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The Proms: a treasure trove of music for everyone to savour

Simon Behrman picks out the highlights of the 2007 BBC Proms orchestral music season

Issue No. 2059

György Ligeti

György Ligeti

The BBC Proms each summer offers a treasure trove of great (and sometimes rarely played) music performed by the cream of today’s musicians – with ticket prices lower than the cinema.

If you happen to be in London anytime between 13 July and 8 September, make sure you book a ticket. This year’s line-up promises to be the most interesting in years with more emphasis on modern music and music from genres other than classical than in recent Proms.

Part of what makes the Proms a truly refreshing event is the diversity and youth of the audience in comparison with most classical concert audiences.

It is one of the few occasions when the audience moves to the music and responds with genuine enthusiasm (or not, as the case may be...) instead of the polite ritual that characterises most classical concerts.

Shockingly, last year the Proms did not include a single female composer. This year things have improved, with the music of Judith Weir, Thea Musgrave, Judith Bingham and Elizabeth Maconchy. All of these composers share a thoroughly modernist outlook and their music has real bite.


Last year the great Hungarian composer György Ligeti died. You can catch a performance of his haunting masterpiece Atmospheres, which featured as part of the soundtrack to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Staying with contemporary music there is a rare performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia composed in the late 1960s. This is definitely worth getting to see – it is a homage to Martin Luther King and the radical spirit of his times set against a dazzling collage of musical quotations from Beethoven to Mahler to Stravinsky and beyond.

The avant garde British composer Harrison Birtwistle has two pieces at the Proms. One is a musical setting of some poems by the left wing Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The other is called Panic. It caused much booing at its Proms premiere ten years ago but has since become one of the more popular contemporary pieces.

Probably the greatest living composer, Pierre Boulez, is having a revised version of his chamber piece Derive 2 performed. This is a piece of relentless drive and energy.

The conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen, who will be taking over the Philharmonia Orchestra in London next year, is giving the European premiere of his Piano Concerto.

Still only in his 40s, Salonen’s music has been getting better and better in recent years and, if nothing else, this new work won’t be dull.

Encouragingly, the Proms seem to be opening up more to other genres of music besides classical. This year features a jazz night with Cleo Laine and John Dankworth.

Nitin Sawhney brings his blend of music of East and West to the Proms with a focus on the 60th anniversary of the partition of India and Pakistan.

As far as the great warhorses of the classical repertoire are concerned there are some real treats.

Daniel Barenboim, who wowed Proms audiences three years ago with his East-Western Divan Orchestra made up of both Arab and Israeli musicians, returns to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in the music of two of the greatest composers of the Viennese tradition, Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner.

Also Bernard Haitink will be conducting a performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, one of the most magnificent cathedrals of sound ever produced and just right for the Albert Hall’s acoustics.

Other highlights include a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. This piece evokes the composer’s fear of death and his horror at Viennese society heading towards its doom, written just before the First World War, is extremely powerful.


One of the rituals of the Proms is the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which includes the famous choral finale, the Ode to Joy.

Bizarrely, there are two separate performances of this piece this year.Perhaps this is to make up for the fact that last year’s performance was cancelled due to a small fire in the Albert Hall. Even so it seems to me to be excessive and a waste of valuable scheduling time.

Of the two I would recommend the performance on 30 August. The conductor is Mariss Jansons, who is one of the most dynamic of today’s leading conductors.

The Proms always likes to go in for anniversaries and this year there is a focus on Edward Elgar (born 150 years ago) and the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (died 50 years ago).

Two of Elgar’s most popular pieces, the Cello Concerto and the Enigma Variations are being performed. Of Sibelius’ works being presented, his Second Symphony represents the awakening of national consciousness in the Finnish people against Tsarist Russia. It is very beautiful and has one of the most thrilling finales in the symphonic literature.

Also featured is a series of music inspired by Shakespeare and the final part of Wagner’s mammoth Ring Cycle, Twilight of the Gods.

With over 70 concerts there is something to suit all tastes. My one recommendation for something to avoid at all costs is the orgy of sentimental nationalism that is the Last Night of the Proms.

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Tue 10 Jul 2007, 18:14 BST
Issue No. 2059
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