Proms 2011 – a personal preview
Royal Albert Hall et. al.
15 July – 10 September, 2011
I’m in two minds about the Proms tradition of always allotting significant programming space to composers with major anniversaries. It’s transparently a fairly arbitrary device to make the programmers’ jobs much easier and minimise the thorny problem of personal taste entering the decision-making process; on the other hand, without it we would never get three concerts this year featuring one of my favourites, Percy Grainger (died 50 years ago). In particular, the late night Prom on 2 August including Kathryn Tickell and June Tabor, celebrating the folk music Grainger was inspired by, is to me one of the most interesting this year.
The flagship anniversaries of 2011 are Liszt (born 1811) and Mahler (died 1911). For the latter we get the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th and 9th Symphonies, plus Das Klagende Lied; the biggest draw here is the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel playing the 2nd, the sold-out Prom 29, 5 August, with competition from Roger Norrington doing the 9th, one of his last concerts as principal conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Prom 14, 25 July). The two composers are paired on 2 September (Prom 63), with, in a wry touch, Mahler 1 performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivá Fischer, while the naturalised Austrian pianist Dejan Lazić plays the first half’s Liszt pieces. The other notable Liszt concerts for me are the all-Hungarian programme for Prom 16 on 25 July, with Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO preceding A Faust Symphony with Kodály and Bartók, and Marc-André Hamelin’s solo recital on 24 August (Prom 54).
Unlike Mahler, Liszt also makes it into the First and Last Night lineups, closing the first half of the former with the 2nd Piano Concerto, played by former child prodigy Benjamin Grosvenor, now an ancient 19 years old. This is preceded by a new Judith Weir piece, Stars, Night, Music and Light (interesting) and Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (not so much), but for me the clear highlight of the First Night is Janáček’s Glagolithic Mass, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek. In a calculated bit of symmetry, the Last Night also begins with a world premiere (Peter Maxwell Davies this time) and closes the first half with a Liszt piano concerto (Lang Lang doing the 1st – could be a good opportunity for some annoying facial expressions and bodily gestures there). However, in other respects it’s oddly unbalanced, with all the large-scale works bar Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra into the first half (which also includes two 20-minute Bartók and Wagner pieces); the second half seems a bit flimsy in comparison, and although I approve of the choice of Chopin and Grainger items, I expect the arrangements of Richard Rodgers songs to be dodgy arrangements for the BBC Chorus. My major issue with the Last Night is the removal in 2008, and continual non-restoral since, from the ‘patriotic’ closing pieces of the Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs. My theory is that BBC execs complained that the Last Night coverage kept over-running, and so the Proms organisers, under pressure from the organisation that broadcasts all their concerts, decided to sacrifice the one item that was neither a singalong nor overtly nationalistic—which of course is precisely what was good about it.
I’ll conclude on a happier note by mentioning some more highlights of the season, as decreed by me. Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, forming Prom 4 on 17 July, requires over 1000 performers, probably themselves contributing to all seats for it being sold. I’m always a sucker for musical Spain (especially as imagined by French composers), so the Debussy/Ravel/Falla Prom 10 on 22July (BBC Phil, Juanjo Mena cond., Steven Osborne soloist) makes my list, as does another French programme on 3 August (Prom 26). One of the most distinctive programmes is on 28 July, when Prom 18 combines Beethoven’s 1st and 7th Symphonies (BBC NOW, Thierry Fischer) with two new flute concertos by Marc-André Dalbavie and the 102-year-old Elliott Carter (Emmanuel Pahud, soloist). The concerts on 12-13 August are not for purists, but I like ’em—Prom 38 is all film music, including anniversary composer and personal favourite Bernard Herrmann, 39 the Spaghetti Western Orchestra, while number 40 is the first ever ‘Comedy Prom’, hosted by comic singer-songwriter Tim Minchin. Finally, Prom 36 on 10 August would be hard to top for me—a 75th birthday tribute to Steve Reich, with the man himself playing piano and percussion alongside Ensemble Modern and Synergy Vocals.
Meanwhile, I still await my dream Last Night (or was it my dream last night?): the flag-waving crowds on tiptoe, in joyous anticipation of a fun singalong, hush themselves as the orchestra and visiting singer launch into…Kindertotenlieder.