Music fans can enjoy a ‘Night of the Proms’

Friday: First Night of the Proms; (BBC Two, 8pm)

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 5:00 pm

For the past 18 months or so (some days it feels like 18 years), music venues up and down the land have been silent.

Like sports stadiums and theatres and nightclubs, they were shuttered up tight during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and audiences were told to stay at home.

Now, with the government giving the green light to reopen, venues are starting to welcome the public back again, with the 60,000-strong crowd at Wembley Stadium during the Euro 2020 final leading the charge.

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Music lovers of all stripes have at least been able to enjoy online concerts but, like vampires trying to get by on cherryade, remote gigs never quite replaced the real thing.

Happily, as the curtain goes up on this year’s festival of classical music delights, the Royal Albert Hall will be playing host to a live, in-the-flesh audience.

It will come as a thrill to conductor Dalia Stasevska, the first female conductor ever to be named principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and its second female conductor.

She leads the SO in the opening concert of the 2021 Proms season, with Sibelius’s thrilling Second Symphony. They are joined by soloists, including soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and tenor Allan Clayton, for the world premiere of When Soft Voices Die, a poignant piece by Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan. There’s also Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, written to celebrate Proms founder-conductor Henry Wood’s 50 years on the podium and premiered by him at his jubilee concert in 1938.

It’s easy to gloss over Wood’s contribution to this annual series of summer concerts, and if you’re new to the Proms, allow us to offer a potted history. They stem from concerts held in London’s pleasure gardens, where the audience could stroll around while the orchestra played. Impresario Robert Newman wanted to expand the audience for concert hall music, and decided a combination of low ticket prices and an informal atmosphere would allow him to “gradually raise the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music”.

Wood was the first concert’s conductor – it opened with Wagner’s Rienzi overture – in 1895, and was mainly responsible for the Proms’ repertoire over the years. For more than two decade, he established the introduction of music from British and international contemporary composers, as well as giving a platform for unperformed or under-performed pieces – a tradition that continues to this day.

Wood died in August 1944, too ill to conduct the 50th anniversary Prom, and banned by his doctor from even listening to it.

But as long as the Proms continue, his name will never be forgotten. In fact, the full title of the event is “BBC Music presents the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”, and a bronze bust of Wood, taken from the ruins of the bombed-out Queen’s Hall in 1941, where the concerts were held until they moved to the Royal Albert Hall, sits in front of the organ for the entire Promenade season.

We think if Wood was still alive today, he would be quite rightly proud of the musical legacy the Proms has created, and will continue to maintain for decades to come.

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