Proms 2017: Pickard hasn't messed with an established formula

This year’s BBC proms might be the first David Pickard can truly call his own, but the director has not risked changing a successful formula – and there’s plenty to savour in a season that fits in Reformation, revolution, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Hull

This year’s Proms programme is the first that director David Pickard can really claim as his own work. It suggests that Pickard isn’t going to be a radical innovator. His shifts of emphasis in what’s long established as a highly successful concert blend are subtle and gradual so far, so that it is still, more or less, the mix and overall shape of the season as before.

As ever the backbone is formed by the BBC’s own five orchestras, and as usual the BBC Symphony Orchestra itself performs on the first and last nights. Edward Gardner will open the season with Beethoven, Adams and the first of this year’s proms commissions, from Tom Coult, who may have been a bit hit-and-miss in his works so far but is certainly a major talent in the making. Sakari Oramo again takes charge of the last-night rituals, with soprano Nina Stemme as the headline soloist, and nods to three of this year’s anniversaries (the centenary of Finnish independence and the 50th anniversaries of the deaths of Zoltan Kodaly and Malcolm Sargent) too.

Sargent, so much the public face of the Proms through the 1950s and 60s, gets a tribute with a recreation of his 500th prom, with Andrew Davies conducting the BBCSO (24 July), though the rather mixed bag of a programme suggests its value will mostly be historical. 2017 is generally a bit thin on really significant musical anniversaries, but the centenary of the Russian revolution and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation provide season-long themes. If most of the Russian and Soviet works corralled under the revolutionary banner are standard repertory pieces, the centrepiece of the Reformation celebration is a day of concerts on Lutheran themes, ending with Bach’s St John Passion. John Adams’s 70th birthday and Philip Glass’s 80th have already been pretty thoroughly marked over the current London season, but there’s more here, and there’s also an evening saluting film composer John Williams on his 85th birthday (20 July) and the centenaries of the births of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie are also being celebrated.

The 450th anniversary of the birth of Monteverdi is marked by a performance of his 1610 Vespers (31 July) while the tercentenary of the first performance of Handel’s Water Music takes the main Proms concerts out of London for the first time in many years to this year’s UK city of culture, Hull, where the Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform the work on the Stage@The Dock. Last year’s experiment of taking the Proms to a variety of other London venues was clearly regarded as successful enough for there to be concerts in Southwark Cathedral (12 August), Wilton’s Music Hall (2 September), the Tanks at Tate Modern (6 September) and once again at the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham (26 August).

As usual at the Proms, the new music seems a mix of the worthy and the genuinely intriguing. There’s always a feeling with some of the premieres that particular British composers have been commissioned because it was their turn, and there’s still a lack of world premieres from major non-British composers, which a truly international festival - such as the Proms aspires to be – really should be including. My highlights of the new works promise to be concertos from Julian Anderson (for piano, 26 July) and Brian Elias (cello, 9 August), a major song cycle from Mark-Anthony Turnage (14 August), and Gerald Barry’s celebration of early revolutionary events in Canada (21 August), along with the London premieres of Mark Simpson’s The Immortal (27 July), and a clutch of new works from Bang on Can composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang in the late-night concert by the Bang on a Can Allstars (17 August).

I’ll be interested to hear premieres from a couple of composers who will be unfamiliar to most British concert goers (myself included) – the Swedish Andrea Tarrodi (30 August) and the Finn Lotta Wennäkoski, whose BBC commission Flounce will begin the Last Night.

The wealth of mainstream orchestral concerts is the foundation of the Proms’ reputation, and that looks to be as strong as ever. Of those, Simon Rattle conducting the LSO and massive choirs in Schoenberg’s glorious Gurrelieder (19 August), and Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle performing both the Elgar symphonies alongside a major new work by Harrison Birtwistle (15 and 16 July) stand out. There’s a late-night Proms debut for Chineke!, which includes the premiere of Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers (30 August), and the usual procession of big-name orchestras from overseas in the final weeks of the season too, as they fit foreign tours in between summer festivals and the start of the new autumn season at home.

With three operas – Fidelio (21 July), Khovanschina (6 August), and the Glyndebourne Clemenza di Tito (28 August) - too, as well as John Wilson conducting a semi-staging of Oklahoma! (11 August), late-night tributes to Scott Walker (25 July) and Stax Records (1 September), and an evening of big bands (27 August), there should be something for almost everyone. If it all feels very much like the mixture as before, that’s probably just what the pragmatic Pickard intended.

•The BBC Proms are from 14 July to 9 September. Details:


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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