The Proms think big: Can the world’s leading classical festival hold its own in an Olympic year?

As a vital part of the London 2012 Festival, the pressure's on the Proms this year – and, writes Jessica Duchen, they deliver on their own terms

If you were superstitious, you might approach the start of the 2012 BBC Promenade Concerts – on Friday 13 July – with a little trepidation.The long-established music bonanza, packing the Royal Albert Hall with “promenaders” every summer, is habitually laden with superlatives, but this time there's more than usual at stake: it now has to live up to the Olympic Games as well. In a recent radio interview, Ruth Mackenzie, director of the London 2012 Festival, declared that this year's Proms – a major component of the festival – can be called “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”. Oh yes? Is that so?

Thank goodness this Proms season is not particularly Olympic in content – we do need somewhere to go to get away from it all. Aside from opening night, when four British conductors will pass the baton vaguely à la torch, plus, later in the season, a new commission from the composer Eric Whitacre taking its title from the traditional Olympic motto, “Higher, Faster, Stronger”, the Games have had little impact on programming. Any links are more philosophical than material. And, one senses, more coincidental than anything else.

“There's no one event that's tied to the Olympics,” says Roger Wright, director of the Proms. “But we're happening throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games and, as their ideals are similar to those of the Proms – aspiration, excellence, internationalism, there's a neat connection where the plans meet. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain on the opening night of the Olympics is a good example. But if you opened the Proms programme you mightn't guess that the Olympics are happening at the same time. The key is that this is a Proms season unlike any other, because every Proms season should be a season unlike any other.”

Calling the 2012 Proms a “once-in-a-lifetime experience”, therefore, could be to protest too much. And let's hope that expression doesn't show its dark side as London's transport system and roads try to respond to Olympic-scale pressure. Nevertheless, this is a season of grand ambition: a real example of thinking big, with plenty of the weird, wacky and risky alongside an extraordinary number of blockbusters.

For instance, John Cage gets an evening to himself to mark his centenary, while Delius – still a case of misunderstood musical Marmite 150 years after his birth – pops up no fewer than eight times. The towering figure of Debussy, likewise born in 1862, clocks up the same number, and it is nothing less than his sole opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, performed complete, that steals his show.

A focus on youth makes this season stand out from the crowd. Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a celebrated symbol of music as a unifying force for humanity in the Middle East, is spending five evenings tackling all nine Beethoven symphonies, complemented by the music of a living genius, Pierre Boulez. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is aboard for Messiaen's gigantic Turangalila Symphony; and there's the new Aldeburgh World Orchestra, an international ensemble of advanced students and young professionals convened at Snape under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. Add to that the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland and Wales, the Ulster Youth Orchestra of Northern Ireland, plus youth wind orchestras, brass bands, jazz ensembles and choirs galore from around the country, and this celebration of young people making music starts to look seriously heart-warming.

Even some of the composers are teenaged: The Proms' Inspire Young Composers' Competition has found three winners: Freddie Meyers, Alex Woolf and Sarah Gait. Their triumphant works are performed in a special Prom at the Royal College of Music on 4 August, and each of them wins a BBC commission.

On the other hand, the habitual visits of great international orchestras are a tad limited: one suspects malign economic factors behind the scenes. We can look forward to the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, among a scant handful that remain – and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, of course. Still, the limited number of grand-scale overseas visitors does indicate that this Proms isn't more or less memorable than any other – just different.

Better news in the new-music department: more than 30 premieres and new commissions, plus high-profile events such as John Adams conducting two of his own works, notably the opera Nixon in China. There's the London premiere of the Symphony No 9 by the irrepressible Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: a rip-roaring anti-war work, heard first in Liverpool earlier this summer. And new pieces by some of the UK's biggest names – including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, James MacMillan and Thea Musgrave – rub shoulders with choral adventures from the increasingly popular figures Whitacre and Bob Chilcott, plus younger luminaries like Charlotte Bray, Emily Howard, Nico Muhly and many more.

But one premiere has attracted more attention than any other: the much-trumpeted Wallace and Gromit Prom features My Concerto in Ee, Lad by, er, Wallace himself. Isn't there someone to lend him a helping hand? Wright is giving nothing away.

