Phil Barrett previews this year’s line-up and offers his personal highlights
Brevity is pulling-power. The 2016 Proms – a festival of nearly 150 events played out over just short of two months – has so much to offer that you’d be missing out of you didn’t go to something. The Proms season is always a balance of audience favourites, anniversaries, tributes and commissions; and at a glance 2016 celebrates the cello, Pierre Boulez, Latin America, Bruckner, David Bowie, the nation’s love of Strictly, Dutilleux, and, of course, Shakespeare.
Only a hermit could have failed to notice that 2016 marks 400 years since the death of the Bard, and nearly 20 of this year’s concerts include, feature, or are devoted to music composed in response to his plays. Tributes by Mendelssohn, Debussy, Sibelius, Prokofiev and others are scattered throughout the season; but whole evenings have been set aside for Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare-inspired music for stage and screen (including Walton, Bernstein, and Joby Talbot), solo vocal settings by Purcell and Quilter (featuring Iestyn Davies and Caroline Sampson), choral settings (sung by Stile Antico) and also, from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the ‘great globe itself’, music by some of his contemporaries: Purcell, Blow, Locke, and Giovanni Battista Draghi. The opening night begins with Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a harbinger of the season’s Shakespearean focus and even that play, Romeo and Juliet, which crops up four times throughout the programme.
In fact, the opening night serves as a concise self-summary of the season as a whole: a Shakespeare-themed overture, a cello concerto, and a Russian cantata. In contrast with the standard fare of anniversaries and tributes, year-specific events, this season’s Celebration of the Cello is a refreshingly original theme – one that caters to a widespread love for the instrument. Aside from well-known concertos by Elgar, Haydn, Dvorak, and Shostakovich, seven of the twelve concerts showcasing the instrument feature brand new, new, or unfamiliar music: world premieres include Huw Watkins’s concerto (performed by his brother Paul) and Charlotte Bray’s Falling in the Fire (performed by Guy Johnston); Dutilleux’s other-wordly Tout un monde lontaine… (1967-70) takes a prominent position, and a Chamber Prom includes an arrangement of Bach’s transcendental motet O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, a piece that couldn’t be better suited to a rich choir of cellos. The cello is being used as an inviting and familiar mouthpiece to encourage us to try something new, proving that it doesn’t have to be difficult to open people’s ears to new sounds.
Thirty composers enjoy premieres this year: thirteen of them world premieres, and the rest UK or London premieres. They range from the established Helen Grime, Magnus Lindberg, Sally Beamish, Julian Anderson, Colin Matthews, and Thomas Adès to little-known composers like Bayan Northcott, Iris ter Schiphorst, and Jörg Widmann. Of the thirty pieces, five are concertos and symphonies; but the rest have bare, descriptive, or suggestive titles – a positive sign that composers aren’t just seeking to establish themselves through conventional forms and genres. Lera Auerbach’s The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie for violin, chorus, and orchestra certainly raises intrigue. Support for ‘new’ music doesn’t stop at young composers: Michael Berkeley and Anthony Payne have been commissioned, and this commitment extends beyond Europe to Latin America as the season ties itself to the forthcoming Rio Olympics. The first night, as well as celebrating Shakespeare and the cello, features a South-American artist – cellist Sol Gabetta – and starring at the Last Night is the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez.
Latin America is most readily evoked and noticed in classical music through the North-American ears of Leonard Bernstein, and you can hear his Mambo from West Side Story twice at either rendition of the Ten Pieces II Prom, a performance of the ten pieces chosen to engage secondary school children with classical music, part of an on-going CBBC education project. West Side Story also features as part of the Romeo & Juliet theme. Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-83) receives a London premiere under the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra enjoy back-to-back concerts on 24 August; they’re joined by pianist Gabriela Montero in the early evening and by their Jazz cohort for a late night session of Brazilian Popular Music, all under their principal conductor Marin Alsop. From Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel returns with the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra for a Sunday matinée Prom, part of the ‘Classical for starters’ series.
