Time present and time past run through Sakari Oramo’s five concerts at the BBC Proms this summer. His wide-ranging programmes embrace everything from the centenary of the First World War’s conclusion and the rich musical legacy of French Impressionism to new works and young performers. As Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Oramo is set to lead the First Night of the Proms on Friday 13 July. He will return to the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC SO for three more concerts as the season unfolds and make his a cappella choral conducting debut with the BBC Singers at Cadogan Hall.
This year’s First Night offers reflections on the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, a title reduced soon after the Armistice of November 1918 from an article of faith to an expression of heavy irony. The concert’s second half contains the world premiere of Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith. The work, based on messages sent home by young soldiers a century ago, has been co-commissioned by the BBC and Edinburgh International Festival, and is created in partnership with the artists and video designers of 59 Productions. Meredith’s music will come to life in company with specially produced digital projections. The BBC Symphony Chorus and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain join Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to launch the Proms with Toward the Unknown Region, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first substantial choral work, a setting of words by Walt Whitman composed for the Leeds Festival in 1907. The concert also marks the centenary of Holst’s The Planets, which received its private premiere in 1918.
“Toward the Unknown Region is not so often heard today but is a beautiful piece,” the conductor comments. “I performed it in Birmingham about twenty years ago and look forward to returning to it again. Anna Meredith’s collaboration with 59 Productions is a big focus for the First Night, which also involves the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in this terrific occasion. It’s a wonderful initiative by the Proms to involve young people, one that shows how much talent there is and – I hope – reminds politicians and decision-makers of the importance of music in schools and to the lives of young people.”
Sakari Oramo’s Prom on Wednesday 18 July, part of the festival’s survey of French music, offers the intriguing combination of Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. Angela Hewitt is set to join the BBC Symphony Orchestra as piano soloist in the Gershwin, with Cynthia Millar taking the ondes martenot part in Messiaen’s glorious orchestral love song. An American in Paris, first performed ninety years ago, receives its Proms debut in the work’s new critical edition, complete with significant changes to the orchestration and the original, more dissonant tunings intended by the composer for its famous car horn passages.
“Gershwin was really precise and very demanding in terms of the correct interpretation of his work,” Oramo observes. “Because he died so young he was unable to establish definitive versions of his works, but I believe we should honour how he wanted his music to sound. Bringing An American in Paris together with Turangalîla was a stroke of intuition that happened at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Maida Vale home one grey afternoon. The openly sensual content of Turangalîla was quite ground breaking when the work was first heard in 1949. I’m a big Messiaen fan and love this piece.”
Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto joins his fellow countryman Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO at the Proms on Friday 17 August for the world premiere of Venables Plays Bartók, a new violin concerto by Philip Venables. The work is based on the British composer’s reflections on a VHS video recording he discovered of his teenage self playing one of Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for Rudolf Botta, a Manchester-based Hungarian violinist and refugee who taught Venables’ teacher. Venables Plays Bartók will be framed by Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5. “We will perform two great orchestral showpieces with Philip’s concerto,” notes Oramo. “I’m very pleased with the orchestra’s development and look forward to connecting with our Proms audience again through these big, powerful scores.”
This season’s Proms contains a notable first for Sakari Oramo. He conducts his first ever a cappella choir concert at Cadogan Hall on Monday 20 August. His lunchtime programme with the BBC Singers includes the world premiere of Laura Mvula’s The Virgin of Montserrat, her deeply personal response to the shrine of the Black Madonna of Mount Montserrat in Catalonia, three miniatures by Bridge, Vaughan Williams and Holst, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell. “Laura is from Birmingham, which holds such special memories for me. I know that she grew up with choral music and can’t wait to discover her composition. The BBC Singers are an amazing group and I feel so lucky to have the chance to do a whole programme with them. We’ll be crossing the genres here without leaving British choral territory.”
For their final appearance together at this year’s Proms on Friday 24 August, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra present the ideal pairing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K467, with Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist, and Bruckner’s Symphony No.5. The latter will employ the system of wind doubling devised by the late German conductor Heinz Wallberg to resolve the work’s textural imbalances.
“This is my favourite Bruckner,” declares Sakari Oramo. “It appears that I am rather unusual in preferring it to the other symphonies but, for all its complexity and uncompromising contrapuntal invention, it’s a captivating piece. Heinz Wallberg had a long experience of performing Bruckner and the patience to write down his subtle changes to the orchestration. I’ve used his performing edition of the Fifth Symphony in Stockholm and it works very well. There’s no question after hearing this piece of Bruckner being a simple peasant figure – this is music of extraordinary complexity with an inexplicably deep relationship to religion and spiritual life. I’m leaving the Last Night of the Proms to my esteemed colleague Sir Andrew Davis, so will close my season with this truly remarkable symphony.”