Proms 2021: want to get into classical? The festival’s stars on the best piece of music to start you off


After the inevitable year’s hiatus, the BBC Proms are back in person at the Royal Albert Hall starting today. With the much-celebrated Prommers tickets (usually standing, a bit like the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe but with fewer backpacks, though this year the organisers are keeping a close eye on Covid restrictions, so you may end up with a chair) costing only £7.12 on the day, and a varied programme ranging from a night of Broadway musical hits to a collaboration between the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Jules Buckley and the art-jazz-pop-poet Moses Sumney; an evening with the outrageously cool saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia or a performance of Glyndebourne’s sumptuous production of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, it’s probably the most varied and accessible classical music festival in the world.

But even that can feel a bit daunting, if you’re a classical music novice. How do you untangle your Schumanns from your Schuberts, or your Mussorgskys from your Mozarts, and how many Bachs are there anyway? Forget all that - here, some of the stars of this year’s Proms pick their favourite pieces of music to get you hooked.

Dalia Stasevska – Conductor

Vivaldi: Recomposed by Max Richter

I find Vivaldi’s Four Seasons such an inspiring work, its freshness and creativity amazes me over and over again, though the work was composed a long time ago. Maybe some of the same reasons inspired one of my favourite contemporary composers, Max Richter, to grab this work and recompose it into something new. He treats the music through a contemporary lens with such brilliance, freshness and creativity and manages to add some new layers to the beloved original work. This reminds me of another great recomposed work, Pulcinella by Stravinsky, that is likewise based on Italian baroque music and shows the transformation music can take in the great hands of a composer.

Dalia Stasevska conducts the First Night of the Proms on July 30. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra plays Pulcinella in their Stravinsky Prom on August 6

Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Cellist

Sonata for cello and piano by Sergei Rachmaninov

This whole piece takes you on such a special journey but the more times you listen to it, the more detail you find. The four movements are all very distinct in their characters but the overall arc is one journey. There are so many melodic and musical lines happening all the time, the piano is sometimes playing four, five or six voices and you also have the cello, and they all have their vital contributing role.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays with all his siblings in the Family Prom on August 29, and as the soloist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra playing Dvořak’s Cello Concerto on September 5

Jess Gillam – saxophonist and TV and Radio Presenter

On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter

Sometimes a piece of music can make the world feel as though it’s melting away around you. Sometimes a piece can transport you to an alternative reality; a place away from much of the tension and conflict in the world. Sometimes a piece can inspire memories to flash before your eyes and encourage you to reflect on and contemplate life. This is one of those pieces. It will embrace your ears in its warmth and for 6 minutes, the world will feel like a better place.

Jess Gillam is part of the BBC Proms presenting team

Steven Isserlis – Cellist

The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

The Rite of Spring appeals to young and old, to strict modernists and equally strict classicists – and to lovers of rock, jazz, soul music etc. There’s something for everyone: strangely poetic lyricism, haunting colours, the sense of urgent narrative. Above all, though, there is irresistible excitement, the barbaric rhythms pulsing their way into our bodies and minds. I cannot think of a more thrilling piece. I first heard it on the 1960 recording by Igor Markevitch and the Philharmonia Orchestra – and was hooked.

Steven Isserlis is the soloist with Vladimir Jurowski & the LPO on August 12

Isata Kanneh-Mason – Pianist

The Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert

This is the work that really introduced me to classical music as a child and I can still remember exactly how I reacted to it. I always said it was my favourite piece! I loved the fact that it came from a story about a trout moving through the water, so it was very visual and very accessible to a younger ear. It’s joyful. It’s easy to understand the harmonies and lovely to hear all the different sounds and “voices” of the musical instruments as they are all so distinct from one another.

Isata Kanneh-Mason plays with her siblings at the Family Prom on August 29

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason – Pianist

Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This is the piece that really got me interested in classical music, but I think concertos in general are a great place to start, as you see a soloist with an orchestra and all that can be created. This concerto with its minor key in the first movement creating a dark atmosphere, has one of the most beautiful, sometimes turbulent, second movements, and then ends with a wonderful, light-hearted, third movement. It shows some of the many “sides” of Mozart and is a good way for people to see how much range there is in classical music.

