Proms perfection: What to see at the biggest music festival on earth

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The greatest classical music festival in the world is back – an unparalleled, gargantuan feast of bravura performance. Nicola Christie highlights this year's most enticing prospects and asks insiders for their pick of the Proms

There's nothing like it. Not just in London, but in the whole world. Every day 5,500 people queue for hours, file in, sit down and listen to an orchestra play. Every day for two months – albeit with breaks for applause, fresh air, contact with the outside world, and a drink. A continuous stream of concert-going at which the great 5,500 arrive to hear a piece of music they've most likely never heard of. Ask someone queuing what is on the programme on a given night and it'll take some time to establish what the attraction is.

The Prom alone is the attraction. Yes, Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Ashkenazy come into town; yes, a composer's entire symphonic output can be performed in a season; yes, everyone from Sondheim to Scriabin gets play; but that's almost incidental, now. This festival of classical music, the largest in the world, has been going for 115 years and it is so extremely loved by its followers that many Londoners – and visitors to the UK – will rule out much of July to September so that they can amble down to the Royal Albert Hall after work, to hear whatever is being performed that night.

"The Proms are unique," says the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who has been performing at the concerts for 45 years now. "Standing on the podium, you feel it; it is a different experience from performing at any other concert."

There are many factors that make up that experience. Much of it is attached to the building that is now home to it, which wraps up its musicians and audience with the sort of love that puts it on a level with what Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was trying to conjure when he commissioned the Taj Mahal to immortalise the love for his wife; that it is not the best, acoustically, is almost irrelevant. Then there's the spirituality of the experience, the silence that reigns in the hall – triggered by the nightly ritual of maestro and musicians filing onto the stage.

It was an impresario – Mr Robert Newman – who first introduced the Proms "experience", when, in 1894, he met the talented young musician and conductor Henry Wood, to tell him about a dream he had for a new series of summer concerts to be held at his Queen's Hall. That dream quickly became a plan and, in 1895, the first series of "Mr. Robert Newman's Promenade Concerts" took place. It was only when the Queen's Hall was burnt down in an air raid in 1941 that the Proms settled into the Royal Albert Hall. By that time the BBC had taken financial control of the event, and Newman had handed over to his leading conductor, Henry Wood. Leaving us with the model we have today.

"It's a model that has barely changed," offers Sir Nicholas Kenyon, now managing director of the Barbican but, until three years ago, the director of the BBC Proms, "in the sense of the remit that the Proms has. The aim of the concerts was to introduce people to classical music, in a light-hearted and fun way, and to educate listeners."

Newman and Wood's plan was to start with easy pieces and gradually introduce more challenging pieces of repertoire as they went on, even brand new pieces of music, or "novelties" as they were known. A key objective was for the atmosphere of the concerts to be informal: patrons could drink, smoke, eat and snore if they wanted to.

Ninety years later and their plan translates into day tickets for £5, no matter what is being performed (the price has been frozen for the past five years); opportunities for Prommers to listen to the music in whatever way they choose – be it upstairs on the balcony with a picnic in hand, or lying down in the arena, gazing up at the ceiling; late-night concerts of a more intimate and alternative style; twice-weekly chamber concerts at the nearby Cadogan Hall; daily broadcasting of the concerts plus additional documentary-style programming; and a level of repertoire unparalleled in its reach.

Denby Richards, editor of Musical Opinion, has been attending the Proms for a record 73 years and was at many of Henry Wood's original concerts; he says little, in the festival's reach, has changed. "A lot of Wood's aims were about introducing and educating people into the joy, and value, of music – he almost programmed in cycles of three years, in the sense that if you came three years running and attended the majority of concerts, you would have received a full musical education; you would have experienced every kind of music from every type of genre, country and time period."

Making everything available to everyone is still what the Proms are about. Mahler would have been 150 this year so he gets the birthday treatment, with performances of most of his symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle and the BBC Scottish Symphony with Donald Runnicles among others. Also on the programme are all of Schumann's symphonies (again, a birthday year, Schumann would have been 200); the complete set of Beethoven Piano Concertos; Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers – to be recreated by Sir John Eliot Gardiner; Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, to be followed by a later concert of orchestral works spawned by Bach; the musical works of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim; and various offerings by Ravel, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Wagner, Pärt, Taverner, Strauss, Prokofiev, Mozart, Parry, Berlioz, Janacek, Dvorak, Bruckner, Britten and.... you get the picture.

