Reveling At The Proms: Music’s Bounty Savored In A Binge Of Concerts

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Simon Rattle at a curtain call after his Proms performance of the Mahler Second Symphony with the London Symphony and Chorus. (Photo by Chris Christodoulou)

LONDON — Not even a pandemic can silence the BBC Proms.

This self-styled “world’s greatest classical music festival,” which ran July 15 to Sept. 10, represented the first full Proms season since 2019, when Covid-19 locked down the summer-long event, save for a handful of “Covid-adapted” programs. I binged on a big sampling of the season – 14 concerts, out of 72 total Proms offerings – in the course of my three-week “residence” beginning in mid-August at Royal Albert Hall.

That gargantuan Victorian-era wedding cake of an auditorium, which holds 5,272, has hosted the bulk of festival events since 1941 — 14 years after the BBC took over the running of the Proms in 1927, five years into its existence. The hall itself is as much of a comforting tradition to veteran Promenaders as the Last Night at the Proms — the bitty, noisy, sometime silly, unabashedly patriotic musical potpourri that caps things off each season, literally with a bang.

(As this article was being prepared for publication, news arrived that this year’s Last Night at the Proms was canceled out of respect for the late Queen Elizabeth II.)

Klaus Mäkelä conducted the Oslo Philharmonic in works by Sibelius, Liszt, and Richard Strauss. (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Taking my seat in the stalls felt like a kind of homecoming. Since I first began attending the Proms in 1978, I have spent many a happy evening in this unique venue, where arena-level listeners patiently stand for the duration of each concert.

This year, which marked the BBC’s centenary, brought a conspicuous push to attract younger listeners (the season featured a first-ever Gaming Prom and celebrations of Aretha Franklin and sarod player Amjad Ali Khan), along with a typical Proms multiverse of music that included symphonic and choral concerts performed by major international orchestras and artists, BBC commissions, family programs with big screens, informal Relaxed Proms, new music encounters, world music, and jazz/pop nights, some of them spilling over into ancillary venues. Familiar music rubbed elbows with the lesser-known — the Beethoven Ninth with Ethel Smyth’s long-forgotten opera The Wreckers. Every Prom was broadcast live over BBC Radio 3, and many were televised on a delayed basis. Tickets were priced as low as 8.50 British pounds (just under $10).

As Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, put it in a welcoming essay in the program book, “This year we [wanted] audiences to feel intensely that the joy and communion of music-making is back.” Was it ever! 

Music-lovers have long sought out the Proms as a unique summer place for spotting extraordinary young talent on its way up; so let me begin with a report on the impressive appearances of two young Finnish firebrands who are creating a stir on important podiums throughout the world.  

Klaus Mäkelä, recently named artistic partner with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (he will become their chief conductor in 2027), brought his Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra for a program that looked standard in its components but yielded musical results that were anything but. Mäkelä, 26, is all music, and indeed one could all but see the score unfolding through clear gestures and a galvanic energy that coursed through the orchestra. His firm emotional connection with the music was as conspicuous as his pliant command of orchestral sound. His Sibelius (a gripping Tapiola) and Richard Strauss (a sweeping Ein Heldenleben) were boldly dramatic yet full of telling detail. Nothing was for show, and there was nothing ill-considered. What once felt like a rather provincial band delivered a Hero’s Life that would have done credit to many an orchestral world-beater. Even that well-worn Romantic war horse, Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, galloped anew under his baton, Mäkelä and friends lending additional fire to the charismatic pianism of soloist Yuja Wang.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Missy Mazzoli.

Two nights later brought the belated festival debut of his countryman Santtu-Matias Rouvali, concluding his first season as principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. His program, bookended by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev ballet music, held one in a series of important Proms premieres this summer — the first European performance of Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto (Procession), with its dedicatee, Jennifer Koh, as the deeply committed soloist.

The composer and violinist have joined forces on various projects for roughly a decade, and the five sections of Mazzoli’s 20-minute opus reflect the high degree of musical understanding that marks their collaboration.

Mazzoli casts the soloist as a combination soothsayer, sorcerer, and pied piper as she leads the orchestra through a series of interconnected “stations of the cross” inspired by medieval chant. A procession of penitents gives way to a “melting hymn” (Mazzoli’s words), which in turn leads to a spell to cure broken limbs and a joint ascent to paradise. Koh’s elegant virtuosity was directed inward, towards the mystical and spiritual, softened by lyrical gestures no less intense for being mainly serene of expression. The solo part finally asserts itself in cadenzas alive with furious sweeps of double and triple stops over glinting woodwinds and murmurous strings. At the end, the violin soars to ethereal nothingness before cutting off in mid-sentence: a mesmerizing close.

