BBC Proms 2020: Line-up will be ‘flexible’ to adapt to the pandemic

Nicola Benedetti Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicola Benedetti is one of the musicians hoping to take part in a live Prom in August/September

Organisers of the BBC Proms are having to devise multiple programmes for every concert, because of uncertainties over how many performers will be allowed on stage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 season will mostly consist of highlights from the BBC’s archive.

But there are hopes of moving back into London’s Royal Albert Hall for two weeks of live shows from 28 August.

Conductor Sakari Oramo says he is currently planning “four different options” for the first night.

“We’re dealing with constantly changing regulations,” he says.

“The advice on how many players we can have, whether we can have singers, whether there are restrictions to certain sections like the wind or brass, has all been – to put it mildly – slightly unclear.

“I completely understand it. I don’t find it strange that there’s a lot of uncertainty going on. But of course the number of players we can have, and the distances we need to have between players, will affect the programme greatly.”

Image caption Sakari Oramo conducted the Last Night of the Proms in 2019

In an official guide to the 2020 Proms, published on Friday, the BBC said the line-up of artists and music for the season’s two-week finale could not be announced until “nearer the time” due to the pandemic.

The delay will “allow for utmost flexibility in responding to the safety guidelines at the time,” it added.

“We have to be practical, which means we’re talking of orchestras Mozart and Beethoven size rather than Mahler and Shostakovich size,” said BBC Proms director David Pickard. “That’s just a fact.”

Audiences are unlikely to be allowed into the Royal Albert Hall to watch the performances, which will be broadcast instead on radio, TV and iPlayer.

“There won’t be a Proms atmosphere in the same way,” said Oramo. “But, of course, once the music gets going, the music will take us where it needs to take us.

“I’m sure the first night will be an especially important moment, not only for the orchestra but also for the whole music-loving nation, and the world.”

When the BBC Symphony returns to the stage in August, they won’t be the first to resume playing large-scale orchestral music.

Last month, members of the Berlin Philharmonic returned after weeks of isolation to play a programme of Ligeti, Pärt and Barber.

Due to social distancing regulations, only 15 players could be on stage at a time. The strings sat two metres apart. The woodwinds and brass were five metres apart – amid fears that their instruments could spread aerosols, during a pandemic that affects the respiratory system (the subject of air emissions from these instruments is the subject of much debate amongst scientists and musicians).

In England, choirs are also being advised not to perform together because of the risk of spreading the virus, which means choral works are unlikely to be performed live.

The effects of the coronavirus will be felt in another way during this year’s Proms, with a number of new commissions responding to the global pandemic.

These include a new piece by Thomas Adès for the LSO Prom and Andrea Tarrodi, whose composition for the Last Night of the Proms will include sounds of the lockdown.

Oramo says the first night will also reflect the upheaval of the last four months.

“We’ve gone through a list of pieces that are suitable to that purpose,” he says. “But obviously as well as reflection, there needs to be something uplifting.

“So I hope the final result will include those two opposite fields of energy: quiet reflection and mourning from one side, then positive energy and optimism on the other.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Katherine Jenkins performed inside an empty Royal Albert Hall for the 75th anniversary of VE Day

Elsewhere, a “Fantasy Proms” season will draw on the BBC’s rich archive of performances, with highlights including Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the celebrated 2007 Proms debut of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

This year also sees the first ever TV broadcast of the hugely popular Radio 1 Ibiza Prom from 2015, in which Pete Tong, Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra transformed dance classics into orchestral masterpieces with the help of John Newman and Ella Eyre.

Live performers at the Royal Albert Hall will include violinists Nicola Benedetti and Alina Ibragimova; cello sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his pianist sister Isata Kanneh-Mason; and sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar with electronic artist Gold Panda.

It will culminate in a pared-back version of the traditional Last Night, with soprano Golda Schultz joining conductor Dalia Stasevska and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.