There's also an entire day dedicated to Henry Wood, which brings with it plenty of new music – Wood was a champion of emerging composers – and a concert of music by Wood's contemporaries, including British composers Bax, Bliss and Parry, and others such as Rachmaninov and Sibelius. There will also be a re-enactment of one of Wood's original Last Night concerts, from 1910, that will be this year's "free" Prom.

"It's a concert I'm particularly excited about," enthuses the Proms director and Radio 3 controller Roger Wright. "Look at what was programmed that night, 100 years ago – the overture to Wagner's Flying Dutchman, the overture to Beethoven's Leonore No 3, pieces by Elgar, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Bizet, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak, Forster and Wood himself – the concert lasted for three and a half hours! It tells us that people had stamina in those days."

At the other end of the season there is a heady mix in the programming of a First Night featuring Mahler's mighty 8th Symphony, with more than 500 musicians, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, with Bryn Terfel, coming the following night, and Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, with Placido Domingo, wrapping up weekend one. It's not a bad way into the concert hall.

"In my opinion Mr Wright is ushering in a new approach to the Proms altogether," says Denby Richards, "He's broadening the scope of the thing to such an extent that he seems, and I'm inclined to agree with him, to be bringing to life the overall meaning of the word "music" – which is that there is no such thing as popular music, classical music, or any other genre, there is only good and bad music, and that's decided by the general public."

Not everyone agrees, of course. For some critics, the fact that the Proms hasn't changed significantly since 1895 is becoming a problem. Michael Church, classical music critic of The Independent, believes that it's time for the Proms to embrace a wider world view. He says: "I've come to regard the fact that the Proms don't change in any major way from year to year as a great virtue in a world which is changing too fast. But the overwhelmingly Western European fare in these multicultural days is an increasing drawback. To allot just one evening for a token dip into the waters of world music is just that – a token." That one evening is Prom 33, a late-night World Routes Academy concert with music from the Iraqi guitarist Ilham Al Madfai and the oud player Khyam Allami. It's a step in the right direction, but is it enough? "What the Proms should be doing is celebrating the other classical music of the world," he adds. "But I doubt whether any Proms director will ever bite that bullet."

There will, of course, be plenty of starry turns, too. Some of the soloists performing this year include the pianist Maria Joao Pires, returning to the Proms for a Late Night solo recital of Chopin Nocturnes; jazz star Jamie Cullum, making his Proms debut; pianist Leif Ove Andsnes delivering the UK premiere of a new piano concerto by Denmark's Bent Sorensen; and Doctor Who star Matt Smith hosting the ever-popular Doctor Who Prom.

It is, perhaps, the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner who has the most ambitious gig: a recreation of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, performed as it would have been in Venice's St Mark's Basilica, 400 years ago. He will look to recreate the spatial possibilities of that great cathedral by placing musicians all over the different corners and corridors of the Royal Albert Hall.

BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5045; Bbc.co.uk/proms) 16 July to 11 September

MY UNMISSABLE PROM

Katie Derham

Sondheim at 80, Saturday 31 July

"There are so many Proms to choose from but the one I'm most looking forward to is the celebration of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. The likes of Bryn Terfel and Simon Russell Beale will be performing, and the great man himself will be joining me to chat in the interval. I can't wait."

Katie Derham presents nine Proms on BBC Two and HD, including the First and Last Night, as well as joining the BBC Radio 3 presenting team

Mark Elder

Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle, Saturday 4 September

"This is a fascinating programme and I would be thrilled to hear such a great orchestra play the music of the Second Viennese group one after the other! Karita Mattila is one of the finest singers of today and I am sure she will sound wonderful in those famous Strauss Songs."

