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Proms Corner 2018: An Oxford musician’s perspective

You’re a musician in Oxford, and have just reached the end of a Trinity term packed with rehearsals, gigs and trips to the pub. The summer ahead seems unbearably long. What do you do? Despite being parted from the buzz of the Oxford music scene, musicians from OUMS and beyond continued to throw themselves into what the great diversity of the music world has to offer. Whether it be through summer music courses, festivals, freelance orchestras or choir tours, this summer has seen our musicians travelling all over the UK, into Europe and around the world.

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At the crux of this hive of musical activity, however, lies a summer pastime enjoyed by music makers and lovers alike. Hailed as the ‘greatest classical music festival in the world’, the BBC Proms have drawn in many from Oxford’s musical family this summer. With a staggering variety of musical styles, genres and eras on offer and visiting artists from across the globe; there is, more than ever, something for everyone.

As always, the Proms Season 2018 was a truly cosmopolitan enterprise. We were treated to programmes and artists not only from all over Europe but from as far as Cuba, Jamaica, USA, Senegal and Morocco. While there is a strong presence of Western Classical Music at the Royal Albert Hall, the Proms strive to embrace a wealth of musical traditions, from the likes of jazz, reggae, salsa and tango to those of musical theatre, feminist rap, folk and electronic music.

This sheer variety is part of one of the most central aspects of the Proms: accessibility, highlighted by Tom Service’s musical analyses with Nicholas Collon and The Aurora Orchestra, the multimedia ‘Sound of an Orchestra’ Prom and the ‘Relaxed Prom’ for those who wish to experience the Proms in a more informal setting. Tied closely to this education, which the Proms valued greatly – proved not only by the diversity of music on offer, but through ‘Proms Extra’ talks and workshops. It seemed a particularly relevant theme this year, where we celebrated the centenary of the greatest musical educator of all time: Leonard Bernstein.

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So, what is it about the Proms that attracted so many of us this year? For during my summer at the Royal Albert Hall, I noticed that certain Proms were attended by a particularly large Oxford cohort. Take West Side Story – it being Bernstein’s centenary,the first time this production had been performed in full for a long time in the UK, and by the John Wilson Orchestra, this performance was bound to attract the masses. It was a night to remember, from the soaring melodies in Maria and Tonight to the funky rhythms of Cool and Something’s Coming. Bernstein’s music was well received at many other Proms, including his earlier but equally brilliant On The Town, and National Youth Jazz Orchestra’s fiery interpretation of West Side Story. Whilst less heavily attended, Bernstein’s introspective and rarely performed symphonic output had a profound impact on those who were there to experience it.

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BBC Prom 39 – West Side Story with Mikaela Bennett (Maria) and Ross Lekites (Tony)


Richard Strauss, another frequently performed composer this season, also proved a favourite amongst Oxford musicians. Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’) saw several groups scattered down from the arena up to the gallery, all marvelling at Strauss’ gift for orchestration and programmatic writing. His Alpine Symphony was also performed a few days earlier to an awe-struck audience, who were just as mind-blown (if not befuddled) by Georg Friedrich Haas’ Concerto grosso No.1 for not one, not two but FOUR Alpenhorns. Think it can’t get any more impressive? You’re wrong – the soloists were faced with microtonal music, making it even harder than it was already to place each pitch accurately. If you don’t know what an Alpenhorn is, google it and prepare to be amazed.

Strauss’ tone poems Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration also moved audiences to tears at the Prom best-attended by Oxford students: Prom 68 with The Berlin Philharmonic. With Kirill Petrenko making his Proms debut (as their new conductor-in-residence), the audience waited in eager anticipation – and boy did he deliver! Kicking the weekend off with a suitably colourful performance of Dukas’ ballet music La péri and impressing us with a slick rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, performed by none other than the phenomenal Yuja Wang. As the weekend came to an end, Petrenko went out with a bang: Beethoven 7 had never been so indescribably brilliant.

Some of us even made it past the complex queuing system into to the Last Night of the Proms. There we enjoyed lots of knee bending clapping, and belting out ‘Rule Britannia’ whilst waving our EU flags and berets high in the air… It had the largest feeling of community out of all the Proms, with a massive picnic on steps outside the hall, everyone holding hands for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and some teary goodbyes when it was all over.

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I think the Last Night highlights something very important about the Proms. People come not just for the music, but for the people. Everyday you are likely to meet someone new, learn something mind-blowing about music, or hear an unforgettable anecdote. You are certainly likely to bump into someone you know, especially if you’re a musician! The Proms attract a global audience not just on TV but in person, and whilst some Prommers have been attending regularly for decades, it is constantly attracting newcomers from all walks of life imaginable. Some of my closest friendships have been formed and strengthened during the Proms, where I always come across some of the most lovely, interesting people. This is one of many factors that make the BBC Proms totally unique from any other concert series in the UK, if not the world.

If you haven’t been to a Prom before and are convinced by my little ramble, I highly recommend you try it out. Whether it turns out to be an enjoyable evening out or a life-changing event, you are guaranteed to get something worthwhile out of it.

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