The conductor Martyn Brabbins has been and continues to be a champion of new music and of British composers in particular. In celebration of his 60th birthday, the BBC commissioned fourteen composers with whom he has been associated to join in producing a collaborative work, entitled Pictured Within, which is related to the Elgar Enigma Variations, and this project was presented by Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on their Prom on August 13. The participating composers were Dai Fujikura, David Sawyer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Harrision Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Anthony Payne, and John Pickard. This new project was supplied with its own enigma: the theme, somewhat related to the Elgar original, was written by an anonymous composer. Each of the composers was asked to model his or her variation on one specific Elgar variation, and each of those variations was supposed to be roughly the same relative length as its model. The sense that each of the variations is a commentary on aspects of specific variations and on the Elgar as a whole in the voice of that particular composer gives the whole project a coherence and, frankly, interest that one might not have expected from first hearing about it. Not only did one get a range of various personalities and personal styles in the new work, but one retained some memory of those commentaries during the wonderful performance of the Elgar which ended the concert. The fact that the older work was providing the structure for the newer one, while the newer one was offering fresh perspectives on aspects of the older, made for a sort of two way conversation which was very satisfying. Between the two Enigma works, and flanking the intermission, there were performances of Vaughan Williams’s ethereal Serenade to Music (unfortunately not in the original version with sixteen soloists) and Brahms’s Song of Destiny in which the orchestra was joined by the BBC Singers and ENO Chorus. All of the playing and singing on the concert was exceptionally beautiful.

Since 1998, the BBC has run concurrently with the Proms a competition for pre-college composers called INSPIRE. The competition itself is the culmination of a whole series of localized events over the year. Each year there is a concert at which the winning works are presented. Over the years there has been some tinkering with exact format, but for some time now the concert, which is performed by the Aurora Orchestra, this year conducted not by its principal conductor, Nicholas Collon, but by Duncan Ward, who is himself a composer and a past winner of the Inspire competition, has contained only the winning works, not the highly commended ones as well. For the last few years, the concert has also included newly commissioned works from the previous year’s winning composers. In this year’s concert, which was given at the BBC Maida Vale Studios on August 13, the winning works were Alien Attack: Opening Sequence by Jacy de Sousa (born 2004), Melodie by Daniel Liu (born 2003), Cycle of the Sun by Madeleine Chassar-Hesketh (born2005), and Humans May Not Apply by Sasha Scott (born 2002). The newly commissioned pieces were Mare Tranquillitatis by Tom Hughes (born 2004), and Ambience by Isabel Wood (born 2000). Another winning work for chorus, Twilight by Helena Paish (born 2002), was performed on the BBC Singers concert on August 17. All of the compositions were on a level of quite impressive skill and maturity, and the playing was on a level that many, as it were, grown-up composers would just about kill to get.

The Late Night Prom on August 13, was billed as a “Late-Night Mixtape”, a “digital detox” whose contents “spanning repertoire from the 16th century to the present day” and dealing with the “the expansive themes of space, life, and death”, “with the rich, sinewy sound of the Northern Indian sarod running through it,” would “calm the mind and nourish the soul.” (In the words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know.”). The selection of works included works by Arvo Pärt (Fratres–what else?), Max Richter (Vladimir’s Blues and On the Nature of Daylight), Ëriks Ešenvalds (Stars), Pëteris Vasks (The Fruits of Silence), Ola Gjeilo (The Spheres), Iain Farrington (Morning Song), Soumik Datta (Clouds), and John Taverner (The Lamb), along with works by Chopin, Bach, Lobo, Schubert, and some improvisation, apparently, by Soumik Datta (the sarod player) and Cormac Byrne (percussionist), bridging some of the gaps. The other players were pianist Martin James Bartlett, 12 Ensemble (a string orchestra whose artistic directors are Eloisa-Fleur Thoms and Max Ruisi), joined by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae. All of the new-agie, too cool for school, language was a little off-putting, but in fact most of the pieces (none of which was longer than three or four minutes) were quite good and good to hear, the sequence of them was interesting, the playing and singing was all fabulously beautiful, and, it was…sort of ..soothing….so….

The proms concerts are all available for a month on the BBC Sounds website  The INSPIRE concert was recorded for later, date unspecified, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.