Mark Elder conducts two Proms this season: the Australian Youth Orchestra on 30 July and the Hallé on 6 August

Nicola Benedetti

Simon Boccanegra, Sunday 18 July

"The Prom I am most looking forward to attending is 'Simon Boccanegra' performed by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano. It's a wonderful celebration of Verdi. Plácido Domingo takes the principal role, and I'm sure the audience can expect a sublime evening."

Violinist Nicola Benedetti makes her Proms debut on 3 August on a programme conducted by Donald Runnicles

Jiri Belohlavek

Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle, Saturday 4 September

"There are too many interesting concerts to choose just one, but the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle is always an event. The second of his Proms with this great orchestra promises to be a highlight, with a very imaginative programme, as well as an encounter with soprano Karita Mattila."

Jiri Belohlavek conducts four Proms in 2010, including the First and Last Nights

Semyon Bychkov

Simon Boccanegra, Sunday 18 July

"I am impatiently waiting to attend the Prom of the Greats on 18 July. 'Simon Boccanegra' needed a long time to become accepted as another one of Verdi's masterpieces. Today it has found its permanent place in the Pantheon."

Semyon Bychkov conducts two Proms: the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne on 20 July and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain on 7 August

Alice Coote

Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, Saturday 28 August

"The Royal Albert Hall will wrap its singular acoustic around the programme of the second of the Minnesota Orchestra's concerts – Beethoven's Ninth 'Choral' Symphony. The Proms debut of the Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vänskä is exciting because of their formidable reputation. Hearing this work in its annual Proms outing is a must."

Mezzo soprano Alice Coote performs Humperdinck with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera on 31 August

Tansy Davies

John Tilbury and I Fagiolini, Friday 20 August and Saturday 21 August

"There are two Proms that to me look captivating: Prom 47 – BBC SO and Ilan Volkov, for freshness, invention, and spirituality. Proms Saturday Matinee 3 – I Fagiolini and Britten Sinfonia, for mournful beauty, and otherworldly juxtapositions: sublime ancient music provides the perfect context for two fascinating contemporary works."

The world premiere of Tansy Davies's BBC commission 'Wild Card' is performed on Wednesday 8 September

Steven Isserlis

Beethoven Night, Tuesday 27 July

"It's almost impossible to choose just one concert. But I'll go for Prom 14, given by the wonderful combination of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi. Their Beethoven is thrilling – and I'm impressed that at the end of every tour the whole orchestra gets together for a celebratory dinner."

Cellist Steven Isserlis performs at the day-long tribute to founder-conductor Henry Wood on Sunday 5 September

Paul Lewis

Sir Charles Mackerras's Late Night Prom, Thursday 29 July

"I'd find it hard to resist Prom 17 as it features one of my favourite orchestras and conductors. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras is a wonderful combination, and this programme of Mozart and Dvorák will be a real highlight."

Paul Lewis becomes the first pianist ever to perform all five Beethoven Piano Concertos in a single season: 21 July, 29 July, 6 August, 6 September

Maxim Rysanov

J S Bach Brandenburg Concertos, Saturday 14 August

"The complete Brandenburg Concertos spread over two back-to-back concerts will be particularly interesting for me. The winning combination of Bach with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists – what better way to spend a Saturday morning? I expect it to be great!"

Violist Maxim Rysanov performs in two Proms in 2010: BBC Symphony Orchestra on 9 August and the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 11 September

Nina Stemme

Leila Josefowicz, Wagner and Khyam Allami, Wednesday 28 July, Sunday 1 August and Monday 9 August

Prom 15 with a lot of modern music, Prom 20 with Wagner on the organ and Prom 33 with Iraqi music stick out, because I want to hear more contemporary music, I'm interested in Wagner interpretations and I listen to far too little music from outside Europe!"

Soprano Nina Stemme performs Berlioz's 'Nuit d'été' on Monday 23 August

Petroc Trelawny

Sondheim at 80, Saturday 31 July

"No one just likes Sondheim. You either love his work or you hate it. I think he's the master of modern music theatre, the continuation of a line stretching back to Handel, Mozart and Richard Strauss. Hearing Bryn Terfel and Maria Friedman sing Sondheim's brilliant settings of his own immaculately crafted, crisp text will be sheer pleasure."

Petroc Trelawny presents Proms on BBC Four and BBC Radio 3

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