It started with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio in 1966. Until that point, the Proms, London’s annual eight-week classical music extravaganza at the Royal Albert Hall, had showcased foreign conductors and soloists but the orchestras were always homegrown. Now here were the Muscovites shaking things up under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky, allowing this quintessentially British institution to branch out a little.
Almost 50 years on, it’s hard to imagine a time when performances from visiting orchestras were not as inevitable as the flag-waving at the Last Night of the Proms. But this year the festival goes further than ever to embrace internationalism. China, Lapland, Istanbul, Iceland, Seoul and Qatar are just some of the places represented in the programme, with a total of 10 orchestras from far-flung corners of the planet making their Proms debuts.
Some of these, including the Melbourne Symphony, are long and firmly established. Others, not least the six-year-old Qatar Philharmonic, are less so. None are particularly well known in the UK. Prommers may be intrigued, but there may be some scepticism: why these particular orchestras? Have they been chosen for their artistic calibre or for their curiosity value?
“We have not sacrificed quality for the sake of a good story,” says Edward Blakeman, Proms editor. But curiosity, he tells me, was a factor: “[This is] a chance to hear repertoire that we know well, played by people with new sets of ears and new skills, as well as new music that we may not know.”
Many of the groups will pair core European repertoire with music from their own countries, allowing us to compare the work of, say, Chinese composer Qigang Chen and Icelandic composer Haukur Tómasson. And even where native music is not on offer, cultural identity will still permeate the programme. The Athenian ensemble Armonia Atenea, for example, performs a selection of works inspired by Greek myths, while the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra will present western musical perspectives on the east, by composers including Balakirev and Respighi.
As Blakeman points out, there is a touch of the Silk Road about the idea of “people coming from everywhere and bringing what is indigenous to them, which then ends up in an international mixture.”
A byproduct is the opportunity to spotlight individuals who are yet to become well-known in the UK, such as Long Yu, the China Philharmonic’s chief conductor. Born in Shanghai on the brink of the cultural revolution, he began his musical education by learning folk songs on the piano with his grandfather, at a time when western classical music was forbidden in China. It wasn’t until the revolution had run its course that he first encountered a classical work – a Mozart symphony – on cassette tape.
“I felt as if something was shining in my eyes,” he says. “I could not believe that such beautiful music [existed].” Several years later, after conservatoire studies in Shanghai and Berlin, he decided to build up China’s classical music profile. “My manager called me nuts,” he recalls. Nevertheless, he went on to found the Beijing Music Festival and to co-found the China Philharmonic within the space of a few years.
Get him on to the subject of his ensemble, and he speaks like a proud father. “[The orchestra] sounds passionate, solid and heavy-duty,” he says. “If you hear live recordings, you might mistake it for a German orchestra, particularly when it plays Richard Strauss, Mahler or Wagner.”
Which raises the question: how does provenance affect orchestral sound? In today’s world of musical cross-pollination, such subtleties may be hard to discern. There are, after all, no Qataris in the Qatar Philharmonic. The majority of its players are European; 14 hail from Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria and Lebanon; the current music director, former cello prodigy Han-Na Chang, is South Korean. Even its regular audience base is only 5 per cent Qatari; more than half is made up of European and American expatriates. What is authentically Qatari is its funding source, the Qatar Foundation, which is run by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, the wife of former ruling emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
“If I were to ask the players to describe their first musical experiences, we would have 30 different cultures represented,” says Chang. Her main concern is to blend and refine the Philharmonic’s sound – a sound that is still experiencing growing pains. “We are still in the process of working on things that other orchestras may take for granted, such as types of bowing and articulation. And naturally so, because the Qatar Philharmonic was founded only six years ago,” she adds.
Some might call this Proms debut premature, but Blakeman takes another view: “Although this symphony orchestra has been created virtually from nothing, it contains some of the very brightest of young European players, a lot of whom have played in ensembles such as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.”
What interests him about this concert is that it offers an opportunity to see what happens “when you take a group of mainly European players and put them in this completely non-European country. What will happen to those musicians playing together?” Besides, he adds, “We have the support of the BBC to put the whole thing on, so we have the freedom to be imaginative in ways that are not necessarily commercial.”
That’s the crux of the matter. The Proms is not just a competitive platform for the word’s best-known ensembles; it’s an opportunity to introduce us to sounds and performers we might not otherwise encounter. For that, perhaps it’s worth taking a risk or two.
BBC Proms, July 18-September 13, bbc.co.uk/proms