The daily Proms Extra pre-concert events include sessions for young composers, late-night alternative music and poetry readings, composers in conversation, talks on Shakespeare, Charlotte Brontë, and Capability Brown, ‘come and sing’ events, and, new to 2016, showings of archive films and documentaries featuring artists such as pianist Myra Hess and conductor Bernard Haitink. If you’re travelling to London specially for a concert, you’re likely to arrive in good time; these events are free and held in the Imperial College Union just down the street.
Ahead of the Last Night, the last pre-concert event celebrates the centenary of Parry’s Jerusalem, a piece almost as closely associated with the Proms as with the WI. The 2016 season, despite its diversity, isn’t without classics: Verdi’s Requiem, Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven’s 5th Symphonies, Bruch’s Violin Concerto, and more. Classical normality is as much a part of diversity as Steve Reich performed in multi-storey car park in Peckham (3 September). There’s a smattering of music from living composers aside from those commissioned: Wolfgang Rihm’s Gejagte Form opens a concert given by the Aurora Orchestra, who are repeating their 2014 trick of performing a Mozart Symphony (no.41 this year) from memory. A concert in Camden’s Roundhouse is dedicated to music by Harrison Birtwistle, Ligeti, and Georg Friedrich Haas, whose opera ATTHIS was performed at Covent Garden last year. The season also marks 100 years since the birth of Henri Dutilleux with performances of four large works (including The Shadows of Time, a sombre reflection on the Second World War) spaced across the season for maximum effect.
2016 also sees the 150th anniversary of Erik Satie’s birth, celebrated in a suitably cabaret-style Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall, which hosts lunchtime concerts every Monday during the season. Two Late-Night Proms mark the passing of Pierre Boulez (2 September) and David Bowie (29 July), which will draw a vast Proms-début crowd and, I hope, atmosphere-transforming lighting and spectacle. The 2015 season was notable for welcoming a number of new audiences through concerts hosted by each of the BBC Radio networks (the beer-infused Radio 1X Prom was a particular highlight); but this year sees the immediate loss of such effective audience nets. However, other alternative late-night highlights include Quincy Jones, a Gospel Prom, Duke Ellington (Such Sweet Thunder, his tribute to the Bard), Jamie Cullum (at the Roundhouse), Strictly, and, as they’re listed in the brochure, ‘Sacred Choral Music’ (Bach and Pärt) and ‘Handel and Leopold Stokowski’. The late-night concerts are traditionally the place of the quirky, the outliers, and the non-classical, so I was initially surprised to see Choral and Baroque music sidelined to the fringe stage. But this is actually the perfect place for them; and if you’ve never been to a late-night prom, you’re missing the jewel in the crown.
I was surprised not to find any reference to the ongoing anniversary of the First World War. July 2016 marks 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, which took the lives of British composers including Cecile Cole, F. S. Kelly and George Butterworth (although Kelly and Butterworth were commemorated in the 2014 season). Throughout the war, the Proms was a bastion of unifying internationalism, vowing that the show must go on with Germanic music remaining at the heart of the seasons: ‘the greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable by the prejudices and passions of the hour’, said Henry Wood. This year there are over 25 pieces of Russian music; is this a subtle attempt to heal the wounds of recent animosity by cultural means? Two Russian works frame Elgar at the opening night; and Proms 31 and 50 are entirely Russian. With 25 pieces across the season, that makes roughly 10% of the entire programming Russian – is this a coincidence? Of course there’s plenty of Germanic Classical and Romantic music (4 Mahler symphonies, 4 Beethoven symphonies, 4 Bruckner symphonies); but this music doesn’t carry any contemporary baggage.
My own highlights include Bruckner and Bach (30 August), an imaginative pairing of two devout composers; a pair of concerts including music by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Helen Grime (5 & 7 August), with her Two Eardley Pictures split between the two; and Christian Thielemann, Music Director of the Bayreuth Festival and Principal Conductor of the Staatskapelle, making his Proms début performing two concerts with orchestra back-to-back (7-8 August). The 2016 Proms season is a subtle but rich season which seems likely to live up to its epithet as ‘the world’s greatest classical music festival’.
Phil Barrett is a classical-music journalist
and radio professional, working in London.
He blogs at philbarrettlistens.wordpress.com