BMW Classics 2018: A year for dance

In 2018, we welcomed a new face to BMW Classics. We're talking, of course, about our new Music Director Sir Simon Rattle. And 2018 brought with it another change for our LSO On Track and Guildhall School musicians: they wouldn't just be playing an arrangement of a popular piece of classical music, they'd be playing the world premiere of a brand new piece, written especially with them in mind.


Whereas all our previous BMW Classics concerts had focussed on the work of one composer, in 2018 Sir Simon served up a smorgasbord of different composers' works from the 19th century to the present day, all inspired by dance and ballet. Take a closer look below, but first let Sir Simon tell you what about the BMW Classics series 'tickles [his] fancy', and just why he was so excited to take the reigns in 2018.

Dvořák Slavonic Dances (1878 & 1886)

Furiant Op 46 No 1; Skočná Op 46 No 7; Kolo Op 72 No 7

Dvořák was relatively unknown at the time of his Slavonic Dances commission in 1878. The German composer Johannes Brahms had spotted that Dvořák had won several prizes and suggested his publishers contact the younger Czech. They did, requesting he write Bohemian dances in the style of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.

At the time of Dvořák’s birth (1841), Czech people had no real country of their own. The regions where they lived – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia – were part of the Austrian Empire. Dvořák’s life-long passion was the Czech national folk tradition. However, while he wrote a lot of Czech-sounding compositions, he hardly ever used any actual folk melodies in his music – he was a sort of magpie, using elements from his native musical heritage, most notably the rhythms, but the melodies are his own. His Slavonic Dances are no different.

Tchaikovsky Pas de deux from ‘The Nutcracker’ (1892)

It’s a testament to the Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s genius that The Nutcracker is hailed as possibly the most popular ballet ever written, full of glorious, hummable tunes. But it is also ironic, and rather sad, that Tchaikovsky was going through an emotional maelstrom at the time of composition. ‘I am experiencing a kind of crisis,’ he claimed, the combined result of continual attacks from St Petersburg critics, the rejection of his latest opera The Queen of Spades by the Tsar, and the disastrous breakdown of his well-documented friendship with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, not to mention that he was a lifelong sufferer of depression. As if this were not enough, his beloved sister, Sasha died suddenly. 

It is a wonder, then, that a single note was ever written, but as it was commissioned by the Director of the Mariinsky Imperial Theatres, it was too important to be ignored. Out of darkness comes light: Tchaikovsky poured all his love for his sister into the role of Clara, with fond memories of their childhood Christmases.

Massenet Dances from ‘Le Cid’ (1885)

In his time, Massenet’s operas were extremely popular and performed on an extraordinarily regular basis (comparable to Andrew Lloyd Webber today). His popularity has waned over the years, but the ballet suite from Le Cid remains popular in the concert hall. Though he was a Frenchman, Massenet had a life-long love affair with all things Spanish and his 1885 opera Le Cid is set in 12th-century Spain. The plot revolves around the famous knight known as ‘El Cid’ who stopped the advance of the Moors and fights for the woman he loves.

The ballet occurs in Act Two, on a gorgeous spring day when townspeople celebrate with a series of dances from various regions of Spain, in the case of 2018's concert: Castile (Catalan), Madrid and the Basque area of Navarre, in the three movements called Castillane, Madrilene and Navarraise.

Kate Whitley Sky Dances (2018)

This piece was specially commissioned for BMW Classics 2018, for the young musicians of LSO On Track and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to play alongside LSO players. Kate said of her piece:

'For the amazing setting of an outdoor performance in Trafalgar Square I wanted to make a piece of music that was big and dramatic, and with a theme that both linked to the dances in the rest of the programme and had something universal about it. So I came to the idea of the sky – something that is above and around all of us – and imagining what the music and movement of the sky would be. There are two movements, ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’, capturing the different cycles the sky goes through.'

Take a look at this video to learn more about the music, and see how our young musicians rose to the challenge of rehearsing a never-before-heard piece!

Stravinsky Selections from ‘The Firebird’ (1910)

Stravinsky’s ballets The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) are all synonymous with the legendary Ballets Russes, a pioneering corps de ballet founded in 1909 by the genius impresario Sergei Diaghilev. It really must have been an incredible experience to be a member of the audience at these early Ballets Russes performances.

The sophisticated Parisian audience delighted in the whole production of The Firebird: it was an instant success, opening the door for Stravinsky’s success as a composer and led to future collaborations with Diaghilev. The story is a conglomeration of various Russian folk tales, primarily that of the mythical Firebird, a majestic, magical glowing bird from a land far away, and the evil magician, Kashchei the Deathless.

On stage in 2018

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Paul Rissmann presenter
London Symphony Orchestra
Young musicians from LSO On Track *
Musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Programme notes by Sarah Breeden, Sky Dances by Kate Whitley


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On Sunday 7 June at 3pm BST, join us on YouTube as we broadcast last year's BMW Classics concert recorded in June 2019 at Trafalgar Square. Head to lso.co.uk/alwaysplaying for more details.

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