A six-minute “mash-up” of Beethoven’s nine symphonies will launch the 2020 Proms season on Friday night.
The new piece will be played by 323 musicians from the BBC’s choirs and orchestras, all playing remotely due to restrictions necessitated by Covid-19.
The lockdown means that most of this year’s Proms season will comprise archive performances by some of the world’s greatest classical musicians.
But it is hoped that live performances will take place in the final two weeks.
“This year it is not going to be the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them,” said David Pickard, who organises the BBC’s annual festival.
“We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”
‘Musical washing machine’
The grand opening is a new composition by Iain Farrington, which celebrates the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
Titled Beethoveniana, it features all five BBC orchestras and the BBC singers, all recorded in lockdown.
Farrington has described it as “taking Beethoven’s music and putting it in a musical washing machine to see which colours run”.
The piece even includes a nod to Saturday Night Fever, which included a disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on its 1977 soundtrack.
“It’s something I’ve enjoyed writing hugely,” said Farrington, “and I think it’s something that hopefully captures a lot of the celebratory spirit of the Proms”.
The performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 19:00 BST. A specially filmed video, featuring two dancers interpreting the music, will be shown on BBC Four on Sunday.
The rest of the first night will delve into the Proms archive, with Igor Levit’s performance of Beethoven’s dramatic Piano Concerto No. 3, originally played at the 2017 First Night; and Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s “fiendishly difficult” saxophone concerto, Panic, which premiered at the Last Night of the 100th-anniversary Proms season in 1995.
The programme will finish with a repeat of the great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado’s final Proms appearance, in 2007, leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a rapturous performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony.
Listeners are being encouraged to take part on Twitter, using the hashtag #PromsListeningParty, where BBC Radio 3 will be sharing programme notes, archive photos and behind-the-scenes stories on the performances.
The archive will continue to be raided for the next six weeks, with highlights including Leonard Bernstein leading the Vienna Philharmonic through Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (26 August); the unforgettable debut of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel (23 August); and Radio 1’s Ibiza Prom, which gave a raft of club classics a fresh lease of life (31 July).
Then, for the final two weeks, starting on 28 August, live music will return to the Royal Albert Hall with 14 concerts featuring mostly British musicians, including pianist Stephen Hough, violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
The season 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.
Details of the live concerts, which are likely to take place without an audience, are still being decided, as organisers observe the constantly-changing social-distancing guidelines for orchestral musicians.
“The advice on how many players we can have has all been – to put it mildly – slightly unclear,” said conductor Sakari Oramo, who told the BBC he was planning “four different options” for the first night.
“There won’t be a Proms atmosphere in the same way,” he added. “But, of course, once the music gets going, the music will take us where it needs to take us.”