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.