Every year at about this time, the forthcoming Proms season is launched. A shiny press pack is sent off to every arts journalist, packed with impressive facts and figures; how many foreign orchestras, how many premieres, how many different kinds of music being celebrated in addition to classical music. It tells us about the many little-known pieces being dragged out of obscurity, the legions of distinguished soloists, the ways the season will be focusing on youth, or age, or people with disabilities. We will be reminded of the many ways the Proms goes beyond the Royal Albert Hall, by venturing to other venues – even beyond London – and in terms of broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and BBC TV.
All this is interesting and exciting, but as any regular Prom-goer will confirm there’s a strange disconnect between the picture of the Proms given in the press pack and the reality of what actually takes place in the Albert Hall, night after night. As Radio 3 Controller Alan Davies says in his introduction to this season’s programme, the Proms’ aim is actually very simple: it is to bring us "the best of classical music".
That’s an ambitious goal which the Proms tries to fulfil by inviting visiting orchestras, chamber musicians and soloists, alongside its own orchestras, to play the particular kind of classical music they do best, in intelligently devised programmes where the pieces cohere in a mutually supportive way. This is a noble and necessary aim, but it doesn’t make for a good press release.More often than not, the visiting musicians' expertise is in the classical canon, playing the greatest pieces by the same clutch of composers. If you pick up the Proms programme book and let it fall open at random, chances are that you’ll come across a symphony concert containing Beethoven or Mahler, and not a concerto for turntable or a folk concert or a music-theatre performance somewhere in the regions.
With that caveat in mind, we can salute the eye-catching elements in this year’s programme. Two big themes bestride the season; 1918 and women composers. Proms director David Pickard made a pledge that half the composers commissioned for the Proms would be women by 2022, and he’s taken a big step towards that this year. All eight commissions for the chamber season at Cadogan Hall are by women, in celebration of the centenary of women being granted the vote. The female pioneers of electronic music in Britain are saluted in a concert which includes the premiere of the revised version of Daphne Oram’s Still Point, for turntables and orchestra.
The two themes also come together in the headline commissions for the First and Last Nights, by Anna Meredith and Roxanna Panufnik respectively, which are both inspired by the ending of the First World War. The war looms over the season elsewhere, in performances of war-related pieces by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Stravinsky and others.
1918 is also marked as the year important composers were born or passed away. Amongst the latter are Sir Hubert Parry, and above all Claude Debussy. Seven of his works are being performed, including his opera Pélleas et Mélisande. The centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein is even more lavishly celebrated, with concert performances of his two great musicals On the Town and West Side Story, as well as his First Symphony, chamber works including the UK premiere of his Conch Town, and a reinterpretation by Gerard McBurney and Mike Tutaj and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Bernstein’s ground-breaking educational programmes on television.
Alongside these big themes flowering only in 2018 are others which are now hardy perennials. Youth is celebrated with concerts featuring 21 alumni of BBC Young Musician of the Year, the National Youth Orchestra, and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, to name just three. The Proms’ laudable desire to be hospitable to other musics is represented by, among other things, a folk music extravaganza involving Sam Lee, the Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, a celebration of Tango (if you don’t know what Finnish Tango is this concert will enlighten you, in true Reithian spirit), and a Proms debut for the great maestro of Senegalese music Youssou N'Dour.
As ever there’s an impressive roster of visiting orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. And amidst all the excitement moments of calm are promised. There’s a second Relaxed Prom, open to anyone but especially apt for listeners with autism, sensory and communication impairments and learning disabilities. The calm moment I’m particularly looking forward to is the late-night concert from the Tallis Scholars on 6 September. The Royal Albert Hall is surprisingly good for intimate music, and this programme of sacred music appropriate for Compline, the final office of the day in the Catholic church, should be magical.