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Great improvisations: organist Olivier Larry set to pull out all the stops 

02 August, 2019 — By Michael White

Olivier Latry, organist at the stricken Notre Dame, delivers Sunday’s Prom. Photo: Deyan Parouchev 

The Proms at the Albert Hall, I’m sad to say, got off to a poor start the other week with what turned out to be an underwhelming opening night – thanks largely to a conductor, Karina Kanellakis, who didn’t deliver.

She conducted by the book but failed to venture very far beyond it, as you need to if you’re going to be special. And things barely improved a few nights later when an uber-orchestra made up from two leading conservatoires – the Juilliard, New York, and Royal Academy, London, – produced a competent Britten Violin Concerto but a shabby Rite of Spring that hadn’t been rehearsed enough.

But with six weeks of concerts still to come, it can only get better (he says hopefully). And there are some promising things on the horizon, one of them being a recital this Sunday morning on the Albert Hall’s monster of an organ.

It’s given by Olivier Latry who is one of the most eminent organists in the world and acquired a more unwelcome fame this year when Notre Dame in Paris burned down. Because Latry is the so-called “Titulaire” of Notre Dame, in charge of its mighty organ loft. And in the aftermath of that terrible event he found himself without an instrument to play or a building to play in.

Having had the occasional experience of being with Latry on a Sunday morning at Notre Dame, high up in that loft and watching him play the virtuosic Grand Improvisation which is the key musical moment of High Mass there, my heart went out to him when I saw everything burn. And I know how devastating it’s been for everyone on his music staff.

But the good-ish news is that the organ isn’t irretrievably lost. Something survives. And a day will hopefully come when Latry plays his Grand Improvisations again, although it won’t be for some years.

Meanwhile, he’s taking the opportunity to play elsewhere. And he’ll be literally pulling out the stops on Sunday, with an 11am programme that includes Bach, Liszt and Widor and ends with – what else? – a grand improvisation. Expect aural fireworks, if that isn’t an unfortunate analogy.

Also in the Proms this week is a performance of the orchestral piece that put James MacMillan on the map when he was a young and thrusting composer, his Confession of Isobel Gowdie (Friday 2nd, 7.30pm).

Tuesday 6th brings the belated London premiere of a cello concerto written in the 1940s by a Polish/Soviet composer overshadowed by Pro­kofiev and Shostakovich but now finding his due place on the world stage, Mieczyslaw Weinberg (August 6, 7.30pm).

And there’s the interesting experiment of a “Relaxed” Prom on the morning of Tuesday 6th (11.30am), designed especially for people with small children or with disabilities that make standard concert procedures hard to handle. The BBC Philharmonic play popular works by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

And the audience will be free to move around, make noise, and enjoy what are described as “chill-out” spaces in the Albert Hall. A good idea I think.

• Full details at bbc.co.uk/proms

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