BBC Proms - music and mathematics

Something has troubled me all through this summer’s BBC Proms season. It is not just the unvaried diet of Mozart and Shostakovich. Something else is wrong, so many of the programmes don’t seem to hang together in a coherent way, they just seem to be a sequence of unconnected music. Then the answer dawned on me – look at the mathematics. Here are the BBC timings in minutes of the works in the seven evening Proms between August 26 and September 1 – 82’, 86’, 97’, 95’, 92’, 91’ & 90’. See the pattern? It is no coincidence that the last four Proms by four different orchestras (including the Berlin Philharmonic) vary in length by no more than five minutes, and that the greatest variance of any one programme from the average length of 90’ 30” is just 8’ 30”.

The media now dictates the message, and these Proms are constructed, just like programmes broadcast from CDs, to fit as closely as possible into the allocated ninety minute broadcast/webcast/telecast slot, with little regard for thematic links. Message to contemporary composers, if you offer to write a new work of precisely ninety minutes duration it will greatly enhance your chances of a BBC Proms commission. Gustav Mahler was no fool; his Symphony No 2 which is programmed on September 6 and is the only symphonic work to have a programme to itself this year is timed at a broadcast friendly 85 minutes. And on September 3 Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony gets paired with Matthias Pintscher’s Hérodiade-Fragmente to produce a programme, and I am sure this is a sheer coincidence, of precisely 91 minutes duration.

But let’s ignore the minutes and look at the music for next week. If you want something other than Mozart you had better power up the CD player. Two Proms are 100% Wolfgang Amadeus, and his music features in two more, and there is also the mandatory Shostakovich symphony - the ‘Leningrad’ on Tuesday (29 August). So what else is there to bring the programmes up to ninety minutes? It is another good week for contemporary music with two London premieres, Hans Werner Henze’s Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba on Tuesday (August 29) from Orchestre National de France (see The truth about French orchestras), and Hanspeter Kyburz’s (right) Noesis on Friday (September 1) from the Berlin Philharmonic. Moving towards the mainstream, on Wednesday (30 August) we have the second symphony of the composer that John Adams’ father actually didn’t know with the Pittsburgh Symphony being directed by the conductor that the orchestra didn’t know until the last moment, Leonard Slatkin. While Thursday (31 August) sees Slatkin’s much welcomed replacement as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony, Jiří Bělohlávek, directing Bruckner Symphony No 9.

But real treasures don’t just come in 90 minute sound bytes, and I’m delighted to report that my Prom of the week lasts for a politically incorrect 69 minutes. Thursday’s (August 31) late night Prom has the BBC Singers and Nash Ensemble presenting three anniversary composers who really deserve some exposure, Gyorgy Kurtag, Robert Schumann, and Morton Feldman. Interestingly this is the first time that Morton Feldman’s music has ever been performed at the BBC Proms, and as I started with the theme of music and mathematics I guess that it is also a good place to finish.

Proms highlights
Tuesday 29 August – Henze Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba, Orchestre National de France conductor Kurt Masur
Wednesday 30 August – Ives Symphony No 2, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin
Thursday 31 August – Bruckner Symphony No 9 conductor Jiří Bělohlávek
Thursday 31 August 10.00pm – Kurtag Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Schumann Four Songs for double chorus*, Feldman Rothko Chapel, BBC Singers, Nash Ensemble conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Stephen Cleobury*.
Friday September 1 – Kyburz Noesis, Berlin Philharmonic conductor Simon Rattle

This personal selection from the next week's Proms appears every week On An Overgrown Path, a full listing of the concerts is available here. All the concerts are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and as web casts. All Proms should be available for seven days after broadcast on the BBC listen again service, but check BBC listings for confirmation. Concert start times are 07.30pm British Summer Time unless otherwise stated. Convert these timings to your local time zone using this link.

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