Do we know how lucky we are to have the Proms? It’s still the biggest, longest-running and arguably most egalitarian classical music festival on the planet. This year it opens on 15 July for nearly two months of world-class concerts in the Royal Albert Hall and beyond, with standing places costing a pittance and blanket broadcasting – everything on the radio, plus considerable chunks on TV and the Internet – so the music can reach everyone, everywhere. The Proms’ mission statement remains hard to better: offering the best quality music to the greatest possible number of people.
A new managerial team is in place this year: David Pickard has become director of the Proms, having previously run Glyndebourne, and Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, is there to look over his shoulder. But the initial difference to spot is that the price of standing tickets is rising for the first time in a decade, from £5 to £6. It may not sound enormous, but as the charge had been held steady for so long, a restatement of the Proms’ communicative intent does no harm.
If anything is remarkable about this year’s cautiously celebratory programme, though, it’s the meek response it has received so far. Where are those furious traditionalists declaring the end of the world imminent thanks to the occasional inclusion of alternative genres? Ah, but this year’s chief innovations involve location rather than content, notably a Prom in Peckham’s Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, providing a whole new slant on taking the music to the people.
Not that this is your average car park. An established arts centre with its own resident ensemble, the Multi-Story Orchestra, it has become possibly London’s hottest cutting-edge venue. Its adoption for a performance of music by Steve Reich is a feather in its cap, but also quite a badge of cool for the big-brand BBC Proms.
It is one of four alternative venues in which the Proms are holding extra-mural concerts for the first time. The Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe is ideal for a Shakespeare-themed concert for the 400th anniversary celebrations. The Royal Naval College at Greenwich hosts choral music by Rossini; and, in a move reminiscent of the late Pierre Boulez’s experimental concerts several decades ago, Camden’s Roundhouse is the setting for contemporary music by David Sawer, Georg Friedrich Haas, Ligeti and Birtwistle.
Apart from that, risks are few and far between. Generally speaking, costs rise while subsidy doesn’t, and besides filling the arena and gallery with promenaders, the Royal Albert Hall needs to put behinds on its plentiful seats. And so the Proms’ plethora of new works – 30 pieces, including 13 world premieres – frequently rub shoulders with easy-sell musical blockbusters. For instance, a Proms commission from Magnus Lindberg sits alongside Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the world premiere of Michael Berkeley’s Violin Concerto is matched with extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s a well-worn formula, but sometimes can feel a bit like using the lure of doughnuts to persuade you to sample a sliver of pufferfish. The sums may add up, but do the palates match?
Things are spiced up, if mildly, by a nod towards South America in tribute to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, including music by Brazil’s most celebrated composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and a visit from the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. The Simon Bolivár Symphony Orchestra promises high spirits under its conductor Gustavo Dudamel. And the Last Night’s annual jamboree, though stopping short of an all-out samba, stars the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who sings a “Latin American medley” as well as the show-stopping aria “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment.
Matters of equal representation are paid lip-service, with eight pieces by women, including Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No.3 and Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry, one of the schools-scheme Ten Pieces. New BBC commissions are due from Sally Beamish, Charlotte Bray, Helen Grime, Emily Howard, Iris ter Schiphorst and Lera Auerbach. Five female conductors include Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the doughty Alsop, among others. All this is more plentiful than it used to be, but there’s further to go…
As for audience inclusiveness, children are being encouraged to attend, and could be encouraged still more, with a CBeebies Prom, a Ten Pieces one, and the success of matinée concerts for families. A further promising development is a performance of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony by the Aurora Orchestra at which the broadcaster Tom Service talks the audience through the music’s inner workings. Not only young listeners but also older ones often hanker for more understanding of how music is put together; it is good to see this being catered for.
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Meanwhile there’s no doubt of the quality on offer. Some of Europe’s finest orchestras are beating a path to Kensington, including the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle, the Dresden Staatskapelle under the celebrated conductor Christian Thielemann, who (incredibly) is making his Proms debut, and the fiery Budapest Festival Orchestra with its inspirational music director Iván Fischer. Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra offers a thrilling programme with the great Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich as soloist. And there’s no shortage of big choral works, operas in concert and grand-scale symphonies – perhaps the things that the Proms do best of all.
And alternative music? A handful of fine jazzers including Jamie Cullum and Kamasi Washington, a late-night concert devoted to David Bowie’s songs, and a Strictly Prom with lots of Johann Strauss plus a dancing Katie Derham. Nothing there – or, really, anywhere in the season – to ruffle any feathers, and I wouldn’t say no to a waltz around the arena. But I rather hope feather-ruffling comes back into vogue soon.
10 Best Proms
Prom 1, 15 July
Tchaikovsy: Fantasy-Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus, Sol Gabetta (cello)/Sakari Oramo
Prom 11, 23 July
Wagner: Die Walküre, final scene
Tippett: A Child of Our Time
Tamara Wilson (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), Peter Hoare (tenor) James Creswell (bass), BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/Mark Wigglesworth
Prom 19, 29 July (10.15pm)
A celebration and reinterpretation of the music of David Bowie
Stargaze/André de Ridder
Prom 22, 31 July
Ravel: Mother Goose – suite
Lera Auerbach: The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie (BBC co-commission, world premiere)
Debussy: King Lear – Fanfare d’ouverture; Le sommeil de Lear; La mer
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Vadim Gluzman (violin)/Edward Gardner
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 13 August, 3pm and 8pm
Shakespeare-themed works by Purcell, Blow, Locke and Draghi
Arcangelo, Katherine Watson (soprano), Samuel Bodsen (tenor), Callum Thorpe (bass)/Jonathan Cohen
Prom 43, 17 August
Jörg Widmann: Con brio
Liszt: Piano Concerto No.1
Wagner: Orchestral extracts from his operas
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Martha Argerich (piano)/Daniel Barenboim
Prom 51, 24 August
Marlos Nobre: Kabbalah (UK premiere)
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas brasilieras No.4
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
São Paolo Symphony Orchestra, Gabriela Montero (piano)/Marin Alsop
Prom 65, 2 September (10.15pm)
A tribute to Pierre Boulez
BBC Singers, Ensemble InterContemporain/Baldur Brönnimann
Bartók: Three Village Scenes
Boulez: Anthèmes 2
Boulez: Cummings ist der Dichter
BTMCP, 3 September, 12pm and 3pm
Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Cark Park, Peckham
Steve Reich: Vermont Counterpoint; Eight Lines; Music for a Large Ensemble
Multi-Story Orchestra/Christopher Stark
Prom 68, 4 September
Opera Rara, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Mark Elder
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