BBC Proms 2021 - August Reflection

August 30, 2021, 11:01 PM · For just about five years now, I've been listening to the BBC Proms concerts online while going for walks. It's always been a wonderful way to get inspired for all kinds of music-making. Last year, due to the pandemic, they used half the season to share archived concerts, and the other half for audience-less concerts. This year, they were finally able to welcome audiences back to Royal Albert Hall, albeit smaller audiences than usual and smaller orchestras spread across the arena. Still, the biggest thing I have heard this season is the musicians' happiness at finally having an audience there - nothing will ever replace live music! I'm always so thankful I can listen across the pond on my phone, but one day, when travel becomes a less-scary thing again, I hope to travel to London myself one summer to experience one of these concerts live myself.

BBC Proms 2021

This summer, it seems like I've listened to more concerts than in past years, and I've been able to enjoy many types of music as a result. I've been taking some notes on my phone and in my journal during the season, and I thought I'd share some of my favorite pieces, composers, and musicians I've heard so far. The season isn't over yet, so this list won't include anything for the final couple weeks; but I can discuss those in a separate post next month.

The 2021 BBC Proms season started on the 30th of July, and it was such a memorable First Night that I listened to it both with scores on my computer and on YouTube from a BBC Four broadcast. This concert opened (as usual with the Proms) with performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers.

The first piece on the program was Vaughan-Williams' Serenade to Music, originally written to celebrate Henry Wood's 50 years on the podium in 1938. I can't have thought of a more appropriate piece to open this season in particular: getting out of the pandemic, audiences returning to concert halls, a celebration of humanity and the arts, a wonderful Shakespearian text, and music, one thing that brought us all together. This piece includes a lengthy violin solo, so much so that I had to print it out to sight-read and learn myself. I also really enjoyed Poulenc's Organ Concerto, played on the grand 'Father' Willis organ in the hall. The BBC Four broadcast shared a fascinating history on the instrument and how it's played, using a mirror for the organist to watch the conductor. The Poulenc included several moments that reminded me of the piano pieces I played of his at Augustana, and made me realize how much I love his style (no surprises there!). The organ has been featured in a solo Bach recital I loved listening to some of, too. Another great thing about the Proms is the celebration of new music: Sir James MacMillan had a new BBC co-commission with Help Musicians with "When Soft Voices Die", another wonderful piece that involved a careful setting of a Shelley text. Finally, the concert ended with Sibelius' Symphony no. 2, a piece I've heard live a couple times now and as such has remained special to me, especially going into the finale.

One thing they highlighted at the Hall was the big Broadway-esque neon sign celebrating 150 Years of the Royal Albert Hall. Learning about how the building was also called the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences was super neat, too!

I won't do a detailed analysis for every concert (even though I certainly could!), but I'll list some more favorites. The second concert, actually, was a lot of fun - the Golden Age of Broadway! Some Gershwin, whom I always enjoy (especially when I listened to his "Promenade: Walking the Dog" while I was actually walking the dog that morning!), Rodgers, Berlin, and plenty more. There were a couple other Broadway concerts sprinkled throughout August, too. The Scottish Symphony Orchestra presented an evening of Mozart, his Symphonies 39-41. Interestingly, some musicologists have cited these three pieces as a triptych, with 39 introducing them and 41 as the big finale. I'm not sure I can see them that way, but it's a fascinating idea.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed a beautiful rendition of Purcell's "When I am laid in earth" from Dido and Aeneas, orchestrated by Stokowski! I learned about both musicians (and Stokowski's orchestration of a Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral" in my first year at Augustana, so it was a fun throwback hearing this gorgeous work for strings only!) He was inspired to do the arrangement after conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1949, doing a Purcell suite. I loved Elizabeth Ogonek's "Cloudline", and hearing her shimmering pandemic "half-thoughts" with detuned piano, harp, and marimba live as the heart of the orchestra. And of course, Saint-Saens' lovely Cello Concerto, played at the first night of the Proms in 1899! It's the 100th anniversary of his death this year, and it's nice to celebrate with this famous cello work.

I was of course all for famous violinists being featured at this Proms season! Nicola Benedetti teamed up with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, where she played Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto on that evening's concert.

In July, I actually engraved the full Prokofiev concerto for a smaller ensemble, so I felt like I knew the piece relatively well from that, even though I haven't learned it myself. It was great to hear it again with Benedetti's fire, and getting to know her a bit as a person from her YouTube videos and her own masterclass series I tried to participate in earlier this year. Fairly recently, a concert I was looking forward to ever since I saw the Proms programs online was Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, with "The Eight Seasons!" Combining Vivaldi's Four Seasons with Astor Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires creates a stunning 90 (or so) minutes of music-making that is really special to hear strung together. The movements of each piece were interspersed together, so there was a constant shifting of styles for all the strings - Piazzolla had his own way of depicting evening autumn crickets and barking dogs and cicadas than Vivaldi. He even quoted Vivaldi at times from the Four Seasons. I had heard this piece before earlier this year, but it was so great to hear it again with Bell's mastery of both sound worlds in focused intensity throughout.

