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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Your guide to the BBC Proms in the UAE

The historic event marks only the second time the festival has been exported abroad in its 112-year history, following last year's BBC Proms Australia, which means while the concept is a beloved household name to Brits, much of the UAE population might be at a loss about what to expect.
Classical fans can enjoy a British cultural tradition at Dubai Opera this week at BBC Proms Dubai. Courtesy BBC Proms Dubai.
Classical fans can enjoy a British cultural tradition at Dubai Opera this week at BBC Proms Dubai. Courtesy BBC Proms Dubai.

This week sees the United Kingdom’s largest classical music institution, the BBC Proms, land in town for six very different concerts over four nights at Dubai Opera.

Affectionately known simply as The Proms, the historic event marks only the second time the festival has been exported abroad in its 112-year history, following last year’s BBC Proms Australia, which means while the concept is a beloved household name to Brits, much of the UAE population might be at a loss about what to expect. So let’s bring you up to speed.

Everyone gets involved

The series has been remarkably successful in its aim of democratising the typically-snobby realm of classical music, while the sheer volume of concerts means there’s space for a far broader-than-typical repertoire to be represented, offering listeners the chance to hear rarely-performed and modern works. The reach is astounding – in the UK, all concerts are broadcast live on radio, and many on television. Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek – who has conducted the iconic “Last Night” three times – famously described the Proms as “the world’s largest and most democratic musical festival”.

Classical music for the masses

Originally founded in 1895, the word “prom” is short for promenade concert, an early attempt at demystifying highbrow concert hall music by hosting orchestras in large outdoor spaces where listeners would be invited to stroll casually around. Perfect if the weather holds. Founded by Robert Newman, the BBC first took over the Proms following the impresario’s death in 1927. However the series’ official title, still found on tickets today, is the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, in honour of the programmer who conducted The Proms for nearly 50 years until his death in 1943.

Have you heard about Last Night?

At home, the Last Night of the Proms is a kind of annual national spectacle which sits somewhere between the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day and Sunday night at Glastonbury. The rousing closing night show typically features jingoistic anthems including Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia! It all gets a little bit nauseatingly patriotic, with flags, balloons and fancy dress commonplace among Prommers, whose revelry is broadcast into millions of homes in Britain and beyond.

The programme

The Proms will mark the UAE debut of the world-renowned BBC Symphony Orchestra, which presents three bravely diverse programmes celebrating both the ensemble’s national heritage and the city it is visiting.

The opening First Night of the Proms tonight, will showcase three leading British modern composers – Gary Carpenter’s orchestral showpiece Dadaville, William Walton’s passionate Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor and Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto – alongside Mohammed Fairouz’s tone poem Pax Universalis, marking the first time a major orchestral work has been staged in the Emirati composer’s hometown.

Tomorrow will bring the regional premiere of the BBC Singers for Prom Two, who present a programme pairing established English masterpieces – including Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell and a spread of choral works by Michael Tippett – alongside contemporary compositions from Joanna Marsh and Fairouz.

The orchestra’s second appearance – at Prom Three on Thursday – meanwhile serves up the world premiere of Dubai-based British composer Joanna Marsh’s Flare, alongside favourites including Mozart’s renowned Piano Concerto No. 20 and Edward Elgar’s virtuosic Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma).

Not everything will be on a classical tip, however. Genres will collide at a special Late Night Prom on Thursday, from the small ensemble Joseph Tawadros Quartet which – led by the leader’s oud, supported by piano, double bass and percussion – offers a vibrant fusion of Arabic modal systems and western traditions from classical to rock.

On Friday, the BBC Singers are back for a matinee programme celebrating voices from the British Isles, ranging from Charles Stanford’s Three Motets to traditional folk songs.

The big finish

All of the above performers will be invited back for Dubai Opera’s take on the renowned Last Night of the Proms closing spectacle, on Friday.

The BBC Symphony will weigh in with crowd-pleasers including Shostakovich’s uplifting Festive Overture and Debussy’s impressionistic masterpiece La Mer, while soloist Benjamin Grosvenor performs Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No. 2 in G Minor.

The BBC Singers will be back for Handel’s most popular anthem, Zadok the Priest, while oud virtuoso Tawadros will also return for the world premiere of a new work. And yes, things close with the traditional bang of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and Arne’s Rule, Britannia. Elgar, Arne and you can probably bank on the traditional audience encore singalong of Auld Lang Syne.

• For more information and tickets see www.dubaiopera.com

rgarratt@thenational.ae