On the pages of Musbook.com, a sort of “Facebook for musicians/musical people” to which I subscribe, there has been some interesting and rather heated recent discussion about the rightness, or otherwise, of the Royal Albert Hall continuing as a venue for the Proms. Two journalists, Matthew Tucker and Jessica Duchen, have argued eloquently and thoughtfully for a change of venue (see http://www.classicalmusic.org.uk/2010/07/new-direction-for-bbc-proms-change-venue-south-bank-centre.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/classical-music-venues-not-for-the-fainthearted-2036136.html for their articles), and I have to say I agree with them. I have avoided the Proms in recent years because I find the RAH so uncomfortable: it is airless and hot, with insufficient loos and not enough places to have a drink/snack beforehand, or during the interval. I find those corridors that run around the auditorium rather like a dog track, full of shuffling, befuddled people trying to find their seats, and the numbered and lettered entrances are incredibly confusing. The auditorium itself, more like a giant ‘corrida’ than a music venue, is stuffy and on several occasions, I have nodded off during a performance, only to be woken by the applause at the end of a piece. Rather galling to have missed much of Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart when I spent £25 on a ticket!
The real problem though is the acoustic. Despite various attempts to improve it, such as the “mushrooms” suspended from the ceiling, the RAH still ‘boasts’ an appalling acoustic. In a recent interview in International Piano magazine, pianist Paul Lewis talked about performing the Beethoven piano concertos at the RAH at this year’s Prom season: “you need a big piano and you just have to play it loud”. At first I read this remark as simply facetious, but on reflection, I think it is an example of just how up against it performers are with the RAH acoustic. It’s a great venue for music on a vast scale, such as Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (which I have performed at the RAH with massed school choirs), or Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand which opened the Proms this year, but it lacks the appropriate intimacy for smaller scale chamber works or solo recitals.
I am not sure why we sentimentally cling to the RAH as the natural home of the Proms. The concert series originated at the Queen’s Hall (which was bombed in 1941 and subsequently demolished), under the direction of not Henry Wood, but a Mr Robert Newman. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the new BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”.
After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.
So, the Proms have existed at the RAH for less than 70 years, so pressing the case for “historical precedent” seems a little weak to me. I’m all for a complete rethink of the Proms, and have joined in the lively discussions on Musbook.com, arguing for consideration of the South Bank and its excellent venues as a new home for the Proms. Not only does the Royal Festival Hall boast a fine acoustic, but it is also centrally located, being close to Waterloo, is a lively arts and cultural centre, and has many good restaurants and winebars close by, whereas the RAH is out on a limb in South Ken, devoid of eateries and other amenities for pre-concert drinks or suppers.
Supporters of the RAH claim that the “spirit” of the Proms would be lost in a change of venue, but I do not see why this should be the case. The flag-waving can continue, as well as yelling “heave-ho!” as the lid of the piano is raised. Indeed, why not spread the Prom concerts around the fine concert venues of London, places which tend to close down during August, such as the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls (which is currently used for some Proms), or St John’s Smith Square and St James’s? Rather like the London Open House and Art Open Studios events which take place periodically, I would love to see as many music/arts venues as possible across the capital throw open their doors to concert-goers. London is blessed with so many great venues, but which are only known to a select few. One could enjoy a sort of “musical safari”, going from Handel at Cadogan Hall (Chelsea) to Haydn at the Wigmore (West End), Vivaldi at a City church, then up to Highgate for Schubert at The Red Hedgehog, heading south to the Purcell Room for a drop of Bach, east to Shostakovich at Sutton House (a charming National Trust property in Hackney with a very nice, intimate concert space), finishing off with Korngold at King’s Place…..
Another argument for the continuation of the Proms at RAH is its inclusiveness. Anyone can attend a Prom, everyone is welcome, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Actually, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing at any concert venue – and I believe that it’s often the personality or manner of the soloist/orchestra/musical director which sets the tone for the evening rather than what the audience are wearing. Mitsuko Uchida can, for example, make the large space of the Royal Festival Hall feel as intimate as Schubert’s salon. Maria Joao Pires at the Wigmore made us feel we were enjoying music at home with her and her friends, while Stephen Hough turned the hall into a vast, cold and unfriendly place, and Paul Lewis always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere than on the concert platform. When I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Beethoven piano sonatas a couple of years ago, when he presented the entire cycle at RFH, the sense of awed reverence had begun even before we entered the hall, and it felt as if a vast barrier had been put up between him on the stage and us, the audience.
Of course, this whole argument for a change of venue for the Proms is hypothetical, as the process of moving such a great leviathan as the Proms would be far too complex and expensive, and I suspect the vast majority of people – audience, performers, concert promoters – are quite content to remain at the RAH, accepting its shortcomings and embracing its (few, in my view) benefits (capacity being the main one).
But we have a coalition government, which somehow, seems rather daring and new (though not unprecedented). So, why not a coalition of music venues with the single purpose of presenting music for all?
Just a thought……!