This summer’s BBC Proms will go ahead with 52 concerts in front of live audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.
The festival will open on 30 July with Vaughan Williams’ Serenade To Music, described as “a love song to music and musicians” after a year of lockdown.
The Last Night will also see Rule, Britannia! sung in full, after a row over plans to omit the lyrics in 2020.
Proms director David Pickard said “all the traditional elements” would be in place for the 11 September finale.
At present, it is unclear how many audience members will be allowed into the London venue for the 127th annual Proms season, which will span six weeks instead of the usual eight.
The current limit is set at 1,000 but organisers hope that, by July, a full audience of 5,000 will be permitted.
Covid guidelines could also affect the atmosphere at the climactic Last Night concert. Prommers, who traditionally stand and stamp their feet in the arena, may have to be seated and socially-distanced if restrictions are in place in September.
The lack of certainty over live music also affects the programme, with four “mystery Proms” scheduled to allow the festival some flexibility.
And with foreign travel so complicated, the Berlin-based Mahler Chamber Orchestra is the only international orchestra on the line-up. It will premiere George Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 60th birthday last year, before the 2020 Proms season was truncated.
Mr Pickard said flexibility was the key to this year’s event.
“The work isn’t finished yet, which is scary and quite exciting,” he said. “The Proms is normally planned two or three years in advance and there are still four concerts we haven’t announced yet, and actually I don’t know what they’re going to be.
“We want to see how things pan out – and whether we can perhaps do one or two things on a bigger scale.”
Rule, Britannia! reinstated
The 2021 season will see a host of major performers and conductors take to the stage, including Nicola Benedetti, Nubya Garcia, Moses Sumney, Sir Simon Rattle, Christine Rice and Sir John Eliot Gardiner in his 60th Proms appearance.
Grammy-nominated tenor Stuart Skelton will be the soloist for the Last Night, accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and classical accordionist Ksenija Sidorova.
The concert’s programme will also feature Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory sung in full, continuing a tradition that dates back at least to the 1950s.
It comes a year after the BBC landed in hot water over plans to play instrumental versions of the songs during the 2020 Last Night celebrations.
The story caused a furore in the press, amid reports that the BBC was censoring the lyrics due to associations with colonialism and slavery. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among those who opposed the decision.
Eventually, Proms organisers relented and the songs were performed in full. According to Mr Pickard, the BBC “never intended to cut either of those pieces of music” in 2020.
“What we were faced with was the fact that we didn’t have audiences in the hall and… we felt originally that the best way to do those pieces was to do them in instrumental versions.
“There was clearly a lot of unhappiness from certain quarters and at the 11th hour we found a way to do those pieces with the [BBC Singers] singing those words.
“Of course it was a compromise on what we would normally want to do – but I think we responded to public opinion and I think we came up with a solution we were all very happy with.”
Looking forward to this year’s concert, he added: “We hope and pray it will sound as it would do in a normal year.”
Other highlights from the 2021 programme include:
- A celebration of The Golden Age of Broadway with the BBC Concert Orchestra performing hits from the musicals (31 July)
- The Aurora Orchestra playing Igor Stravinsky’s 1945 suite from The Firebird from memory (11 August)
- An evening of music from across Africa with boundary-crossing cellist Abel Selaocoe (15 August)
- The Chineke! Orchestra celebrating the work of black composers, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande and Florence Price (24 August)
- All seven of the Kanneh-Mason siblings performing Camille Saint-Saëns’s much-loved suite The Carnival of the Animals, which gets a “fresh update” with new poems and narration from former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo (29 August)
- The Glyndebourne Festival Opera playing Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (31 August)
The season will also mark the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall, with four commissions celebrating the venue’s history, and five concerts featuring its famous organ – which was originally powered by two steam engines.
The 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death is another theme, with Sir Simon Rattle leading the London Symphony Orchestra in an all-Stravinsky programme on 22 August; and a series of “musical magpie” concerts inspired by his adage “Good composers borrow; great composers steal”.
Mr Pickard said the decision to cut two weeks from the season’s usual duration was largely about money. The BBC funds 50% of the festival, with box office receipts making up the other 50% – and with audience sizes still uncertain, takings will “significantly drop”.
“We’d love to have done eight weeks but, with the financial risk we’re carrying, we felt that [six] was a sensible compromise.”