US composer Eric Whitacre promises a spaced-out night at the Proms

The ‘ultra-glamourous’ musician will showcase a new work inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope on Sunday night, he tells Michael White.

We’re about to hit Week 4 of the BBC Proms season. And if you’ve been following events so far you’ll know (a) that it’s turning out to be a stronger programme than it looked on paper, and (b) that, as always, these weeks of music at the Albert Hall are living proof that the BBC licence fee is worth it. God knows how they’d survive if the fee were jettisoned.

Highlights in the next few days include Highgate resident Mark Elder conducting the National Youth Orchestra in Mahler’s 9th Symphony on Saturday evening, and John Eliot Gardiner leading a period-sensitive Beethoven’s 5th on Sunday evening.

But on Sunday afternoon, at 3.30pm, there’s the special event of a concert conducted by and largely devoted to Eric Whitacre: the ultra-glamorous American composer of radiantly spaced-out choral music. In the course of it he’ll introduce a new work called “Deep Field” which is a musical response to the images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope as it orbits the earth.

Designed to create what he describes as “the wonder and awe I felt when looking at the images for the first time”, the piece is written for chorus and orchestra and “moves from chords that are out of focus musically, and then come into focus, very slowly in a grand majestic way”.


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More prosaically, it will finish with Whitacre inviting the audience to “participate using their mobile phones to recreate the spectra of the Deep Field image”. Quite how that works in practice remains to be seen, but presumably it will rely on turning down the Albert Hall lights and the musicians remembering what their final notes are.

For a contrast, expect dazzling brightness on Thursday 13 when Steven Osborne is the piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. One of the true curiosities of 20th century concert music, Turangalila is a massive work that celebrates the power of love, in terms of wild exuberance and joyously robust bad taste. It’s rubbery, relentless and exhausting – for the audience as much as for the players. And the pianist in particular gets faced with huge demands.

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As Steven Osborne told me recently, “it isn’t quite a concerto, because the focus on the piano comes and goes: some of the time I’m just a cog in the machine. But what a machine.

“I play the piece quite often, and I’m always struck by its combination of complexity and innocence. You could call it vulgar, but a better word is unguarded. There’s no pretence, just natural expressiveness and genuine enthusiasm”. In huge quantities.

All Proms are broadcast live on Radio 3. Full details on the website: bbc.co.uk/proms

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