Hitting the high note: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra
In music, summertime is festival time. Often that means decamping to the mountains, the Mediterranean or unlikely corners of Scandinavia, Germany or France to catch today's megastars at play. But so far this summer there's been only one place to be: in London, at the Proms. More camping than decamping has taken place: some audience members queued overnight outside the Royal Albert Hall, hoping for a prime spot to see the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
At the time of writing, the Proms, "the world's greatest music festival", are only halfway through, and I can't remember another time when this doughty series has felt quite so festive. Nearly every concert has been an event: a talking point in its own right.Â
There's been controversy aplenty, passions have run high and discussions have been fervent. Dare to suggest that Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony is not the ultimate masterpiece of the 20th century and you risked losing your scalp. Or give yourself over to the excitement of the Simon BolivĂˇr Symphony Orchestra's Resurrection Symphony (Mahler's No 2) with Dudamel and within moments someone would rain on your fiesta. Oh, how the British chattering classes loathe anything too successful!
Prefer Mahler with no vibrato? Sir Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Â Â Â Orchestra brought us a personal, vibrato-free account of the great Ninth; some listeners issued praise, while others couldn't bear to be in the same room with more than a few bars of it. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Nigel Kennedy arrived to perform late-night solo Bach, causing some raised eyebrows with his unadvertised jazz band, yet magnetising all with his cathedralesque Chaconne.
Another night, another orchestra: the Proms offer a rewarding chance to compare and contrast them. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was cool, chic and charming, jumping effortlessly from a chocolatey Brahms Double Concerto with the CapuĂ§on brothers to a Rite of Spring that was, for once, distinctlyÂ Â balletic. The London Philharmonic went Hungarian with a taut, tight-sprung Liszt Faust Symphony. The Mariinsky Orchestra with Gergiev popped over from Covent Garden to play the whole of Swan Lake without the dancers, and Tony Pappano led his Roman orchestra and chorus, the Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia, in a roof-raising account of Rossini's gargantuan opera William Tell. Guests due later in the season include the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the (technically) bankrupt Philadelphia Orchestra.Â
Meanwhile, terrific pianists were on parade (despite a cancellation from Martha Argerich), often in less than predictable fare. The brightest of young Brits, Benjamin Grosvenor, played on the opening night a few days after his 19th birthday â€” Â though he was saddled with the unfortunate combination of Liszt's Second Concerto and a somewhat inflexible conductor. Later he triumphed a second time with the Britten concerto. Stephen Hough, too, brought the house down, dazzling through Saint-SaĂ«ns's "Egyptian" Concerto. We had all three BartĂłk concertos, dotted about the season: AndrĂˇs Schiff coaxed, stroked and bubbled his way through the famous No 3; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet navigated the strictures of the underrated No 1 with poise, panache and precision. Marc-AndrĂ© Hamelin was due in for two Proms: aÂ late-night recital devoted to Liszt, and later Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; and there were debuts for Khatia Buniatishvili (a lunchtime recital), Kirill Gerstein (Strauss's Burleske) and Alice Sara Ott (the ubiquitous Grieg Concerto).Â