From choral monsters to period-instrument Debussy, Andrew Clements picks his highlights of this year's Proms concerts
The BBC always keeps its secrets better than most where the contents of the Proms are concerned, so that each year's programme announcement when it comes always brings its share of pleasant surprises. There seem to be more of those than usual this time, and there's no doubt that Roger Wright and his team have really pushed the boat out for a season that coincides with London 2012.
The headline-grabbing event, though, was well advertised in advance – Daniel Barenboim's week-long residency (20 to 27 July) with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for a cycle of Beethoven symphonies, ending with the ninth on the night of the Olympics opening ceremony – but what is unexpected is that the five concerts will also feature music by Pierre Boulez, a typically bold Barenboim gesture. After a relatively modest lineup of international orchestras last year, this time there's more than enough quality, with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle (30 and 31 August), the Vienna Philharmonic with Bernard Haitink (6 and 7 September) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus with Riccardo Chailly (1 and 2 September) heading the list, while intriguing Proms debuts come from the São Paulo Symphony with Marin Alsop (15 August) and the St Louis Symphony with David Robertson (4 September), among others.
If the featured composers are predictable enough – Delius and Debussy for their 150th birthdays, Cage for his 100th – then the choice of their works does include some real treats. Delius's Sea Drift with Bryn Terfel as soloist and Mark Elder conducting the Hallé is a feature of the opening night (13 July); two days later John Eliot Gardiner conducts a period-instrument performance of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (15 July), which for me promises to be one of the real highlights of the whole season, while the all-Cage celebration concert (17 August) should be fun too – conducted by Ilan Volkov, it includes Atlas Eclipticalis and the Concerto for Prepared Piano.
There are plenty of world premieres – more than 20 of them – scattered through the season, but there's a slight suspicion that this year quantity has been preferred to quality in some cases. There certainly aren't many of the new works that suggest they are going to be real substantial scores rather than attractive occasional ones, though I always look forward to any new work by Benedict Mason (his Meld gets its first performance on 28 July). There are celebrations, too, of Alexander Goehr and Hugh Wood (both 80 this year), as well as Oliver Knussen and Simon Bainbridge (both 60); it'll fascinating to hear live performances of Knussen's Second and Third Symphonies (30 July and 25 August) for the first time in many years.
There are too many stand-out orchestral programmes to mention individually, though Andrew Manze conducting Vaughan Williams's Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies in a single programme (16 August) is definitely special. Fans of opera and British choral music, though, seem particularly well catered for. Those who can't get tickets for the new production of Berlioz's The Trojans at Covent Garden in June have the compensation of a concert performance with the same cast at the Albert Hall less than a month later, and as well as the Pelléas, the other operas in concert – Peter Grimes from ENO, The Marriage of Figaro from Glyndebourne, and Nixon in China from John Adams and the BBC Symphony – promise to be sell-out events too. The choral works range from staples like Handel's Judas Maccabeus (19 July), Tippett's A Child of Our Time (1 August) and Elgar's The Apostles (10 August) to rarer fare such as Elgar's Coronation Ode (13 July) and Howells's Hymnus Paradisi (29 August). There are a couple of choral monsters on successive nights too: Berlioz's Requiem (11 August, conducted by Thierry Fischer) and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder (12 August, with Jiri Belohlavek) – always a treat for me.
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