Rouvali and the orchestra made attentive partners in pilgrimage, and in fact the probing Finn drew fine playing from his recently acquired band throughout the program. His conducting favored firm rhythm, articulate phrasing, and heightened respect for what’s in the score. He knows his business, and he cuts a commanding, graceful figure on the podium.

One of the highlights of the Proms season was Simon Rattle’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (shown above), and soprano Louise Alder. (Photo by Chris Christodoulou)

I will withhold broader judgment until I hear these gifted, upwardly mobile Scandinavian musicians applying their skills to a wider repertoire. Meanwhile, keep your eyes and ears on Rouvali and Mäkelä alike.

Two of the summer’s hottest Proms tickets involved big choral works led by British baton superstars — Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection), with Simon Rattle leading his London Symphony Orchestra and augmented LSO Chorus; and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, with the combined choruses of the London Philharmonic and Hallé orchestras, along with the London Phil under Edward Gardner.

Mastery of Mahler’s grand rhetorical paragraphs, with their inexorable tensions and releases, has long been one of Rattle’s strong points as a Mahlerian, and so it was on this inspired occasion. This epic, visionary choral symphony was treated, without showiness, as a living, breathing testament of Christian spiritual rebirth through love. Fervor replaced bombast; Mahler’s detailed tempo and expressive markings were observed to a fault.

The opening funeral march, alive to the music’s wild mood swings, gave way to a laendler movement that struck the right note of folkish innocence. From there erupted a sinister scherzo that danced to the brink of the abyss, only to find solemn contrast in the spiritual affirmation of the “Urlicht,” sung with eloquence by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. Connolly and soprano Louise Alder led the massed choruses, orchestra, and offstage ensembles in a stirring march to the Last Judgment. The final peroration of onstage and offstage brass and percussion turned Albert Hall into the world’s grandest cathedral of sound.

If Rattle’s more objective Mahler lacked the fiercely powerful identification that distinguished chief conductor Kirill Petrenko’s Mahler Seventh Symphony with his Berlin Philharmonic the following week, it was an electric event, clamorously greeted by the assembled Prommers. 

Sakari Oramo was on the podium for a program of works by Turnage, Vaughan Williams, and Elgar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Chris Christodoulou)

Time Flies (2019), a U.K. premiere, brought a familiar face back to the festival, the prolific British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. His piece is a joint commission of BBC Radio 3, the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony, and Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, each of the three movements representing the home city of its commissioner. It’s great fun all the way through, from the rattly woodblocks punctuating the crunchy, pulsating rhythms of the opening section depicting London all a-bustle, through the stern chords intoned by trumpets and horns in the central “Hamburg Time,” to the riotous evocation of big-band jazz (a solo saxophone all but steals the show) in the “Tokyo” finale. This is one of the most adroitly crafted, most purely enjoyable works the prolific Brit has produced in recent years — ideal fare for a sophisticated summer festival — and it was done to a fare-thee-well by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its artistic chief, Sakari Oramo. Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, its visionary eloquence writ large on this occasion, closed the program.  

Vasily Petrenko, another upwardly mobile maestro completing his freshman season as music director of a London orchestra (in this case, the Royal Philharmonic), added more Prokofiev to the Proms mix with a work he could have been born to conduct, Prokofiev’s wartime masterpiece, the Fifth Symphony. This was a Fifth in the big, blazing Russian manner, its musical rhetoric bursting with glowering power, color, sweep, and drama. Petrenko linked each movement with attaccas, all the better to underscore the music’s inexorable forward thrust. The orchestra sounded fully invested in its chief’s inspired conception, and a couple of rough edges in their playing only added to the spontaneous effect.

Petrenko’s all-American first half with the RPO was a mixed bag. The tempos he chose for Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite never yielded more than an episodic effect, and you got the sense of a well-intentioned interpreter feeling his way through a musical idiom that is not as yet fully in his sensibility. George Walker’s Trombone Concerto (1957), one of two Proms pieces honoring the distinguished African American composer’s centenary, added an attractive if slight neoclassical novelty to the program, in a bravura solo reading by Peter Moore, principal trombone of the London Symphony. 

This was the year the Proms elected to celebrate in greater depth the music of Britain’s Ethel Smyth, whose longstanding neglect was rectified by the inclusion of her masterpiece, the opera The Wreckers (based on the 2022 Glyndebourne Opera production), and, in its Proms premiere, her Mass in D (1891, revised in 1924). A grand late-Victorian product of the composer’s short-lived conversion to Anglican faith, the hour-long setting of the Ordinary once was championed by Beecham and Boult but fell out of favor after the ’30s. Unjustly so, because there are fine pages (a radiant “Benedictus”), lifting the Mass beyond the empty pomp and circumstance of so much other musical Victoriana.

Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony performed two programs at the 2022 Proms.

Oramo clearly believes so, for he led his BBC Symphony and Chorus and an excellent vocal quartet in a fervent performance whose massed and massive choral sonorities well suited the cavernous hall. On the other end of the sonic spectrum was Debussy’s Nocturnes, its delicate chiaroscuro, exquisite woodwind detailing, and shimmering women’s chorus all finely controlled.

Both of Scotland’s leading orchestras, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony, were represented at this season’s Proms.

I caught the latter ensemble in a pair of back-to-back concerts under the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard that represented his swan song as their chief conductor; Carl Nielsen symphonies and Beethoven piano concertos were the common musical elements.

Dausgaard may have an unconventional podium manner (he rather deploys his entire body as a baton), but his close musical and personal connection with his players told in the blazing, idiomatic performances he elicited on behalf of Nielsen’s Symphonies Nos. 3 (Espansiva) and 4 (Inextinguishable). Unfortunately the physical layout created problems for the pair of wordless vocal soloists in the Third (whose voices failed to sound as from the prescribed vast distance) and dueling timpanists in the Fourth (awkwardly divided between stage and arena level). A highly elastic Ravel La Valse, complete with queasy portamentos in the strings, began as a gauzy dream and ended in nightmarish cataclysm. The opener, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, struck the right balance of frost and fire.

Of Dausgaard’s concerto soloists, I was more convinced by the crisp Classical refinement of pianist Behzod Abduraimov in Beethoven’s First Concerto than I was by the fluent but almost dainty self-communing of Jan Lisiecki (a late substitute for the indisposed Francesco Piemontesi) in the Fourth. Lisiecki is a most sensitive musician — give him that. His somewhat dandified way with the Beethoven Fourth, focused on the lower end of the dynamic range, was nothing if not curious, all lyrical delicacy of a sort that would have better suited Chopin. In the central movement, this Orpheus did not so much conquer the wild beasts as lull them into deepest slumber.

Surprises are almost inevitable whenever an orchestra plays the series for the first time. So it was when Marin Alsop brought her Vienna Radio Symphony to Albert Hall in mid-August. This youthful band cannot match Vienna’s elite Philharmonic in musical pedigree or silken virtuosity, but its respectable showing suggested that the players are settling in well with the American maestra, who has been their chief conductor since 2019.

Edward Gardner’s account of Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ featured the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and soloists, including tenor Allan Clayton, at left. (Photo by Chris Christodoulou)

For the Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Alsop ratcheted up Bartok’s creepy Expressionist atmosphere. For the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, her players dug in with a brilliance missing from Benjamin Grosvenor’s fastidious but tame traversal of the solo part. Heliosis (2021), a trivial bag of amiable tonal clichés by the young Viennese composer Hannah Eisendle, preceded a Dvořák Seventh Symphony that made all of its interpretive points with surefooted, idiomatic aplomb.

Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius may be rarely performed in the U.S., but it is virtually standard repertoire in the U.K., with its abundance of choral societies and where the composer’s masterpiece — part sacred oratorio, part cantata, though the composer refused to attach any label to it — has long been venerated like no other such work of musical art. In its unabridged form, it has lifted collective spirits at the Proms since 1957. There could be no more apt venue in which to experience this grand spiritual drama (derived from the poem by Cardinal Newman) than Albert Hall, with its saturated acoustic and choral tiers reaching to the heavenly heights.

Gardner had the measure of Gerontius — its expansive scale, its interlaced orchestra, choral, and solo vocal layers, its carefully plotted tempo scheme, above all its deeply resonant spiritual fervor. He clearly is an Elgarian to the manner born, and he made a True Believer out of this listener, who up to then respected Gerontius more than loved it. The London Philharmonic seized its crucial role with color and commitment. The multitudes of the LPO Choir gave their full-throated all, not least in the powerful antiphonal exchanges. (The chattering demons proved disappointingly muddy in their articulation.) The splendid tenor Allan Clayton made the taxing title role entirely his own; witness the affecting power and lyricism he brought to Gerontius’ “Take me away” as the penitent’s soul rises to Heaven. Jamie Barton brought her plush mezzo-soprano to the Angel’s beatific dialogue with Gerontius’ soul, but she failed to venture beyond the surface of the text. James Platt intoned the priestly platitudes of the bass part with authority.

No greater aural evidence was needed to signify that “the joy and communion of music-making” had indeed come roaring back at the unique institution known as the Proms.