The Proms: bustling, elegant and down-to-earth at the same time. For over a century the BBC Promenade Concerts have excited Londoners and visitors alike: they've flocked to the eight-week classical music festival in central London to listen to an extraordinary line-up of orchestras and soloists, with none of the stiffness usually associated with classical concerts. That's because Henry Wood, the 20th century conductor, created the Proms (Promenade Concerts) as a way for ordinary people to enjoy classical music. The standing tickets are still very cheap, and the die-hard fans queue for hours to get them.
But this summer London has been infatuated with its mistress, the Olympic Games. The Proms have faded from public attention -- and newspaper pages -- in favor of the Games with its homegrown heroes. Attendance at the Proms has slipped as Londoners, fearful of Olympics-related chaos, have left the city and non-Olympic visitors have stayed home. But the Olympics, the flighty mistress, will soon move on to Rio, and London will rediscover the charms of its old love.
Those of us who did attend Proms this summer were not disappointed. Who had heard of a concerto for two pianos, symphony orchestra and electric bass? I admit I had not. But Richard Dubugnon's Battlefield Concerto, based on a renaissance painting of a battle, will no doubt become a classic: it's wild, energetic, descriptive, jazzy, virtuosic and unlike any other piano concerto in the repertoire. French sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque, for whom Dubugnon wrote the concerto, performed its UK premiere with their trademark expressiveness and technical brilliance. Dubugnon, a young Swiss composer, divides the orchestra in two equal parts, each supporting one of the soloists, which achieves an unusual stereo effect. As for the electric bass: far from a ploy to entice young audiences, it's surprisingly effective in adding sound to the battle. Semyon Bychkov, the veteran Russian conductor, led the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a passionately performed program that also included Schubert's Eighth Symphony and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.
Inspire A Generation, is the London Olympics slogan, and schoolchildren not just in the UK will no doubt be inspired to head to tracks and playing fields. But how to inspire children to aspire to musical greatness? By having them perform alongside professional musicians. This year's Proms featured several children's choirs in performances with professional orchestras and choirs. In one of the Proms I attended, Donald Runnicles conducted a mega orchestra consisting of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in a program that included Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, Richard Strauss's Don Juan and Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome. Granted, you don't need double symphony orchestras to make the sound fill the Royal Albert Hall, but it was exciting -- not least, I presume, for the members of the National Scottish Youth Orchestra. The violin soloist in the Scottish Fantasy, Nicola Benedetti, is herself a former member of the youth orchestra.
A conductor just waves his hands in front of an orchestra that doesn't really need him, cynics say. Oh, no. The BBC Philharmonic's performance, led by Spanish conductor Juanjo Menja, never took off. The orchestra sounded tired and uninspired. I saw the violinists bowing away but heard little of either Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude or Bruckner's Sixth Symphony. Even the premiere of James MacMillan's Credo failed to take off, though in Menja's defense it's not one of MacMillan's best oeuvres.
Before the Olympics commentators pointed out that this year Usain Bolt wasn't even the fastest man in Jamaica. Well, the BBC Philharmonic has a grandiose name, but it's not even the best orchestra in Manchester. Its rival, the Hallé Orchestra -- bringing with it its own chorus and youth chorus -- showed what high-level music-making is really about. Perfect technique, of course, but also passion and excitement. The Hallé, under its chief conductor, Sir Mark Elder, showed both in its performance of Edward Elgar's The Apostles. Admittedly, The Apostles is an overwrought piece that is trying to do much but ends up mostly a mishmash depicting Jesus's suffering and Judas's feelings. And nobody can say it better than Bach anyway. But Sir Mark and his Manchester forces showed how thrilling music-making can be, and the audience -- seemingly containing large numbers of parents and siblings of the youth choir members -- was ecstatic. Inspire A Generation, indeed.