What with all the talk of cuts, and the Proms being a show case for the BBC house ensembles, I imagine this year’s season might be a time for each to put their best foot forward. I imagine, in fact, that there must be some talk in rooms that used to be smoke-filled of scrapping one or two of them. In total they are: the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Between them these groups will appear in 37 concerts, which is almost exactly half the total of 76, not counting the Proms Saturday Matinees (add 5) or the Proms Chamber Music Series (add 8).
Cheap labour? Well, certainly the cost of staging the Proms would shoot up if these in-house ensembles had to be bought in specially. But that makes it sound as though they are second best, which across the board is not the case. They may not be the Berlin Philharmonic every night but then I don’t suppose the Berlin Philharmonic is, and anyway, costs having been kept down, the BBC can afford to have the Berlin Philharmonic as well (3rd and 4th September). Perhaps the clue to having such a big, internationally significant festival is that the modesty of the costs on one half of it means that the other half can be afforded. The danger in most such situations would be that the cheap half would let down the expensive half but, I repeat, this doesn’t happen at the Proms. The foreign orchestras may seem more glamorous, but the hall can be just as full for the BBC orchestras.
Looking at that list of BBC ensembles I’m struck by the deep imbalance between players and singers. Since the BBC Singers must be one of the groups whose future is going to have to be fought especially hard for, I wonder why it is still thought desirable to maintain hundred-piece orchestras all over the country, and not professional choirs. Because the public only turns out for orchestral music? Not in my experience. Because there is more and better repertoire for orchestras? Not true. Because orchestras maintain higher standards? No again; and while I’m on the subject, although the BBC Singers are expected to sing music which comes from six centuries-worth of writing as opposed to the orchestras’ two – it used to be three but they were booted off most of the 18th century by the early music bands – they do all of it as well as anyone, and the modern repertoire they do better than any other choir in the world. It is worth noticing that unaccompanied choir has become one of the most popular mediums for contemporary composers. Everyone is trying their hand at it, and although the general public may not take much notice of it now, I wager that in 20 years time festivals like the Proms will be thick with it. Time and again the BBC Singers show that this burgeoning repertoire cannot be left to amateur choirs, however proficient. It is simply too difficult.
So far as I can tell not one of the concerts which hosts this year’s 31 commissions and premieres features a cappella singing, though some come close, with the Saturday Matinee on September 4th coming closest. This concert will have two world premieres (by Thea Musgrave and Gabriel Jackson) and a London premiere (by Brian Ferneyhough). It will also include music by Judith Weir, Bayan Northcott and Jonathan Harvey. The only gripe I have with this is that it is on stage at 3.00 on a Saturday afternoon in a back-up venue (the Cadogan Hall), instead of being a Really Important Event in the Albert Hall at 7.30. But my wager stands: in a few years time there will be such a concert at the Proms.
Two composers who are associated with the choral voice – Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan – are fully represented this year, though with orchestral works. Pärt’s 4th Symphony will receive its UK premiere on 20th August; Macmillan’s The Sacrifice on 6th September. Two more works by Pärt can be heard: his wonderful St John Passion (not quite a cappella), and his Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten both on 17th August, one in the early concert, the other in the late. Another name associated with singing is that of Hubert Parry who, for whatever reason, since it is not his anniversary, has a mini-fest this year. Five substantial pieces are on display: his Symphony No.5 (23rd July), the Symphonic Variations (5th September), the Elegy for Brahms (8th August), as well as those last-night stalwarts Blest Pair of Sirens and Jerusalem. Random thinking from Roger Wright, it seems, but excellent.
In fact, compared to the programming we have become used to (which could seem like a giant fugue with about 20 subjects all being relentlessly worked against each other all the time), there is a less contrived feel to the Proms this year. Paul Lewis will play all of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos. There will be a Bach Day (14th August); and an almost complete rerun of Henry Wood’s own last night in 1910 (on 5th September). The anniversaries’ drum is a lot more muted than last year – it had to be really – though Schumann is well represented with his four symphonies. The 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth doesn’t go unnoticed either, with six of his symphonies being performed, including the 8th (on the First Night, 16th July).
And then there is the anniversary of the publication of Monteverdi’s Vespers in 1610, which will be celebrated on the 10th September by John Eliot Gardiner (again). I hate to be churlish but when the Proms brochure claims that this performance will bring together ‘the assorted choral, vocal and orchestral splendours of what is now universally known as the Vespers of 1610’, it makes a typical and crucial mistake. The publication of 1610 actually opens with a six-voice mass a cappella, known as the Missa In illo tempore. Although this is said to be in the old style, Monteverdi created a unique idiom for it, with many thematic references to the modern style music which follows. Why was it not thought appropriate to include this masterpiece, as Monteverdi did? It could have been given as a late night Prom with the longer work earlier in the evening, making a neat package. Was it because it is unaccompanied, or because the great maestri disdain it (or are frightened of it)? I return to my wager.
This appears as the lead article in the Arts section of the Spectator dated 10th July.