The Proms has always been a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar and the 2015 season is no exception. While still essentially a “classical” music event, there are concerts devoted to music for children in the Ten Pieces project, urban music from hip-hop to grime in a late-night Radio 1Xtra Prom, and a good dollop of music from stage and screen.
In the mainstream there are 32 new works this year, beginning with Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville on the First Night (Friday 17 July), with a new piece from Eleanor Alberga kicking off the party atmosphere on the Last Night (Saturday 12 September). Several concerts pay tribute to that enfant terrible of modern music, Pierre Boulez, who is 90 this year, with more of his works performed than Haydn and Handel combined (though fewer than Bach, Mozart or Beethoven). If you’re not familiar with the haunting and complex musical world of Boulez there’s no better place to start than here.
For completists there is a concert made over entirely to Prokofiev’s five piano concertos (Tuesday 28 July), Leif Ove Andsnes performs and directs all five Beethoven concertos from the keyboard with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra over three nights (Thursday 23 July, Friday 24 July and Sunday 26 July), Alina Ibragimova plays all of Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas in two late-night Proms on consecutive nights (Friday 31 August and Saturday 1 August), and pianist Andras Schiff plays Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations in another late-night Prom (Saturday 22 August). All the concerts are broadcast live on Radio 3 and are available on “listen again” for 30 days after broadcast at bbc.co.uk/proms.
This year, for the first time, main Proms concerts will be available online in surround sound. There are also broadcasts on Radio 1Xtra, Radio 2, Radio 4, 6 Music and Asian Network. The First and Last Nights are televised live on BBC1 and BBC2, and many concerts throughout the season are also recorded for later broadcast on BBC4. Each Prom is a unique musical event and different concerts will interest some people more than others. But for me the following six Proms really stand out...
Prom 9 – 7.30pm Thursday 23 July
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There is something magical about hearing a piano concerto played in the Royal Albert Hall, dear old dinosaur that it is. The sound of the solo piano floats on the air even in the most delicate pianissimos, reaching every part of the auditorium, and the Beethoven concertos have been played here so often over the years they must have soaked into the Victorian brickwork. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes begins his complete Proms cycle with Nos 1 and 4, the wonderful G major concerto with its enchanting “Beauty and the Beast” slow movement. He follows up with No 3 and the Choral Fantasia on Friday night and finishes with Nos 2 and 5, the mighty Emperor, on Sunday. Each programme also contains a work by Stravinsky. A good opportunity to try out Radio 3’s surround sound online.
Prom 25 – 7.30pm Tuesday 4 August
Monteverdi’s Orfeo is generally regarded as the first great opera and was first performed at the court of Mantua in 1607. It tells the heartbreaking story of Orpheus and his tragically unsuccessful attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the Underworld. John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists have reinvented authentic performance over many years and there’s no better team to play this beautiful and passionate music. Every member of the orchestra is a star in their own right in the field of period instruments and the vocal soloists are some of the finest and most promising Europe has to offer. A dream team.
Prom 30 – 10.15pm Friday 7 August
The John Wilson Orchestra are a firm Proms favourite. In recent years John Wilson and his high-octane ensemble have performed Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady at the Proms and a memorable night of music from Hollywood, ranging from the dawn of the talkies to the 1960s. In the first of their two appearances this year they pay tribute to that great vocalist, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. They’re joined by the multi-talented Seth MacFarlane, and viewers of his TV series Family Guy will know that he’s a big Sinatra fan whose own performances catch something of the swagger of his hero. He’s here on his vocal merits alone as the best man for the job. You can catch the John Wilson Orchestra again later in the season when they devote an evening to the music of Leonard Bernstein, including songs from West Side Story and On the Town (Saturday 5 September).
Prom 55 – 7.30 Wednesday 26 August
The title of Pierre Boulez’s “. . . explosante fixe . . .” comes from André Breton’s L’amour fou (Crazy Love) – “Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magical-circumstantial, or it will not be at all.” And who says modern music has no heart? The work, which started life as a memorial for Stravinsky, has been through many incarnations and the version played here is for solo flute, ensemble and electronics. The French flautist Sophie Cherrier is undoubtedly the finest exponent of this scintillating and complex piece and has performed it previously with tonight’s conductor, François-Xavier Roth and with the composer himself. Ligeti’s Lontano and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra complete the programme.
Prom 57 – 7.30pm Friday 28 August
This is very much a traditional old-style Proms concert comprising overture, concerto and symphony, but what a musical treat this one will be. Maestro Bernard Haitink conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Schubert’s overture In the Italian Style and, after the interval, the same composer’s Symphony No 9 in C, nicknamed the Great. In between, one of the world’s greatest Mozart interpreters, the pianist Maria João Pires, is the soloist in the late Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K488, with its sublime slow movement in F sharp minor. Unmissable.
Prom 60 – 7.30pm Sunday 30 August
A rare visit by the San Francisco Symphony under their famous conductor Michael Tilson Thomas promises something extra special. In 2000 I was at their Proms debut concert with a friend. We’d come to listen to a couple of the works in the first half and debated whether or not to stay on for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring after the interval, a work that we’d both heard many times before, often done to death (though not in the dramatic and exhilarating way the composer intended).
Thank goodness we decided to stay because we then witnessed one of the greatest ever performances in modern times – the atmosphere was electric from start to finish. Superb.
This time around they’re bringing works by Schoenberg, Henry Cowell and Mahler. The Cowell piano concerto is an extraordinary work that requires the piano soloist to pound the keyboard with his fists and forearms. At the last performance I saw, the soloist made a great show of donning a pair of thin leather gloves to protect his precious hands (or perhaps to keep blood off the Steinway). And if Tilson Thomas and his orchestra can do for Mahler’s First Symphony what they did for Stravinsky’s Rite 15 years ago, it will be well worth turning up after the interval.
And that’s about it for another year. Marin Alsop returns to conduct the Last Night party, with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, soprano Danielle de Niese and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as this year’s festive soloists. The concert 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. On the same night there are Proms in the Park events in London (live on Radio 2), Belfast, Glasgow and Swansea.
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