Stravinsky was another big composer highlighted at the Proms, as it was his anniversary year. I loved hearing the Firebird suite, which the Aurora Orchestra played from memory. It brought me back to playing a cut of it with the ASO in 2017 for that memorable program we had done then. I actually haven't listened to it yet, but the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played Pulcinella. Finally, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra performed three symphonies: The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Symphony in C, and the Symphony in Three Movements. I found myself quite liking that final piece, with the piano being a crucial part of it. Besides Stravinsky, hearing Beethoven's Second and Fourth Symphonies for the first time was a delight too!

Another concert I really liked was by the Manchester Collective, a young but really talented group of string players up north in the UK. This concert featured them with the harpsichord in Górecki's Harpsichord Concerto (which was said to be a 'prank' and had some funny moments in it!) to open and Joseph Horovitz' Jazz Harpsichord Concerto, a wonderful fusion of styles. I love these sorts of fusion pieces that starts to play with the boundaries of musical worlds. Thinking in part of my paper I did at UIUC in 2019 that discussed Grieg's Holberg Suite, it was cool to hear the strings playing Dobrinka Tabakova's "Suite in Old Style, 'The Court Jester Amareu'" - a musical homage to Rameau blending folk and Baroque ideas. (I did get to hear Rameau on another concert (with Mozart's Requiem), too! He's become a composer I want to listen to more of.)

One really fascinating concert was hearing American artist Moses Sumney team up with Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert that combined electronics, orchestrations from Sumney's studio albums, and again, a blending of soul, jazz, pop, and spoken word. It was a bit more of a pop direction, but it was so cool to have a symphony orchestra as the backbone for it, with the rhythm section and guitars - always keeps me happy and excited about music as a whole! The team of arrangers discussed the details of the original album engineering, and they were challenged to translate that to the live orchestra. I think that they pulled this off in spades, and I found myself really listening out for what the orchestra was doing in relation to everything else constantly.

I think I'll end this rambling post on the concert given by the Chineke! Orchestra, Britain's only majority Black and ethnically diverse group. Wow! What a concert this was - I got to hear some truly stunning music! First, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who I've played before, in the overture of "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast" and his Symphony. Dvorák was a big influence on him, and it's easy to hear that in his music; but I can also hear Coleridge-Taylor's own voice in it, especially after playing his work myself with the ASO. Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement was wonderful as well, with a thrilling finale (and a lovely pianist from the Royal College of Music, right across from the Hall, where Coleridge-Taylor was one of the few black students in his time). Nigerian composer Fela Sowanda's African Suite wonderfully celebrated this style mainly with harp and strings. There was a great bit of commentary in the selection of these works of course, and this was discussed during the interval. Hopefully we can come to a point where orchestras aren't just filled with people of one race, but all orchestras can be *equally* diverse (or encourage more black musicians to get to play in colleges and orchestras). I think presenting a concert like this at the largest concert series in the world would only help bolster this argument. In the same way, at the Beethoven 2 concert, George Lewis presented his world premiere that involved electronics and new types of sounds for audiences to adjust to. He hoped this would get us to rethink the definition of new music and how to listen to everything in new ways. We need to celebrate new (and diverse) music more, which is starting to happen in the wake of George Floyd last year. I love that the Proms has been doing their part in this, ever since Henry Wood started this concert series, in fact - he presented plenty of Coleridge-Taylor's works from the early 20th-century.

It's been great to go out for walks in the mornings, putting on a concert on the BBC Sounds app on my phone. The Proms will always be a special thing for me to look forward to each summer. I love the festive, celebratory atmosphere over music of all kinds with wonderful musicians all around the world. I even recognize some of the Radio 3 hosts when I see their names and hear their voices presenting on these works. Hearing new commissions alongside old classics inspires me as a composer, violinist, and pianist - I love to learn new works and take bits from all the contrasting styles and genres put on display. I can't wait to finish off this Proms season with a bang and what the Last Night has in store, probably with the classic finale pieces I've grown to love over the past five years! (I just tried to click a link for the Last Night on the BBC's website, and it took me to a 404 error page with the TARDIS and a fun fact about the original Doctor Who pilot episode, that it was rediscovered in a mislabeled 1978 film can. Interesting.)

Check out the Proms on Radio 3 or the BBC Sounds app, as well as where it's broadcast on BBC iPlayer if you're in the UK (one day, I'll travel to London and be able to see a concert live and another online as a video!). And I'll see you next time!

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