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BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall reflects on the potency of British music, and its appeal to musicians and audiences here and abroad ...

'I'm not doing English music because I have to or because it feels politically correct ... but because I like it!' Thus spake the orchestra's newly installed Finnish principal conductor, Sakari Oramo, before launching into the first rehearsal of A Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams for the First Night of the Proms.

Nice to know. The BBC Symphony Orchestra historically has premiered a lot of British music, indeed we will go to Asia with Sir Andrew Davis in the Autumn and play exclusively British fare.

Leonard Slatkin

Of course, Sakari is not the first non-Brit chief at the BBCSO to serve up this home produce; in the 1980s Gennadi Rozhdestvensky performed Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as Leonard Slatkin often did - indeed his recording of the Sea Symphony was selected as a BBC Music Magazine cover CD. Even our previous (Czech) conductor Jirí Belohlávek tackled music by Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies. Should only British conductors be good at it? A moot point. Our own Colin Davis was arguably one of the greatest ever interpreters of Sibelius and Berlioz, likewise Thomas Beecham. Surely it can work both ways? Music is, after all, just music.

On my travels I sometimes encounter resistance to music from these shores (even from British professional musicians), as if it is not fashionable to like it, or it is deemed second rate; 'Brahms and Beethoven did it so much better,' someone once said to me. Perhaps too it is in the British nature to put ourselves down.

My late father use to recall an elderly Vaughan Williams attending a performance of the Sea Symphony at the Royal Academy of Music in the early 1950s. Apparently the composer was amazed that, 'Someone is still playing music I wrote 50 years ago'.

Edmund Rubbra

Well, the world is a big place and I for one am happy to play any of the symphonies of Elgar, RVW, Bax or Rubbra: they make a pleasant change from yet another Beethoven cycle (indisputably great though that music is); and when it is in the hands of someone devoid of Brit cultural baggage, but with a sensitivity towards the composer, then I'm all for a fresh approach.

Sakari already holds the Elgar Society medal in recognition for his proselytising on behalf of that composer, and the way the rehearsals are going for Friday night, I think we will not be at sea at all but in very safe hands.

In this video you can hear Sakari talking about Harmony, the First Night commission from Julian Anderson, a composer Sakari knows well ...

Sakari Oramo talks about Julian Anderson's First Night of the Proms commission - Harmony.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Charlie

    on 19 Jul 2013 12:28

    After the first week, rather than the first night of the proms, I should perhaps report that it was one of the best starts ever, and not just for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I am personally looking forward to Semyon Bychkov's 'Tristan', or is it Phil's 'Isolde'?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras/events/1517

    I remember when I first saw a Wagner opera, it was 'Tristan', and an old man sitting next to me asked me during the first interval, "Where's the boat?"

    Well, if the BBC can't manage it, Phil, I am pretty sure that Glyndebourne will (Prom 60). Everyone reading the BBC Radio 3 Blog is, as ever, more than welcome to join us:

    http://www.meetup.com/Kensington-Classical-Music/events/130336772/

    This naturally includes you, Phil, and you don't even have to play! Cheers, all (whatever you are drinking)!

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Charlie

    on 13 Jul 2013 07:54

    I think that a lot of British classical music suffers from the abuse of 'cowpat' music, echoing a pastoral tradition in the country which gave our world the Industrial Revolution, Phil, and with it, so much of our brave new modern world!

    For the record, I thought that the First Night of the Proms was transcendental, and everyone who took part should be proud of the fact that they lit up an austere world with the glory of our British and global musical heritage.

    Cheers, all (Saturday morning breakfast coffee)!

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