge from the score, the Second Symphony of the Latvian Peteris Vasks (30 July) should be deeply moving, and David Matthews' Fifth Symphony promises music of considerable elan (21 August). Aura, a concerto-for-orchestra- cum-symphony by the Finn Magnus Lindberg (25 July), is one of the most exciting orchestral works I have come across in years. Friedrich Cerha's Cello Concerto (6 August) beautifully reconciles the lyrical with the modern. And much can be expected of James MacMillan's Quickening for soloists, chorus, children's chorus and orchestra on 5 September.

It's not simply a question of venturesome repertoire, either. The new season bristles with innovative ideas that involve not just the Albert Hall but also a number of buildings nearby. The first initiative is a series of free music-and-talk events in the Serpentine Gallery, with four composers interviewed about their music (Judith Weir, 23 July; Mark-Anthony Turnage, 30 July; Sir Harrison Birtwistle, 6 August; James MacMillan, 13 August) before a chamber concert that, for the first time, involves Britain's music students in a Proms event. The series begins at 6pm this evening with Nicholas Cleobury talking about Tippett before a performance of the Second Quartet.

The Proms chamber concerts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, now in their fourth year, at 1pm on every Monday of the eight weeks, are now also preceded by a talk linking some objet d'art from the V&A collection to the music being performed; the objet in question will remain on display throughout the course of the concert.

The Pre-Prom talks in the Albert Hall itself have become user-friendlier, too. The talking-composer formula has been relaxed to bring in musicians reflecting on the music they are about to play and discussions related to Kenyon's four themes; the series kicks off at 6.30pm tomorrow with Kenyon himself introducing the season.

And the outreach continues, with the Last Night (11 September) relayed not only to the massive screen across the road in Hyde Park but also to outdoor events in Birmingham and Swansea. There's also a children's Prom in Hyde Park on the following day.

So all is well with the Proms? Almost. There's a small matter of principle. Eighteen years ago, at the opening of the 1981 Proms season, the composer and writer Robert Simpson launched a blistering attack (in a little book called The Proms and Natural Justice, with which I began my publishing career as Toccata Press) on the way the BBC planned the festival. The reason for Simpson's discontent was plain: the regime of Sir William Glock - and of Robert Ponsonby after him - had dominated the planning of the Proms since 1960. These two men had, in Simpson's words, "untrammelled sway over the choice of a very large number of musicians, and over the musical fare of a vastly larger group of listeners" - an audience, he calculated, one-seventh the size of Islam. And since the Glock/Ponsonby period coincided almost exactly with the intolerant heyday of Modernism, that monopoly meant the exclusion of a large number of composers who are now recognised as important elements of the repertoire. "It is not morally justified," Simpson continued, "that one person should dominate the planning of this vast, publicly funded festival, its repertoire and its casting, for an unspecified period."

How do Dr Simpson's criticisms stand up now, nearly two decades after he made them? The musical world has changed beyond recognition. The Modernist grip has been loosened. The famous "Glock sandwich", whereby a difficult modern piece was camouflaged between more familiar repertoire, is disappearing in favour of more imaginative concert design. The Proms planners themselves have come and gone: the tight-lipped Robert Ponsonby and his loquacious successor John Drummond have now been replaced by the affable Nick Kenyon - the first person in the job in nearly 40 years about whom no one seems to have a bad word to say. And only a fool would criticise Kenyon's current season for lack of imagination. This regular turn-over of the planners, of course, of itself assuages Simpson's concerns about monopoly, even if his basic premise survives undaunted - underlined by the fact that Kenyon's contract has been renewed once already. In the meantime, we have a Proms season to be grateful for. As a lawyer friend said the other day, after a read through the prospectus, "There aren't many I wouldn't go to."

Proms' box office: 0171-589 8212. The Prom's website is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/

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