“Wallace hasn't told me that he's got any help,” he declares. “It's obviously a risk commissioning anybody, and it's particularly exciting commissioning Wallace because he's known to be slightly unreliable...” Less unsuspected but no less inventive delights can be sampled in the satellite concerts at the nearby Cadogan Hall, which houses the Proms' chamber music and Saturday matinée series.

The former, on Mondays at lunchtime, features treats like the violinist Nicola Benedetti with the pianist Alexei Grynyuk and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich in solo (Bach), duo (Korngold) and trio (Brahms) formation. One Saturday afternoon Sir Roger Norrington recreates the legendary orchestra of 24 violins from the court of Louis XIV. Late-night Royal Albert Hall performances involve anything from early music to a special celebration of Ivor Novello with Simon Callow. And Proms Plus events offer plentiful pre-concert lectures, discussions and literary chats, this time at the Royal College of Music.

In these times of cutbacks, though, can the Proms carry on thinking this big? Next year brings a multiple whammy: major anniversaries for Verdi, Wagner, Britten and Lutoslawski, all of which will throw the festival a starter-for-10 challenge. The good news is that the BBC has earmarked the Proms for continued investment: apparently the sizeable subsidy (around £5m) remains assured for the time being.

Maximum access to maximum quality is what public subsidy for the arts used to be all about. Here, it still is; as a result, the Proms remains the single most exciting annual concert series in the UK. And its audience knows it. More than 97,000 tickets were snaffled this year on the day that booking opened and with modest ticket prices (the promenaders' standing places are £5 a go) and extensive distribution on the radio, TV and Internet, nobody need miss out. As the queues build up along Prince Consort Road, detractors of the principle of state funding may watch and weep.

It's not impossible, though, that other factors could impact indirectly upon the Proms' fortunes. A recent report into the BBC's performing ensembles, while not suggesting that any should close, has recommended certain types of reorganisation that would affect the modus operandi of the BBC orchestras. Whether that will happen, and how, and what the knock-on effects will be, are still unknown quantities.

But in the meantime, even if “once in a lifetime” is a bit of an exaggeration, this is a corker of a season, with a magnificent range of music familiar and unfamiliar, apparently the bigger the better. Here come some of the greatest names and heftiest works that London will see this year. Forget the Olympics if you want to. The Proms – higher, faster, stronger? – are all you need.

The BBC Promenade Concerts begin on 13 July at the Royal Albert Hall (0845 401 5040)

The unmissable prom

Prom 1, 13 July, 7.30pm Four British conductors – Edward Gardner, Sir Roger Norrington, Sir Mark Elder and Martyn Brabbins – pass the baton, Olympic style.

Prom 3, 15 July, 7pm Debussy's opera 'Pelléas et Mélisande'. Anniversary composer's masterpiece, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, starring Karen Vourc'h, Phillip Addis and Laurent Naouri.

Proms 9, 10, 12, 13 and 18, 20-27 July West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim in the complete Beethoven symphonies; modern classics by Pierre Boulez.

Prom 11, 22 July, 4.30pm Berlioz's five-hour marathon 'Les Troyens', imported from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Sir Antonio Pappano is the conductor.

Prom 20, 29 July, 3.30pm Family fun with Wallace and Gromit, including world premiere of Wallace's 'My Concerto in Ee, Lad'.

Prom 29, 4 August, 7.30pm The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain with conductor Vassily Petrenko and pianist Joanna MacGregor tackle Messiaen's mega-symphony 'Turangalila'.

Prom 30, 5 August, 4.30pm Massed choruses perform the world premiere of new choral commission 'The Angry Planet' by Bob Chilcott.

Prom 47, 17 August, 7.45pm. John Cage night, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Exaudi and conductor Ilan Volkov, among many others.

Prom 55, 24 August, 7pm English National Opera joins the Proms' operatic line-up with Britten's 'Peter Grimes', conducted by Edward Gardner and starring tenor Stuart Skelton.

Proms 63 & 64, 30 & 31 August The Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in eclectic programmes of late-19th and 20th century music.

Prom 72, 5 September, 7pm John Adams conducts his opera 'Nixon in China'; BBCSO with singers including Kathleen Kim, Alan Oke and Gerald Finlay.

Prom 76, 8 September, 7.30pm Last Night of the Proms, with all the usual fun. Star soloists are Nicola Benedetti (violin) and Joseph Calleja (tenor); Jirí Belohlávek conducts.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week