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  • Scott Williamson

Last night of the Proms!

It's the penultimate day of the Jewish year (5778; Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow at sundown). Today is the last day of the annual BBC Proms, touted as the "world's greatest / largest classical music festival" it backs up its claim with over 70 full-length concerts in a 5,000+ capacity hall (The Royal Albert Hall, above). The name comes from the fact that "Promenaders" (some thousand of them) pay for standing room tickets at the front. In this case, the "cheap seats" are up front, and if you've never streamed one of these concerts, you may find yourself hooked as I have become. It restores the joy of summer for me.

The "Last Night" is streaming live as I post this, and right now Gerald Finley is singing some romantic orchestral songs by Stanford. Below are a few picks, many of which are available to listen to here.

Top 10 (or 12 or so) Proms, in no particular order:

Opening Night with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO: Holst’s Planets, and a new multi-media WWI / 1918 commission from Anna Meredith (60% of the Proms dozen-plus commissions went to women, including a series of 8 new chamber works to accompany each of the Cadogan Hall “Proms Chamber Music” Monday matinee recitals). Not as famous as the “Last Night”, Opening Night is always more substantive musically, and this one was special as it opened with Oliver Knussen’s brilliant curtain-raiser, Flourish with Fireworks, played in memoriamto the esteemed and loved British composer and conductor, who died unexpectedly at home in Aldeburgh earlier this summer.

Ollie Knussen receiving an honor from QE2

Berlin Philharmonic w/ their new music director-designate (& first Jewish conductor) Kirill Petrenko: Known for the “who’s who” list of guest orchestra, the Berlin Phil played two programs. The 2nd, Strauss tone poems and Beethoven’s 7th, was awesome. The first featured a suite from Dukas’ La Peri, Yuja Wang in fabulous form in Prokofiev’s colorful 3rd Piano Concerto, and a memorable rarity in Franz Schmidt's Mahlerian 4th symphony.

Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons: In addition to special guests (orchestras, soloists, composers) the Proms also celebrates anniversaries, so the 1918 centennial honored Bernstein, Debussy and Lili Boulanger, and women’s suffrage in G.B. The BSO played two Bernstein-themed concerts: a splendid-sounding Mahler 3 and Bernstein’s Serenade (his violin concerto after Plato’s Symposium, which like much of his “serious” work is being reheard and reassessed, and deservedly so. Baiba Skride was the excellent violinist.)

Mahler portrait by Orlik

Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop: The “other” BSO made their Proms debut. Like Nelsons and the Bostonians, Bernstein-disciple Alsop paired Bernstein’s 2nd Symphony, the Auden-inspired Age of Anxiety (essentially a jazz-infused piano concerto, with the well-cast Jean-Yves Thibaudet) with Bernstein favorite Shostakovich 5. Lenny would’ve been proud of his protégé.

Bernstein, rocking the Mahler

Antonio Pappano and Orchestra of the Santa Cecilia Academy: When I heard their Proms visit a few years ago my ears opened to not only Rome's most storied orchestra (dating back to Palestrina's time in the 16th c.) but to the music they played so sensually and sonically beautiful (Rachmaninov and Respighi). Here they played Bernstein's post-Romantic first symphony, Jeremiah, preceded seamlessly by the "Chaos" overture to Haydn's Creation (a Bernstein specialty). Mahler 1 was the dramatic second half.

Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: This sui generis band (of middle-eastern youth from all sides of the political and geographic divide, mentored by leading musicians from Europe and conducted by an Argentinian-born, Palestinian Jew) is an anticipated favorite when they play. They gave an alternately exquisite and unbridled account of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy along with an engaging topical work by the composer Robert Coleman, Looking for Palestine. Oh, and Lisa Batiashvili played the Brahms Violin Concerto.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia: The main draw of this concert was Act I of Die Walküre (another Proms staple: concert opera – this year brought everything from Handel’s Theodora to West Side Story, G & S to Pelléas et Mélisande…). I was mesmerized by the pairing of Webern’s Five Pieces, op. 10 and the Adagio of Mahler 10, played without pause, to my ears, near flawlessly. It’s hard to make Act 1 of Walküre underwhelming, but that first half did for me.

