BBC Proms: details announced of festival behind closed doors

Orchestras of a ‘Mozart size’ will play at the Royal Albert Hall from 28 August

There will be orchestras of Mozart and Beethoven size rather than Mahler and Shostakovich size but at least they will be performing live from the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, organisers of the BBC Proms have confirmed.

There will almost certainly not, however, be any physical audience in the auditorium, including for the traditionally rousing and patriotic last night. Flag waving and singing along in your front room will be encouraged.

Organisers of the world’s biggest classical music festival on Friday released details for what will be the 125th anniversary year of summer concerts and likely the strangest season in its history.

Before the fortnight of live proms there will be six weeks of “fantasy proms” from the archives broadcast on BBC Four, Radio 3 and iPlayer.

Live and audience-free proms begin on 28 August and will feature each of the BBC orchestras. Sakari Oramo will conduct the opening live concert while the Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska will be on last night duties.

The last night will also feature the South African soprano Golda Schultz and a newly commissioned work by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi which responds to the pandemic and will include sounds from the lockdown.

It will be strange having an empty hall but BBC Proms director David Pickard hopes people will get into the last night spirit from their homes. “The last night has to be a celebration and coming together of the nation,” he said. “We will obviously have to think carefully about how we do that but also – how do we reflect on what everyone has lived through in the previous six months?”

Other live highlights will include a recital by cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his pianist sister Isata Kanneh-Mason; pianist Mitsuko Uchida performing with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle; and violinists Nicola Benedetti and Alina Ibragimova with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Physical distancing will inevitably affect the programme and orchestra sizes, said Pickard. “We have to be practical, which means we’re talking of orchestras Mozart and Beethoven size rather than Mahler and Shostakovich size. That’s just a fact.”

But there were many positives to be found from restrictions. “There is a lot of fantastic baroque, classical, early romantic music out there that we can do and I hope that the two weeks will still feel like the Proms, with new work and plenty of variety and interesting pieces people might not know.”

What there will not be is canned applause or cheers. “I think there are ways we can make wonderful pieces of television and radio without having to do that.”

The opening weekend will feature the lockdown-assembled ‘BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra’ with 350 musicians performing an original arrangement of Beethoven’s nine symphonies by Iain Farrington.

Proms from the archives will include the celebrated 2007 debut of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. There will also be the first TV showing of the Radio 1 Ibiza Prom from 2015 featuring Pete Tong and John Newman.

BBC Proms organisers have purposefully waited until the last possible moment before giving details of the season, hoping that there would be a chance of live performance. “There was a time in April when it felt like all the arts festivals were collapsing around us,” said Pickard. “We had to hold on to hope that we could do something in September.”

He said the single most important reason for doing live performance was to support the revival of live music-making. “Freelancers in the arts world are going through an absolutely horrendous time. This isn’t going to turn their lives around … but I hope it points to a more positive future and gives some support to a sector that has been under so much stress.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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