Proms 2018: it ticks all the boxes but where's the radical and the recherché?

Debussy, Bernstein, Boulanger and Parry’s anniversaries are duly marked, and female composers are well represented as are international orchestras, but there’s too little risk in this year’s lineup

A summer season of more than 80 concerts spread across a variety of London venues, large and small, ought to give any director of the BBC Proms ample scope to bring a personal touch to the programming. But almost invariably each year there are anniversaries, whether musical or not, to celebrate, and provide some of the thematic threads – they may seem a necessary evil to some planners, perhaps, but they do provide a very helpful framework for others. Yet even though the 2018 season is the second the current director David Pickard has put together, it’s still not quite clear into which of those categories he falls.

Inevitably it’s the centenary of the end of the first world war that looms largest over this new season. The tone of remembrance is set on the opening night, 13 July, in a concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chorus under chief conductor Sakari Oramo. Along with Vaughan Williams’ 1907 Toward the Unknown Region, it juxtaposes Holst’s The Planets – first performed in 1918 – with the first of this year’s Proms premieres. Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, based upon telegrams sent by young soldiers from the trenches in 1918, will be performed outside the Albert Hall, with specially commissioned digital images that will projected onto the walls of the Albert Hall.

Elsewhere George Benjamin’s concert with the London Sinfonietta at the Roundhouse (21 July) will include the premieres of “first world war-themed works” by Luca Francesconi, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hannah Kendall and Isabel Mundry alongside 20th-century classics by Ives, Stravinsky and Messiaen. And the theme continues right through to the final week, when Britten’s War Requiem, with its settings of Wilfred Owen’s poems, arrives from Scotland with Peter Oundjian conducting the RSNO and its chorus (6 September).

But as usual there’s a choice of composer centenaries to be marked too. The death of Debussy, already well noted elsewhere this year, still had to be noticed, including a semi-staged performance of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, based on this summer’s new production at Glyndebourne (17 July). Hubert Parry, who also died in 1918, gets more than his usual exposure as the composer of Jerusalem on the Last Night (on 8 September, which sees the return of a familiar Proms favourite, Andrew Davis, to conduct), with performances of his Fifth Symphony (27 July) and the choral Songs of Farewell (Cadogan Hall, 20 August).

Swept away … Leonard Bernstein conducts Mahler.
Swept away … Leonard Bernstein conducts Mahler. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, already widely celebrated in the UK, gets plenty of attention with concert performances of West Side Story and On the Town, both conducted by John Wilson (11 and 25 August), as the centrepiece. More intriguingly, the hugely talented Lili Boulanger, who died in 1918 at the age of just 25, and remains best known as the younger sister of Nadia – perhaps the most influential of all 20th-century composition teachers – finally gets her due as a composer in her own right, with performances of her mostly small-scale orchestral pieces dotted through the season.

Though there’s plenty of evidence of the BBC starting to fulfil its pledge to have half of its commissions going to female composers by 2022, the new works this year seem something of a mixed bag. The UK premiere of Haas’s Concerto Grosso No 1 (30 July) features a quartet of alphorns, while the two most tantalising world premieres are both violin concertos. One (17 August) comes from Philip Venables, with the subtitle Venables Plays Bartók, which apparently harks back to the composer’s youthful violin lessons, in which Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches featured prominently. The other, from Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, is the novelty in the Bergen Philharmonic’s concert with its music director Edward Gardner (21 August).

The Bergen PO is part of the regular international parade of visiting bands that few other festivals in the world can match. This starts earlier in the season than usual, with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä bringing an all-American programme on 6 August, while the previous day Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra bring their Brandenburg Project to the Albert Hall – two concerts interleaving Bach’s six concertos with six UK premieres, from composers including Mark-Anthony Turnage, Olga Neuwirth and Brett Dean. If a Proms visit from Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (14 August) is all too predictable now, then the chance to hear the Berlin Philharmonic with their music director designate Kirill Petrenko (previously a very rare visitor to the UK) in a pair of concerts is not to be missed (1 and 2 September), with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony hot on their heels (2 and 3 September).

Altogether it seem to be a Proms season designed to tick as many of the expected boxes as possible. There’s no sense of risk-taking, nothing that goes too far out on a limb – nothing particularly radical among new works, nor anything too ambitious or recherché among the standard repertory. And an awful lot seems packaged in easily digested, unthreatening morsels, a bit like too much of the daytime programming on Radio 3 nowadays.

• Full details at, general booking opens 12 May.

• This article was corrected on 26 April 2018. The original said that Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region and Gustav Holst’s The Planets were both completed in 1918.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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