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra: One of only three visiting orchestras to be awarded a pair of Proms, the Hungarian dynamos are noted for, among other virtues, singing during their encores – and sounding better than many a choir! They opened their first program with Enescu’s rarely heard Prélude à l’unisono (for strings and tympani), segueing into Bartók’s crown jewel, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Then, as if I could not have wished for a better concert to listen to on my birthday, they played an invigorating Mahler 4 with the young German soprano Anna Lucia Richter.

Semyon Bychkov and the indefatigable BBC SO: I have always loved Bychkov’s music-making and programming and this one delivers. Ravel’s La Valse leads off, and is one of the many “masterworks” quoted in Berio’s cacophonous, Bernstein-dedicated sonic-orchestral mix-up, Sinfonia. The literally riotous Rite of Spring explodes in dance after the interval. Which, like all Proms features an intermission-length “Proms Plus” talk with guest artists, writers and thinkers on interesting subjects relevant to each evening’s program. I love BBC Radio 3!

George Benjamin and The National Youth Orchestra of GB: I have long admired Benjamin the conductor, and after the success of his opera, Written on Skin much of the classical music world is in love with George the composer. This prom was an unexpected sonic fest starting with its curator’s / conductor’s earliest influence. Musorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain was a brilliant opener, followed by Benjamin’s own orchestral suite, Dance Pieces. Ravel, Ligeti and Debussy followed, and did not disappoint! Kudos to the young artists of the NYO for also hosting and introducing the concert – a welcome change to hear voices of youth coming from the BBC broadcaster mic!

Anna Prohaska, sop. with Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico

Late Night: “Serpent and Fire” – Anna Prohaska and Il Giardino Armonico:The Proms feature a series of double-header evening where a “Late Night” Prom follows the evening’s traditional concert. Among other delights, Andras Schiff in an all-Bach recital and the Tallis Scholars in an a cappella program of Evensong settings. In the concert pictured above, a brilliant Baroque orchestra played with a dynamic and dramatic young soprano in a program of arias and excerpts from 17th - 18th c. operas featuring the royal roles of Cleopatra and Dido. I love the expressive risks this virtuosic singer takes. She’s equally dazzling in Henze. This concert is also been recorded by the same artists, & is on iTunes.

Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder: Sir Mark is a longtime personal favorite in repertoire ranging from 19th century opera (Verdi and Wagner) to 20th century classics, championing contemporary and young composers. This storied Manchester orchestra played brilliantly in rare Debussy: the compellingly argued La demoiselle élue betrayed its Wagnerian roots. It followed a majestic Tannhäuser Overture. Stravinsky canvases framed the interval. In another deft pairing, the earlier and less-known Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) preceded the score where its seeds burst into brilliantly-colored bloom, The Firebird.

Thea conducting Peter...

Other notable mentions: Runnicles and the Solti-founded, all-star "World Orchestra for Peace" in *Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (Try the “binaural headphone mix” on the BBC Proms page);

*Zimmerman’s Symphony in One Movement;

*Thea Musgrave’s Virginia-inspired tone poem Phoenix Rising;

*The visits of the Minnesota Orchestra, Rotterdam Phil, and Orchestra de la Suisse Romande (making a belated debut in its centennial season in a brilliant program of impressionist and modernist works); *Recitals by Sarah Connolly in British song, featuring a Britten world premiere [sic!];

the fearless young Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta in a Bernstein-themed program, and among others (#BBC Singers!) members of the Berlin Phil in a 1918 – Boulanger, Debussy and Ravel program;

*Musica Aeterna's breathless period-orchestra Beethoven, and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in period-instrument Berlioz under Gardiner with American diva Joyce DiDonato.

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