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At the Proms


On Sunday I went to my first Prom of the season. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and ‘Magiya’, a new piece co-commissioned by the BBC from Sean Shepherd. This last was the programmers’ equivalent of cod liver oil, the bit they put in every concert to keep you in touch with new work, which is Good For You and must be taken along with the cake and jam.

That aura of Reithian worthiness has ensured that the Proms though always popular have never been cool. In Prick up Your Ears, Stephen Frears’s film about Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, written by Alan Bennett, there is a moment when Orton spots some action in a public lavatory and urges Halliwell to go in with him. ‘But Joe,’ Halliwell protests, his face frozen in agonised indecision, ‘we’ve got tickets for the Proms.’ In that moment a whole life choice, self-improvement versus self-expression, plays itself out.

At 16 I was happy with the Proms as self-improvement, indeed I am still. The first one I remember was Paul Tortelier playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I went with a school friend having hardly ever heard a live orchestra before. The sheer scale of the thing as well as its beauty was overwhelming. Promming downstairs in the Arena was better for sound and vision, but the Gallery just under the roof, so deep there is room to lie down, struck me as absurdly luxurious. I reclined at my ease while Georg Solti and the Berlin Philharmonic knocked themselves out for my enjoyment.

The cheapness makes it feasible to experiment. Through the Proms I have learned to love Sibelius and discovered that, for me at least, Elliott Carter’s Organ Concerto is one of those pieces best heard from the bar. I listen to the music sometimes more and sometimes less intently but always at the back of my mind there is a mood, an overtone, a kind of mental screensaver playing over. It has changed with the decades, from A-level result anxiety through getting married, writing books, publishing them, moving house, being widowed…

The continuities of the Proms are for me the essence of summer in London. When they start, midsummer’s day is already past. From the Circle Bar the light that glints off the Prince Consort in his memorial is deepening by the time the concert begins and by the interval the red brick of Norman Shaw’s Albert Mansions is glowing with sunset. In the circle (I rarely promenade these days) the heat can be intense. On Sunday, looking up at the suspended mushroom shapes in the roof, baffles to improve the acoustics, I thought of two friends who told me how they were driving up to the Hebrides once, listening to a Prom they would have liked to have been at and imagining everyone sweltering in the Albert Hall and the music going out across the country. On my screen saver I reversed the picture and thought, as I soaked up Tchaikovsky, of travelling out with the music, driving north in a cool breeze towards Iona.

Comments on “At the Proms”

  1. Oliver Rivers says:

    Georg Solti never conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms (unless the conjunction Rosemary Hill intended was “or” rather than “and”?). And she would have no difficulty avoiding Elliott Carter’s Organ Concerto even if she remained in the hall rather than the bar, since there is no such piece.

    Those errors are surprising from an author whom I’ve always thought of as scrupulous and intelligent; I doubt very much that Hill would be as sloppy were she writing about architecture. But I’m amazed she deploys the shop-soiled trope that new music is the penance to which the public have to submit before it gets to listen to music it actually likes.

    So far I’ve been to two concerts this season with new works in them–Anderson’s Harmony and Ades’s Totentanz. The reaction of the large audience at each concert was more than enthusiastic. You can of course never be sure that that’s going to be the case; programming new music is always a risk. But the downside–15 or 20 minutes of something not very interesting–is surely worth it, given the possibility that what you’ll actually get is a masterpiece.

    • Leo Watkins says:

      The enthusiastic reaction to Ades’s Totentanz was unsurprising: the hall was so empty, I doubt there were many people there who weren’t already Ades fans. Originally having circle tickets, my friend and I were given a free upgrade to the stalls, as were many other people. We were told it was to avoid embarrassment at the stalls looking so deserted. That, it seems, is what you get when the big work in the second half of a Proms concert is a world premiere by one of the best composers under 50 working today.

      That said, the opposite approach causes its own problems: a couple of years ago, I saw Xenakis’s Pleiades in a programme with The Planets and Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica – one the more daring juxtapositions i’ve seen at the Proms. There were many Holst/Vaughan Williams enthusiasts who clearly hadn’t done their homework on this Xenakis chap: they fled in their droves pretty quickly once Metaux started. I saw one old man in the stalls get up and start shouting ‘stop playing it so loud’. Happily, the performers took no notice. It was a spectacular introduction to Xenakis, for me anyway.

  2. flannob says:

    I quite like some classical and “avant-garde classical” music, but its limited and elite appeal doesn’t justify the huge amounts of public money propping up these empty seats, and I’m sure it could compete well with unsubsidised popular music.

  3. RogerT says:

    Another inaccuracy: it is not true that a new work is “put in every concert” at the Proms.

    Pretty certainly in only a minority of concerts. Often, though, an old work that is new to the Proms, even after all these years.

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