Michael White’s classical news: the Proms; Die Walkure

Thursday, 29th July 2021 — By Michael White

Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall

“WE’VE got as many Plan Bs as will fit into our heads,” the director of the Proms, David Pickard, told me last week. And he probably wasn’t exaggerating.

When the world’s greatest music festival opens this Friday July 29, it will be welcomed with open arms as a return to normality after last year’s ghost season – running for six weeks, with 61 concerts, real live audiences, and a proper Last Night on September 11.

But, as Pickard admits, “it’s a fluid situation with a lot that could go wrong: the likelihood of artists being pinged and forced to isolate is bound to trip us up, so we live from day to day and keep our options open – which is why there are still gaps in the programme that we’ll fill in due course”.

One of those gaps concerns the Last Night – always controversial and something in which Boris Johnson (not an otherwise committed music-lover) takes an interest – though the flag-waving stuff will apparently all be there this year.

But more important is the rest of the season which Pickard fairly describes as “realistic but ambitious”. The accustomed big-name foreign orchestras won’t be flying in, for obvious reasons, and star soloists from overseas aren’t so numerous either. But the resulting focus on British artists is no bad thing after all they’ve been through in the past 18 months. And British music gets prime position on Friday’s Opening Night, with Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music and a new piece by Sir James MacMillan.

That said, Friday also features Poulenc’s loveably gaudy Organ Concerto with Daniel Hyde (now running the chapel music at King’s Cambridge) at the keyboard. Sunday evening is given over to Mozart symphonies. Monday night has Brahms. And Wednesday features Vasily Petrenko in his new role as chief conductor of the Royal Philharmonic – playing Respighi and Mendelssohn.

If you’re particular about who and what you want to hear, don’t buy the printed Proms guide which is full of information voids – better to go online for the updated details: bbc.co.uk/proms

And take note of the Covid rules. It was only last week that Pickard found he could increase ticket sales to somewhere near the Albert Hall’s usual 5,000 capacity. But to get in, you’ll need assorted health proofs (check online!!). And policing all that on the doors may mean long queues, so arrive early.

Otherwise, tune in on Radio 3 where there are no queues. And either way, get into celebratory mode. Having the Proms back is a huge relief: worth waving flags for when the moment comes.

Something else to celebrate is a new production of Wagner’s juggernaut opera Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), pared down in a way that makes it easier to do in Covid times and less formidable for newcomers.

Walkure usually demands a massive orchestra and runs for six hours. But in the reduced version at Hackney Empire next week, August 4-7, it plays with small forces for just over three.

And though the result is a compromise, it’s a good one that was acclaimed when it first appeared back in the 1990s – with clever orchestrations by Jonathan Dove and stage adaptation by Graham Vick, the eminent opera director who died recently.

Having once written a cartoon handbook meant to ease the curious but uncertain into Wagner (published by Icon if you’re interested), I’m all for ventures like this that make him more accessible. Performances start 7pm. Booking: hackneyempire.co.uk

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