It’s that time of the year when orchestras are unveiling their wares to tempt us back into the concert hall after the summer break. What do you look for in new season brochures? As a youngster, I would devour them for unusual repertoire – the sort of stuff that ever-enterprising record companies release on disc. I’ve given up looking. Aren’t we fed up of the overture-concerto-symphony à la carte menu options for concert programming? Or is it a ‘tried and tested’ formula? If the ‘meat and two veg’ programming hasn’t exactly grown stale, the limited roster of participating composers has.

Most seasons, you could see an entire cycle of Beethoven piano concertos in London quite easily, mixing and matching performers and orchestras. I once caught Schumann’s Piano Concerto five times in a single season – not because I’m an avid Schumann fanatic, you understand, but because I had wanted to see the second halves of the programmes in which it also featured. Couldn’t soloists and orchestral planners show a little more imagination? Or risk?

Risk. Aye, there’s the rub. Orchestras, like it or not, are businesses. They need to sell tickets and those with their hands on the purse-strings would argue – perhaps validly – that it’s the traditional core repertoire that brings in the audiences. Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky are ‘box office’. I recently reviewed a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert comprising Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov’s old warhorse Scheherazade – traditional programming, but the Royal Festival Hall was more or less full – which is pretty impressive on a Tuesday evening. When something a bit unusual is programmed, are orchestras rewarded with a good turnout? Hardly. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Cadogan Hall concert with a recently re-discovered CPE Bach St John Passion had an embarrassingly low attendance.

Royal Albert Hall
Royal Albert Hall

Is there an appetite for rare repertoire? There seems to be at the BBC Proms, which provides opportunities to hear the likes of neglected British works, such as Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony or Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto. This season, Moeran’s Violin Concerto, Alwyn’s Symphony no. 1 and Bax’s Roscatha are on the schedule; they’re unlikely to be heading to any other concert hall near you. There’s also a wealth of new music scheduled (three cheers for the BBC Symphony here, which features new commissions as a staple part of its diet throughout the year). The Proms has a distinct advantage in that it faces little competition from London’s main halls. During the rest of the year, if the main halls and opera houses are all playing to full houses, that’s upward of 12,000 punters to tempt. If you’ve scheduled something out of the ordinary, there’s the risk that they’ll vote with their feet and head to something at a different venue.

Some of the most imaginative programming of recent years came at the Southbank Centre with its “The Rest is Noise” series, using Alex Ross’ 2007 book as a hook on which to hang a whole year’s worth of programming. What is significant here is that is was a venue-led series, with the Southbank’s resident orchestras and a number of visiting guests participating, giving real breadth to what turned out to be a fascinating series.

Valery Gergiev © Marco Borggreve
Valery Gergiev
© Marco Borggreve

While noting that a number of British orchestras have ‘yet to declare’, the paucity of imagination in season programming is depressing. The Philharmonia series entitled “The Mighty Five” nearly made my head spin. “The Mighty Handful” was the name given to the group of Russian nationalist composers whom Balakirev drew into his circle: Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Cui. The Philharmonia’s series just contains two concerts – and one of those doesn’t contain a single note by any of those five composers! At least the London Symphony Orchestra, under its “Heartland of Russia” series to mark Valery Gergiev’s final season as Principal Conductor, includes three works by Balakirev, who doesn’t get a look-in by the Philharmonia all season.

However, the Philharmonia’s series “Paris, City of Light” raises my hopes. I’m hoping it turns into a companion worthy of its previous “Vienna, City of Dreams” series, which saw a corner of the Royal Festival Hall turned into a virtual Viennese café and, more importantly, there was some excellent repertoire to boot. Plenty of Ravel and Messiaen, plus a concert performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande hold some promise this time.

Sergei Rachmaninov
Sergei Rachmaninov

Composer immersion series can be a mixed blessing, but the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s series “Rachmaninov: Inside Out” spans the entire season. The favourite symphonies and piano concertos are there, of course, but there are also performances of The Miserly Knight, his cantata Spring and a selection of songs given in orchestations by Vladimir Jurowski’s grandfather. The BBCSO offers a full cycle of Nielsen symphonies under Sakari Oramo, while the Royal Scottish National Orchestra feature Sibelius and Nielsen prominently (both celebrating their 150th birthdays next year).

One of the most intriguing pieces of programming comes from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As part of its 2020 project, it has scheduled a range of music composed in 1914-15, so Sibelius and Elgar feature alongside Bridge, Berg, de Falla and Holst, giving a great feel the the variety of orchestral styles in that period. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, once again, has some of the most creative programming; next season, you can hear rare Rameau, ever rarer Donizetti and a series of geographically themed concerts under the banner “Flying the Flag”, which allows you to hear unknowns George Onslow and Josef Mysliveček.

What keeps programming alive, for me, is the opportunity to see particular conductors, instrumentalists or singers. Recently, the combination of Semyon Bychkov and the period instrument OAE was one I didn’t want to miss and the genial music-making that resulted was outstanding. The LSO hangs an entire thread of its season onto star soloists. Under the banner “International Violin Festival” it parades a dozen violinists, playing whatever repertoire happens to be on their calling card next spring, the most unusual of which is Korngold’s concerto. So, if star soloists and conductors can tempt you, our orchestras have plenty to offer. For more interesting repertoire, you’ll need to be a lot more selective.