Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Celebrating Summer with the BBC Proms

How do I love summer? Let me count listening to the BBC Proms as one of the primary ways. The Proms is the largest classical musical festival in the world, and is named after the "Promenade Concerts" begun in the late 19th century (from Shakespeare's day forward, Britain has had a cult-like love affair with the foot of the stage - it is quite a vantage point for an audience member).

The Proms runs from mid July to early September and features the gamut of classical music. Long associated with the pioneering conductor Henry Wood (pictured below), the Proms continues his tradition of eclectic, innovative programming. He championed "premieres of no fewer than 716 works by 356 composers" during his 5 decade tenure from 1889 to 1944. An astounding and inspiring record. And a provocative one, given the historic period under consideration. What will our record show, I wonder?

You can read more about these daily concerts featuring some of the greatest musicians and ensembles from around the world online:

Better yet, you can listen to every Prom live from the BBC site (GMT is 5 hours ahead of EST, so the 7:30 pm start times mean 2:30 pm matinees for East coast listeners). Each concert is archived for a week, which enables voracious listeners like myself to catch up on missed programmes, listen again to new (& / or unfamiliar) works, and spend time with old favorites.

On my mental shortlist of archived programs, I plan to listen to Prom 21, which features Strauss's great tone poem (based on Lord Byron's poem) Don Juan, Walton's Violin Concerto played by Midori, and Prokofiev's great cantata from his score for Eisenstein's epic Russian film, Alexander Nevsky. That Prom features the City of Birmingham SO led by their dynamic young conductor, Andris Nelsons.

I want to listen again to last Sunday's "Choral Prom" featuring Rachmaninov. Gianandrea Noseda - an Italian conductor with major posts in Britain and Russia (and one of the MET conductors our own Steven White has assisted and covered) led the BBC Philharmonic in a program that culminated in Rachmaninov's favorite among his own works, the 1915 cantata The Bells.

This musical "poem" for chorus, soloists & orchestra is a colorful series of 4 symphonic-inspired movements evoking the four types of bells in Edgar Allen Poe's "tintinabulation" of a poem. The "Silver bells" of winter, the "Golden bells" of marriage, the brass bells of "loud alarum" and the "Iron bells" not only inspire metaphoric associations and fantasies, but parallel the mythic "Ages of Humanity." (And that easily missed echo is an important interpretive consideration where Poe- and poetry in general - is concerned, those mythic resonances that help us moderns restore continuity across history and culture. Alas, a vast & vital topic, but I digress...)

Let's get back to that shortlist of archived concerts (all of which include the insightful commentary of the BBC journalists and the enlightening, entertaining intermission features). At the top is Prom 23: Liszt's great Dante Symphony (also featuring Noseda and the BBC Phil, joined by the women of the CBSO Chorus).

I just listened to one of 12 different concerts the BBC SO is giving this summer (there are 74 different Proms concerts in all), led by the brilliant composer and conductor Oliver Knussen. One of Benjamin Britten's young protege's, Ollie is a force of nature (my summers as a Britten-Pears young artist in Aldeburgh and Snape were among the greatest experiences of my life, not least because of the opportunities to work - or at least rub elbows - with the likes of Knussen, Sir Charles Mackerras, Elisabeth Soderstrom and among many others, Robert Tear).

He led an eclectic program of 20th-century music starting with two short tone poems by the swiss composer Arthur Honegger. Pacific 231 might be the greatest piece of classical music inspired by the railroad (and that could inspire another essay or program - songs, poems, tales & stories inspired by train travel...and a great topic in a rail town such as Roanoke, no?)

The concert featured a beautiful and typically evocative work of Britten's teacher Frank Bridge, one of the impressionist - minded composers under the Proms' 2011 programming umbrella focusing on French music and its influences. The concert concluded with the prototypical work of musical impressionism, Debussy's set of 3 symphonic sketches of the sea, La Mer.

Knussen prefaced it with the Proms premiere of a fascinating work by the Italian composer Niccolo Castiglioni. Inverno in-ver ("Winter, in truth" would be one translation of the title's play on words). This wild, often witty series of short musical poems on winter evokes Vivaldi & the Venetian baroque, Alpine landscapes and the Winterreise's of romantic artists of many ages. The final movement is a play on words and a nose-thumbing to the enforced dissonance that paralyzed so much academic, abstract music in the post-WWII generation of modern composers - of which Castiglioni (1932-1996) was one.

Its epigrammatic title is Il rumore non fa bene. Il bene non fa rumore ("Noise does no good. Good makes no noise"). This inspired 20-minute fantasia reminded me of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and the aforementioned Rachmaninov setting of Poe. Castiglioni's 11 miniatures inspired many associations, including - but not limited to - the particular sound-world formed from the fascinating blend of Northern European intellectualism with the sensual lyricism of the Mediterranean world, like the North Sea meeting the warm Adriatic Sun, or Apollo joining Dionysus...

This weekend the two season-long celebration of Gustav Mahler continues with performances of his beloved 2nd Symphony (the "Resurrection") on Friday with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. One of the bright young stars of British music, Edward Gardner leads the busy BBC SO & the BBC Singers in the next Proms "Choral Sunday" featuring Mahler's rarely heard early cantata, Das Klagende Lied (The Song of Lament).

Two elemental works by a musical colossus. Speaking of the elements, I think one sometimes can fight fire with fire. I can't imagine a better way to beat the summer's heat than with the white-hot variety that is felt & experienced through great live music.

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