Jeneba Kanneh-Mason plays with the Chineke! Orchestra on August 24 and with her siblings at the Family Prom on August 29

Nardus Williams – Soprano

L’Orfeo: Toccata by Claudio Monteverdi

I’d absolutely recommend Monteverdi’s Toccata from his opera L’Orfeo. It’s the instrumental introduction that precedes what was one of the first operas ever written. Despite its age (414 years old!) it has an incredible vitality. Designed to essentially silence the audience and draw their attention to the stage, it does so in the grandest and most monumental fashion. If you were looking for the most epic soundtrack to enter a room to – this is it.

Nardus Williams performs in the To Soothe the Aching Heart Prom on August 16

Rakhi Singh – Co-founder and Music Director, Manchester Collective

Orawa by Wojciech Kilar

Orawa by Polish composer Kilar is an attention-grabbing mix of folk, motoring groove and pure joy. The energy is immediately accessible but it is in no way a predictable piece, with cheeky twists and turns in the patterns, which keep you on your toes as a listener. The rustic nature of the music evokes the mountains of Poland yet there is also a sense of urban activity that builds, until at 8 minutes it reaches an ecstatic and frenetic climax. It’s an absolute banger.

The Manchester Collective play with Mahan Esfahani on August 17

Anna Lapwood – Organist

Jonathan Scott’s organ transcription of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

If you’ve never heard the organ before, this is a pretty good place to start! Jonathan Scott has taken Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a piece which many of us associate with the broomsticks in Disney’s Fantasia, and transformed it into a feast for the eyes and ears. From shimmering strings through growling reeds to the rich sound of the full organ, we hear the organ not just as a box of whistles but as an instrument with an amazing capacity to tell a story.

Anna Lapwood plays Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony with the Hallé Orchestra on September 7

Freddie De Tommaso – Tenor

Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo by Pietro Mascagni

It is impossible not to be enchanted by the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. The particular recording I like is from 1969, conducted by Herbert von Karajan at La Scala in Milan. Part of the charm and beauty of the Intermezzo is that it comes after a very intense period in the opera - there has just been a fiery duet between the betrayed Santuzza and her feckless ex Turridu in which she curses him, immediately followed by another emotionally charged duet. After all this high drama, the Intermezzo provides welcome calm. When listening, if you close your eyes, it is very easy to imagine the stunning landscape of Sicily as this beautiful music washes over you.

Freddie De Tommaso performs in the To Soothe the Aching Heart Prom on August 16

Kalena Bovell – Conductor

Lacrymosa by Evanescence

For a novice of classical music, I would like to show them how classical music has influenced other mainstream bands they may have heard played on radio stations. Therefore, my song suggestion is Lacrymosa by alternative rock band Evanescence. Inspired by the film Amadeus, the song incorporates Mozart’s Lacrimosa from the Requiem. Lead singer Amy Lee’s celestial voice is mesmerising, soaring above a brooding melody that is elevated by the use of an SATB choir.

Kalena Bovell conducts the Chineke! Orchestra on August 24

Sally Matthews – Soprano

Romance (Larghetto) by Frédéric Chopin

As a classical musician I often get asked what piece of music or opera might be best to introduce someone to classical music – but there’s no better place than film for people to discover classical masterpieces for themselves.

Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, The Big Lebowski, made use of composers ranging from Mozart to Bartok, Mussorgsky to Beethoven, to create a pivotal emotional impact, increase intensity or heighten comedy. This is so perfectly shown in The Truman Show where Chopin’s Romance-Larghetto is used to transport us when Truman suddenly sees the girl who is trying to free him from his unwitting entrapment.

Sally Matthews performs in the To Soothe the Aching Heart Prom on August 16

The BBC Proms run from July 30 to September 10,

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