The Promenade Concerts (the Proms) were started in 1895 in the Queen’s Hall, near Oxford Circus in the centre of London and next door to the site that was to become the British Broadcasting Company’s headquarters in the 1930’s. The idea was simple but remarkable. There were concerts every night for several weeks in the summer and the expensive seats in front of the orchestra were removed so that listeners paying as little as possible could stand. For the first 40 years concerts were conducted by Henry Wood. The BBC took over the management after the death of the original promoter, Robert Newman, in 1927 and, after the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by bombs in World War II, the Proms moved to the much larger Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, where they remain. These days concerts are given for a full two months (often two in a day) and shared between all of the BBC’s orchestras, as well as London’s others and many visitors.
2019 marks the 125th Proms Festival and the 150th anniversary of Henry Wood’s birth. The review below covers four concerts over one weekend, showing the interconnectedness of programming and its range from chamber music to the largest of orchestral forces.
Director: David Pickard
Saturday 31 August 2019
Royal Albert Hall
Ravel Rhapsodie Espagnol
John Ireland Piano Concerto
Dobrinka Tabakova Timber & Steel (world premiere)
Debussy orch. Wood Preludes Bk. 1: La Cathedrale Engloutie
Granados orch. Wood Danzas Espanolas: Andaluza
Wagner arr. Wood Wesendonk Lieder: Traume
Grainger arr. Wood Handel in the Strand
Ravel La Valse
BBC Concert Orchestra
Leon McCawley Piano
Bramwell Tovey Conductor
Just what a force to be reckoned with the founder of the Proms, Henry Wood, must have been was beautifully demonstrated by this 150th birthday concert in his honour, concentrating on works he either premiered, arranged or introduced to London. He had a delicious habit of not telling audiences at the time when he was popping one of his ”novelties” into the programme so as not to frighten them in advance.
The Proms audiences these days are made of sterner stuff and the inclusion of a premiere by a young woman British-Bulgarian composer added excitement, not apprehension.
Where I suspect Wood himself might have made the evening very different by action was on the podium. This concert was entrusted to Bramwell Tovey, Canadian but well known in London, and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Principal Conductor. He is efficient but nobody could say he is an interpreter to set the heart racing. Ravel’s Spanish excursions became pedestrian, rather slow hums enjoyed on an afternoon stroll rather than narcotic rhapsodies.
Ireland’s Piano Concerto became a firm favourite at the Proms for thirty years after Wood first conducted it in 1930. It is not surprising; an amiable piece stuck in style somewhere between Rachmaninov and Gershwin but without the passion of one or the energy of the other – surprising given that Ireland wrote it in the throes of an obsession for a pianist less than half his age, Helen Perkin. Leon McCawley (who oddly resembles Ireland) is a wonderfully sensitive and gentle performer but even he could not raise the concerto above the average.
Things improved massively after the interval, thanks to Dobrinka Tobakova’s originality. It is rare that a composer thinks so deeply about the circumstances of a commission. She took Henry Wood’s nickname, Timber, and imagined industrial London in his formative years and ever since. She said of the commission that she wanted ”to create a sense of drive, movement, progress. After all, we’ve seen most astonishing advancement in technology in the past century, and this relentless energy is what motivated my work”. That she achieved, with antiphonal percussion, rasping brass and rich strings. Her style, at 28, suggests that John Adams is a huge influence on her generation but that is no bad thing. She is developing into one of Europe’s most engaging voices.
After Tobakova, the evening concentrated on Wood’s penchant (shared with Ravel) for turning small works into enormous ones. Debussy’s sunken cathedral rose from the waves to occupy every yard of the Albert Hall, with bells in the gallery and the organ at full pelt. Percy Grainger, a man who loved tampering with tunes, let Wood turn his jolly bonbon of Handel in the Strand into a massive box of chocolates. If only Bramwell Tovey could have conveyed that Ravel’s La Valse is not in the same vein but instead a disturbing comment, exactly a century ago, on the disintegration of old imperial certainties after the First World War. The world feels just as insecure now.