I bet you never thought you’d hear the Stranglers at the Proms. Or Frank Zappa. But this Proms season is full of surprises. The longest-surviving punk rock band are appearing alongside the London Sinfonietta at the 6 Music Prom on Monday 12 August (Prom 40). Introduced by 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq and Radio 3’s Tom Service, the line-up also includes singers Laura Marling and Cerys Matthews, and features music by Varèse, Berio and John Adams.
Frank Zappa’s counter-culture satire The Adventures of Greggery Peccary gets a late-night airing on Wednesday 31 July (Prom 25) alongside a zany piece by Conlon Nancarrow and the UK premiere of Philip Glass’s Symphony No 10. And there’s a collision of musical cultures in the Urban Classic Prom on Saturday 10 August when conductor Jules Buckley brings the BBC Symphony Orchestra together with urban vocal artists Fazer, Laura Mvula and Maverick Sabre.
In the more mainstream repertoire, bicentenary composers Wagner and Verdi figure prominently this year. For the first time at the Proms there is a complete Ring cycle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and a generous helping of Verdi’s operatic arias sung by Joseph Calleja. Works by Britten and Lutoslawski, both born 100 years ago, are threaded throughout the season, and there’s a focus on rarely performed piano concertos. All six of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies get a hearing and, as always at the Proms, there is a wealth of new works by such composers as Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès, John McCabe and Frederic Rzewski. Some of the most exciting young performers around today will be on display (trumpeters Tine Thing Helseth and Alison Balsom, violinists Joshua Bell and Janine Jansen among others) and visiting orchestras include the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
All the concerts are broadcast live on Radio 3 and via bbc.co.uk/radio3 and are available on “listen again” for seven days after broadcast at bbc.co.uk/proms. There are also broadcasts this year on Radio 1, 1Xtra, Radio 2, 4 Extra, 6 Music and Asian Network with many concerts televised live or later on BBC1, BBC2, BBC 3 and BBC4 throughout the season. Each Prom is a unique musical event and different concerts will interest some people more than others. But for me the following eight Proms really stand out:
1. Prom 13: 7.30pm Sunday 21 July
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev brings the newly formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America to the Proms, hotfoot from their first concerts in Washington DC, Moscow and St Petersburg. Given the high standard of music tuition in the US the quality of playing is sure to be exceptionally fine but perhaps more than anything else it will be the disciplined energy of this orchestra that promises an extraordinary evening. The amazing Joshua Bell is the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and there is also a new work by American rising star Sean Shepherd and a performance of Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony No 10 to finish. But I’d be very surprised if there were not a few American lollipops and firecrackers to follow as encores.
2. Prom 15: 5.00pm Tuesday 23 July
The really big event of this season is the first ever Proms Ring cycle with Daniel Barenboim conducting his Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra in Wagner’s four music dramas (all sung in German), beginning with Das Rheingold on Monday 22 July and continuing here with Die Walküre, starring Bryn Terfel as the mighty Wotan and Nina Stemme as his warrior-maiden daughter Brünnhilde. Walküre opens with a violent storm and contains some of Wagner’s most passionate and stirring music, including the famous Ride of the Valkyries. The cycle continues with Siegfried on Friday 26 July and concludes with Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) on Sunday 28 July. And if all this is not enough to satisfy your Wagnerian appetites, there are also complete performances of Tristan und Isolde (Saturday 27 July, BBCSO/Semyon Bychkov), Tannhäuser (Sunday 4 August, BBCSSO/Donald Runnicles) and Parsifal (Sunday 25 August, Hallé/Mark Elder) elsewhere in the season.
3. Prom 33: 7.00pm Thursday 8 August
Japanese-born but naturalised British citizen Mitsuko Uchida is one of the finest pianists of our time. She is an acclaimed interpreter of both the classical and modern repertoire and will be at her very best in this Prom in a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 in G, with its magical slow movement. Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the first of their two Proms this year (a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 follows on Friday 9 August) and concludes this concert with Berlioz’s romantic and dreamlike Symphonie fantastique.
4. Prom 34: 10.15pm Thursday 8 August
Twenty-four years on from his acclaimed recording of these visionary concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, that Peter Pan of the violin Nigel Kennedy returns in a late-night Prom to play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Palestine Strings from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, alongside members of his own Orchestra of Life. Last year Kennedy played an exquisite programme of Bach’s solo violin works and he is well known for his performances of jazz and, more recently, klezmer. He’s a performer who can be relied upon to surprise and astonish, and he performs the Vivaldi concertos in this concert with his own improvised links in between.
5. Prom 52: 7.30pm Wednesday 21 August
This for me is the ideal Prom concert: a mixture of old and new music with a dazzling soloist performing one of the cornerstones of the repertoire. The new work is a BBC commission from Param Vir, Cave of Luminous Mind, and is inspired by Tibetan Buddhism and the life of the yogi Milarepa; the old works are Elgar’s Enigma variations, Granville Bantock’s rarely performed Celtic Symphony, and Sibelius’s brilliant Violin Concerto played here by the outstanding young Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili. A marvellous performance is guaranteed.
6. Prom 53: 7.00pm Thursday 22 August
There’s no Strauss Four Last Songs at the Proms this year but for those of you who love to hear a great soprano in the big Romantic repertoire this is the concert for you – Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, sung by the charismatic Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. The song cycle, a musical foretaste of Tristan und Isolde, was the fruit of a possible affair between the composer and his patron’s wife, Mathilde Wesendonck, who wrote the words. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts another of this year’s visiting orchestras, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, in the Wagner, along with Tchaikovsky’s passionate Romeo and Juliet overture and Prokofiev’s energetic Symphony No 5.
7. Prom 59: 7.30pm Monday 26 August
John Wilson and his orchestra return to the Albert Hall for the Hollywood Rhapsody Prom, a celebration of some of the great movie scores by the likes of Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman, including suites from Korngold’s swashbuckling Robin Hood, Steiner’s romantic Casablanca and Waxman’s A Place in the Sun. Wilson says of his players: “It’s a symphony orchestra with a an old-fashioned dance band in the middle. We’ll need it here to go from those rich idioms of Richard Strauss and French Impressionism to American hot jazz.” If their previous Proms are anything to go by, this will be a glittering and glamorous evening of music from the movies played by some of the best in the business.
8. Prom 72: 7.00pm Thursday 5 September
The Maltese tenor and Proms favourite Joseph Calleja is steeped in the style of the great Italian tenors of the golden age – men like Allesandro Bonci and Tito Schipa. In this concert he brings this rich tradition to arias from Verdi’s Attila, Simon Boccanegra and Luisa Miller, and the famous La donna è mobile from Rigoletto. But I don’t think the audience will be content to let him get away without an encore or two. Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang leads the reassuringly named Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi through Verdi’s operatic highlights, including several overtures and orchestral favourites. After the interval, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred symphony, based on the poem by Byron. This work, though unnumbered, is effectively a seventh symphony, composed between Nos 4 and 5, and completes the cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies running through this year’s Proms.
And that’s almost it for another year. On the last Friday (Prom 74: 7.30pm 6 September) the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Lorin Maazel play Bruckner’s cathedral-like Symphony No 8, and the following day Marin Alsop becomes the first female conductor to preside over the Last Night of the Proms, with mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato and violinist Nigel Kennedy the star soloists. The festivities will, as usual, be televised live on BBC1 and 2, and can also be heard, like every one of this year’s Proms, live on Radio 3.
See the first night of the Proms 2013, Friday, BBC2, 8:00pm