There is no grand theme to this year’s Proms, no special marking of a composer’s birth or death. Thank heavens for thatby Martin Kettle / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Royal Albert Hall: where better for Mahler’s eighth? Look for a unifying theme in the 2010 BBC Proms season, which starts in July, and you will struggle to find one. Some concertgoers see this as a sign it may have lost its way since Roger Wright took over as director from Nick Kenyon. I disagree. Naturally, the season has some unifying elements. Yet they do not dominate as they have in the past. Wright has doffed his cap to the Schumann and, more perfunctorily, the Chopin bicentenaries. Paul Lewis will play the Beethoven piano concertos at various points in the season—though Beethoven’s own piano version of the violin concerto is not included, surely a missed opportunity. And that’s about it as far as themes go. To some, this makes the 89 concerts that make up the 2010 Proms a bit aimless. My view is that it is all to the good. If the absence of themes means the overthrow of the tyranny of anniversaries, then bring it on. Many concert planners fall back on notable dates to give an appearance of cohesion to their work. But the gains are often elusive, especially over a long season like the Proms, which runs every night for nearly two months. If a concert planner wants to highlight a composer or an anniversary, then intensiveness is the answer. Take a cue from the BBC, with its “total immersion” concert weekends devoted to living composers, most recently Wolfgang Rihm and Hans Werner Henze. (Wright is also controller of BBC Radio 3.) Or follow the example of Daniel Barenboim, who played the Beethoven concertos over back-to-back evenings at the Southbank Centre in January. The Capuçon brothers did much the same with their Wigmore Hall Brahms series a few weeks later. The great thing about Barenboim’s hugely admired Beethoven sonata series in London in 2008 was that he gave the 32 sonatas if not on consecutive evenings then within a concentrated period. That way, the whole became more than the sum of the individual performances. That was not true, whatever the rewards of the individual concerts, of the Takács Quartet’s cycle of Beethoven quartets in the current Southbank season, which started back in November and only finished in May. This is also my one serious reservation about Wright’s approach this year at the Proms. I would certainly try to buy tickets to Lewis’s Beethoven cycle, for example, if he was playing the concertos during one week—or even a weekend. But the performances straggle out over four evenings from 21st July to 6th September. Few people will get any sense of intensiveness from that. The rest of us have complicated lives to lead. We will dip in when we can. Yet the curious thing is that this apparently haphazard approach to scheduling does not mean that the 2010 Proms season lacks a coherent approach. Rather, Wright is offering a season that makes a virtue, even glories in, its own incompleteness and eclecticism. Take the first three concerts. Each one offers a special musical experience: Mahler’s eighth symphony in a building (the Royal Albert Hall) that might have been designed for the purpose; the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel in a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger; then, finally, a second opera, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Plácido Domingo, no less, in the title role. Quite an opening weekend. One can quibble about the weightiness of this opening programming, about two operas in the first three nights, about the fact that these are all large, late romantic works, or about the absence of early and modern music. But it is hard to argue that there is any coherent theming. Almost certainly, it was a question of fitting in with Terfel’s and Domingo’s diaries. More importantly, as you scan the later schedule, any bias is emphatically corrected. After the third night, there is only one more opera in the entire season, while the early music, light music and chamber music all get plenty of space, to say nothing of 31 new commissions and premières. It would be unfair to say that Wright has simply thrown all the musical cards in the air and allowed them to fall where they may. But even if that was the case it would be no bad thing. The point about the Proms is that it is a vibrant musical marketplace, a festival where the theme is not the expected musical pieties but the unexpected musical discoveries. Of course, the core is and must be western classical music and the chance to hear some peerless performers in their prime. It is no wonder that more than 80,000 tickets were sold on the first day of booking in early May. But this year’s rich unstructured Proms are also proof that Wright has come up with the right approach: something that will allow neither audiences nor critics to fall back on the fallacies of simple, single narratives.