Judges for the 15th Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction announced

Lord Martin Rees to chair the Prize.

The judges for the 15th annual Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction have been announced. Chaired by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, the panel includes Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, Professor of Classics Mary Beard, author and editor James McConnachie and Professor of Contemporary British History and former journalist Peter Hennessy.

Rees who calls this his “dream team” has said: “I'm delighted and honoured to be chairing such a distinguished panel in the year of the fifteenth anniversary of the UK’s premier non-fiction prize.”

The panel will produce a shortlist in October and announce the winner of the £20,000 award on 4th November.

Won by Into the Silence by Wade Davis last year, the prize has previously been awarded to among others Stalingrad by Antony Beevor, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro and Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Deadline for the competition is 28 June 2013. Publishers may submit up to three books with publication dates between 10 November 2012 and 31 December 2013. More information can be found here.

Dr Johnson. Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images.
BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.