So far, the enjoyment of the world’s biggest classical music festival, the BBC Proms, has been via TV (various BBC outlets), radio (ditto) or a quick trip to London SW7 and at the Royal Albert Hall. This year the BBC Proms are going regional and have a concert in Belfast today.
William Conway, cellist and artistic director of the Hebrides ensemble, playing at Waterfront Studio this lunchtime, says he expects people who show up to be “entertained, challenged on the spot and rewarded”.
He’s not wrong. While Cornwall will hear a program by Chopin, Liszt and Scarlatti, Northern Ireland will listen to 20th century composers Messiaen, Xenakis and Ravel.
While Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Infanta is fairly well known with its slow, sad melodic line singing the dead child, Xenakis’ work is perhaps unknown.
His Ittidra is discordant, rhythmic, exciting and could be interpreted as difficult on a first encounter. Not so, says Conway, pointing out that the Greek-American was also an architect and brings that skill to the job. “There is a structure that is very powerful and very tight,” he says.
But it is, as he says, a bold piece. “You definitely know you’ve been through something. Ittidra will affect you one way or another,” Conway says.
If Xenakis’ note groups are difficult to play, there is also pleasure in transmitting his score. “It’s very satisfying to see how the piece builds – it’s not just loud barking for 11 minutes without any consistency,” says Conway. As he says, there is a journey involved.
In terms of programming, Conway shrewdly brought together related composers. Olivier Messiaen taught Xenakis (although he eventually said he couldn’t teach him because he was too individual) and Ravel is named in Xenakis’ lovely piano study, Á R.
“I built it to celebrate Xenakis’ 100th birthday,” says Conway.
“These pioneers have to go to extremes to show the people behind them the way. This is cutting-edge music and defies the norm. He really did it and I can’t wait to see how the public reacts.”
As Conway points out, Mozart also in his time. There is even mathematics in Xenakis’ approach that links him further, to Bach.
“Being such an architect and such a smart guy, also an engineer, the structure was the most powerful thing,” Conway says.
The artistic director hopes to achieve a “beautiful dynamic and a little balm and musical healing”.
There is balm in the last movement of the serene Quatuor pour la fin des temps by Messiaen. There’s playfulness in the three-minute tribute to Ravel that Conway describes as “early, and a piece more people would recognize” and has piano passages that sound like they’re playing tag.
When Conway was a boy, he developed an early enthusiasm for contemporary music: “It was listening to the Vienna School, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.” Later he remained close to new music and performed in premieres of compositions by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
How to approach this directory? “With open ears, yes. People shouldn’t be afraid, that it’s not for them,” says Conway, who adds that the whole point of music is to communicate deep moods and emotions: ” It can cause a lot of things, be visceral and bite your head off.”
Conway is excited to take the Proms to regional hubs. “I did a lot of London Proms when I was principal cello with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra,” he says.
“Being at a prom is always exciting, the closer you get to a pop concert.”
And the musician pays a compliment to Ireland: “Irish songwriting, and the music scene in general, has become very strong with people like David Fennessy and John Buckley.” He adds: “We want to become less London-centric, to do it for everyone.”
Proms manager David Pickard agrees. He says the aim of Henry Wood’s musical extravaganza has always been “to reach the widest audience possible”.
The repertoire heading our way was partly a matter of logistics in assembling the giant puzzle: “I wish I could summon a different answer but the scheduling is strategic. You determine who’s available when.”
Pickard adds that this concert should “open people’s ears and minds”, pointing out that these now-traditional composers were once denigrated: “Beethoven’s Fifth was first described as ‘a cacophony’ but time flies. ” Our taste too.
Pickard, former director of Glyndebourne Opera, says he experienced his first Promenade concert as a teenager.
“I remember Mozart’s last piano concerto and the beauty of the playing and the level of listening from the audience was incredible,” he says. “It was such a gateway.”
Asked about the exuberant, sometimes controversial Last night of the Proms, David Pickard indicates that this flagship event has evolved. “In 2001, on the day of 9/11, it felt inappropriate and the program changed.” So they included dark works such as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings instead of the musical echoes of Empire.
Pickard, who attends all of the concerts (“every one of them”), says the ever-growing festival is something he can be proud of. This year, they will enjoy what the director calls a “snapshot” of the musical spectrum available to us.
In a kind of musical exchange, the Ulster Orchestra will travel to London to perform Wagner, Strauss, Mahler and Schumann on August 9.
“You have a fantastic concert hall, Ulster Hall, which would be the envy of many London orchestras,” says Pickard.