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BBC Proms’ 125-Year-Old Run Continues Into 2020

July 3, 2020

With the arrival of July and facing summer and fall without live performances everywhere, a major COVID-cancellation concern is of a favorite summer festival, the BBC Proms. I followed it with delight for half of its glorious 125 years, at times in person, always on the air, the main concerts in the evening on Radio BBC Three and TV BBC Four there, in the morning here, Pacific time.

Obviously, there will be no 5,000 people squeezed into Royal Albert Hall, but can the oldest and greatest radio-distance festival just pop a mask on and persist?

While dealing with the difficulties of the situation, the Proms office gave notice of its intention before today’s announcement: “From Friday 28 August our ambition is to have musicians performing live at the Royal Albert Hall across the final two weeks of the season, culminating in a poignant and unique Last Night of the Proms celebration to bring the nation together. “

That remains the plan in the program released today: the first six weeks, from July 17 on, mostly of archived concerts, and then those two weeks “normally” from the Royal Albert Hall ... if all goes well.

The season opens spectacularly with the debut performance of the BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra, comprising over 350 musicians from the BBC orchestras and choirs. Joining ‘Beethoven Unleashed’ — a year-long, BBC-wide marathon marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth — the Grand Virtual Orchestra will perform an original arrangement of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, created by Iain Farrington.

On July 19, the premiere of the film accompanying the piece will air on BBC Four. Farrington describes the work as “taking Beethoven’s music and putting it in a musical washing machine to see which colors run.”

Highlights from three Proms across the past 25 years follow on BBC Three, with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (Igor Levit, soloist; Edward Gardner conducting) from 2017’s First Night, and Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic which won instant notoriety at the Last Night of the 100th-anniversary Proms season, in 1995. The evening closes with Claudio Abbado’s final Proms performance, in 2007, leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson in Mahler’s Third Symphony.

The opening weekend continues on BBC Four on July 19, with Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla leading the City of Birmingham Symphony in a 2017 program of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Gerald Barry with violinist Leila Josefowicz and tenor Allan Clayton.

From Bernstein to Benedetti, Haitink to Hvorostovsky, Mackerras to the Kanneh-Masons, musical greats from the past and the present are brought together in the Proms season. Live performances include Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Simon Rattle, Anoushka Shankar and Mitsuko Uchida.

Archived gems include:

— A 1987 performance of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a program of Mozart and Mahler;

— A 2000 appearance of soprano Jessye Norman with the London Sinfonietta, presenting the UK premiere of Judith Weir’s woman.life.song and the Proms premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Brettl Lieder;

— Daniel Barenboim leading the ensembles he has nurtured and brought to international acclaim: the Staatskapelle Berlin in Wagner’s Die Walküre with Bryn Terfel, Nina Stemme, and Simon O’Neill; and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra with Martha Argerich from 2016, presenting Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and an all-Wagner second half;

— Bernard Haitink conducting Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House  in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

The plan for live performances from Royal Albert Hall in August is to begin with an opening night conducted by BBC Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo; and close with Last Night at the Proms, led by Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, and featuring South African soprano Golda Schultz.

“In challenging times,” says the announcement, “the BBC Proms aims to shine a beacon of hope with its mix of seminal moments from Proms history alongside live performances from the Royal Albert Hall. The season will bring a summer of music to celebrate a wealth of talent, genres, and styles, creating a line-up which brings together legendary performers from the past through its unrivalled archive, with a diverse line-up of the biggest stars of the present and future.”

More from the archived list: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly; Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink; Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle; and soloists Alfred Brendel, Dame Sarah Connolly, Renée Fleming, Maria Friedman, Janine Jansen, Evgeny Kissin, Murray Perahia, and Andreas Scholl.

BBC Proms Director David Pickard said: “The 2020 Proms will be a season unlike any other. Music can be a powerful friend in difficult times and Sir Henry Wood’s mission — to bring the best of classical music to the widest possible audience, ‘making its beneficent effect universal’ — is more important now than it has ever been.

“Over the eight-week season we are proud to celebrate the BBC’s guardianship of the festival as well as its continued support for live music.”

New music, always central to the Proms, is represented by commissioned works from Thomas Adès, Andrea Tarrodi, and others. There will be also the debut of the BME Chineke! Orchestra, the first professional orchestra in Europe to be made up of majority black and minority ethnic (BME) musicians.

The full schedule of artists and program will be announced nearer the time of the performances “to allow for utmost flexibility in responding to the safety guidelines at the time.”

Good news for the tardy (or busy): Unlike the usual 30-day catch-up for each concert, the season will remain online on both BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer for 30 days after the Last Night on Sept. 12.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].

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