Michael White’s classical news: Proms; Les Illuminations; London Choral Sinfonia

Thursday, 2nd September 2021 — By Michael White

Sheku Kanneh-Mason photo Jake Turney

Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Photo: Jake Turney

IF your idea of a classical conductor is some august figure with a German accent and a convoluted name, John Wilson doesn’t fit the bill: he’s youthful, clean-cut and comes unmistakeably from Tyneside. But he’s also one of the most interesting and distinctive talents on the baton circuit these days, with a career that’s largely been forged through appearances at the Proms – including a notable one coming up at the Albert Hall this Saturday, September 4.

Wilson first got known for dusting down the classic, archive musicals of Hollywood and Broadway, re-presenting them on terms that managed to be scholarly but dazzling. It was popular, impressive, and he soon became a go-to expert in that kind of repertoire – with the accompanying risk of getting stuck in it.

But he was always interested in other things, and cleverly began to branch out toward “serious” concert music by composers who had Hollywood connections: Korngold, Kurt Weill, Copland and the like. To do it, he relaunched a dormant orchestra, the Sinfonia of London, as a flagship band for his recording projects. A succession of award-strewn CDs followed for which Wilson and his new band have been duly feted.

But they haven’t worked together on a live-performance platform until now, when the Sinfonia makes its concert debut with a programme focused on the only (and distinctly cinematic) symphony by Korngold, alongside works by Berg, Ravel and Johann Strauss. It ought to be a highlight of the season. Other Proms this week include young cellist-of-the-moment Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing the Dvorak concerto, Sunday, September 5; the always wonderful Benjamin Grosvenor in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, Monday 6; and Mahler’s 5th Symphony (the one with the heart-stopping Adagio everyone remembers as the soundtrack to Dirk Bogarde stalking damp canals in Death in Venice) played by a specially-formed Proms Festival Orchestra, Wednesday 8. If you can’t get to the Albert Hall, every concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. Details: bbc.co.uk/proms

September sees the Wigmore Hall back in business with a vengeance, and something to watch out for is the soprano Mary Bevan singing Britten’s hyper-charged song cycle Les Illuminations with the virtuosic chamber group called 12 Ensemble, Wednesday Sept 8. Les Illuminations sets a sequence of ecstatic, drug-crazed poems by the teenaged bad boy of French symbolism Arthur Rimbaud, and they’re often thought to be descriptions of Parisian lowlife. But they actually depict the sleaze of 19th-century Camden Town where Rimbaud happened to be living (with his lover Paul Verlaine) when they were written. So they’re local product! Details: wigmore-hall.org.uk

• Also back in business are the dynamic young singers and instrumentalists of London Choral Sinfonia, with a Cadogan Hall concert on Wednesday 8 that includes Vaughan Williams’ eternally popular Lark Ascending and Five Mystical Songs, alongside new music by Richard Pantcheff – a British composer the LCS have, in their typically enterprising spirit, championed and recorded. Very much worth hearing. Details: cadoganhall.com

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