The Proms, Mahler and me ...
It was so cold on the scooter this morning, I wished I had the thermals. Where is summer, I thought? Then I remembered, it's the First Night of the Proms. Summer is in the Royal Albert Hall! Two months of fantastic music, over 80 concerts, and broadcast live on Radio 3 and BBC Television.
I will let you into a secret: TV commissioners are secretly happy when the weather is bad in early July, because we think it means the viewers will be wrapped up warm on the couch listening to, or watching the First Night of the Proms, and not out in the park enjoying the sunshine!!
I suppose the great thing about the BBC - still new to it as I pretend I am - is the way you can get to the music on so many different platforms, to fit in with your life. All the Proms are live on Radio 3, then you can see a selection of these on BBC2 and BBC Four; and if you miss the live moment because you're in the park, or the pub, you can catch up with it all on the iPlayer and online. Also this year, all the TV presenters are across Radio, so the discussion of the music will continue throughout the week, from Radio to TV and back to Radio. Through the summer, rain or shine, continuous and glorious music!
This isn't any ordinary first weekend of the Proms - this is a stonking one! Two first nights: Mahler 8 tonight and Die Meistersinger - complete and uncut, the hit new Welsh National Opera performance starring Bryn Terfel on Saturday night. Two great essential classical masterpieces.
We also have two fantastic new presenters. Katie Derham who is presenting all the BBC2 Proms this year, and Stephen Fry, who recently made the documentary Fry on Wagner, is presenter on the Meistersinger evening.
This year at the Proms we have some new gadgets too. The viewers were asking us for closer contact with the music and the musicians, so we have introduced Player Commentary (Player Com) on the red button, so you can hear a commentary from orchestral players about the music (for Mahler 8 we have a string player from English National Opera, a brass player from the Philharmonia, and a choral/orchestral conductor. We are also in a groove this year of getting the musicians to tell us about the music. Antonio Pappano on Italian Opera, Rolando Villazon on how to be a great tenor, Kiri te Kanawa about how to be a great soprano and her brilliant new opera competition for young talent, the winner of which will perform at the last night of the Proms in the Park. So in the Proms on TV this year you will see more of this - testament from the musicians themselves, more backstage.
I found this fantastic picture of the final rehearsal of the world premiere of Mahler's 8th Symphony in Munich in September 1910. The concert was in the new music hall called the Neue Musik-Festhalle. The hall was in the Munich International Exhibition grounds near Theresienhohe, which is not a branch of the Deutsches Museum. This vast Hall had a capacity of 3,200.
As we are nervous about our first night tonight, imagine how Mahler must have been feeling. His symphonies had not been really critically successful before, so he was worried about this one. He asked a promoter, Gutmann, to put it on for him and then he worried that Gutman was going to make it too commercial. Gutmann worried that no-one would come, that he wouldn't fill the hall, so he decided that the Symphony needed a better title. So he came up with 'Symphony of a Thousand'. Ever since, people have assumed that it needed a thousand musicians to perform it. Actually it was performed I think by 'only' about 400 people. Mahler apparently loathed the title. So I must apologise to him tonight for using it again, but it has become the name by which we all know this symphony. I rang the producer just now and said - can we only use this title once because Mahler hated it!
Anyway, Mahler's concert was sold out and the audience was stacked with many distinguished people: Richard Strauss, Max Reinhardt, writer Thomas Mann, Camille Saint Saens. The performance was a huge triumph with a 20-minute ovation; afterwrds Thomas Mann wrote to Mahler, telling him that he 'expresses the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form'. This was the last time Mahler conducted a premiere of his own work. He died 8 months later, aged 50. The remaining works - Das Lied von der Erde, his Ninth symphony and the unfinished 10th Symphony - were all premiered after his death. The symphony was not performed in Britain until 1930, when Henry Wood presented it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who are performing the work tonight. Tonight there are about 600 people on the stage
While I have been writing this the sun has started to come out! Okay I forgive you if you rush to the park, it is Friday after all. But it's a late kick-off - 8pm - so you could get back in time. If not, do me a favour, catch it on the iplayer okay!
Check out online all the great things coming up in the televised Proms - the Mahler theme continues, we have the complete Beethoven pianos concertos and Bach Day, and Jamie Cullum, so many more, ooh and don't forget to check out the Chamber Music at the Cadogan Hall.
And how could I forget - on Sunday, to cap off the first weekend, there's Placido Domingo singing the (baritone) title role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. That's 6pm on Radio 3 - three total masterpieces in three days!
Okay the sun is totally out now. Take the radio to the park!
- BBC2 and Radio 3 - Mahler 8th Symphony
- BBC4 and Radio 3 Die Meistersinger with Stephen Fry 4pm and 7pm Saturday
- Jan Younghusband is Commissioning Editor, Music & Events, BBC Television