This week sees the publication of two items that will probably shape my summer – Wisden 2009 and the Proms 2009 prospectus. I haven’t picked up my Wisden yet (it’s officially published tomorrow), but I did get a Proms prospectus whilst I was in London this evening visiting the BBC Radio Theatre for a recording (about which more anon).
I used to be a frequent visitor to the Royal Albert Hall during the summer. It all started when I was doing school holiday work at our local record shop. One of the regular customers, with whom the shop owner and I became good friends, knew the Box Office Manager at the RAH. If I wanted to go to a Prom, our friend would phone in on the day and see if we could get a pass – no charge – to sit in one of the otherwise unused private boxes. Hence, without overindulging the generosity of anyone involved, I got to see about 30 concerts every year. For obvious reasons, the Box Office Manager wanted nothing for this ‘service’, but we always gave a large bouquet of flowers to his secretary at the end of each season!
Sadly, our friend passed away a few years later, but by then I was working full time and could indulge my interests by paying for the tickets I wanted. I was never a regular ‘prommer’ (the audience who buy standing tickets rather than seats) – being 5ft 7in, I found it difficult to see from the arena, and in those days, with no lifts up to the gallery, I was too lazy to climb all those stairs! I do remember a particularly weird evening when I did prom for Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony – there was a huge downpour during the performance and the roof started leaking. The staff started bringing in towels and buckets, and the drips were no doubt a terrible distraction in the hall and at home to radio listeners.
My circumstances (and financial priorities) changed some years back, so there have been a few seasons recently when I haven’t been to a single concert, but the arrival of the prospectus is always a moment of intense anticipation. This year’s programme is, on first glance, rather good! Indulge me if I run through some personal highlights…
The First Night (17th July) is a cracker this year, with a clutch of my favourites including Chabrier’s Ode à la Musique (Proms première), Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with the Labeque Sisters, Elgar’s In the South and Bruckner’s rarely-heard Psalm 150. Handel obviously features heavily in his anniversary year (likewise Purcell, Haydn and Mendelssohn) and Partenope in Prom 4 (19/7) would be a ‘must see’ for me, particularly with Andreas Scholl in the cast, were it not for the fact that I have a concert engagement that day – grrr! Having just played Mahler 9, I must go to hear the LSO doing it with Haitink in Prom 5 (20/7), and Glyndebourne’s Purcell Fairy Queen should be ripe entertainment in Prom 7 (21/7).
Some of you may know that the music of Gerald Finzi has been a lifelong interest. His music is rarely heard at the Proms: to be fair, the Royal Albert Hall is not the ideal venue for song cycles or works for small ensembles, but there are some larger-scale compositions that ought to find a place in the programme. The Grand Fantasia and Toccata (a kind of two-movement piano concerto) makes a welcome appearance in Prom 9 (23/7) – now, can we have For St.Cecilia at next year’s First Night please?
I enjoy the atmosphere at the ‘late-night’ Proms, and Prom 17 (28/7), with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under Gardiner performing Bach Motets, should be well worth a visit. Two nights later, there’s an enticing combination of Berlioz and Mendelssohn with Elder and the Hallé in Prom 19 (30/7), and then Prom 22 (1/8) should be a real hoot – a celebration of MGM Classic Film Musicals, with scores reconstructed by the conductor John Wilson. That’s one concert where it would be so right if the roof leaked!
Another work I had to play recently with Bromley Symphony Orchestra was Respighi’s Feste Romane, which gets its Prom première in Prom 31 (8/8): then the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion appears in Prom 33 (9/8) and one of my favourite G&S operas, Patience, in Prom 35 (11/8) – unfortunately, I’ll be away on holiday that week, so I’ll have to miss both. Luckily, I’ll be back in time for the The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s late-night Prom 45 (18/8), Handel’s Samson in Prom 47 (20/8) and Joyce DiDonato, the OAE and Roger Norrington doing the four Anniversary composers proud in Prom 53 (25/8).
Foreign orchestras can be a mixed blessing at the Proms. The repertoire they bring with them is sometimes rather more mainstream than would be ideal, but concerts like Dawn Upshaw doing Mahler 4 with Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle in Prom 59 (29/8), the Concertgebouw and Jansons playing Haydn 100 and Shostakovich 10 in Prom 62 (1/9) and Mendelssohn’s 1st Piano Concerto and Mahler 10 (the Cooke completion) played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Riccardo Chailly in Prom 69 (7/9) will be hard to resist (there’s also the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the Vienna Philharmonic – a tempting line-up). Add to all those a Massed-Voice Messiah in Prom 68 (6/9) (another one I’ll miss due to holiday commitments), and Malcolm Arnold’s wonderful Grand Grand Overture on the Last Night (12/9), and you get a fantastic final fortnight. It reminds me why I could never live anywhere other than London.
And another reason is attending recordings at Broadcasting House. Tonight I went to Laura Solon’s Talking and Not Talking. This is observational comedy at its best, and her characters are every bit as amusing as, say, Catherine Tate’s (whom I also admire greatly). When the programmes finally get an airing on Radio 4, do listen – I can’t believe Olga the Terrible won’t tickle your funny bone.