This time last year I wrote a piece for this blog arguing for a change of venue for the Proms, London’s two-month summer classical music festival. We’re a fortnight into the current season, and I have already attended two Prom concerts, courtesy of Bachtrack. One was at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue just off Sloane Square, with comfy seats, a great view of the stage wherever you sit, a fine acoustic (it’s a converted church), and a champagne bar. Here I heard the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani give an exquisite and at times idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations (read my review for Bachtrack here). And then, last Friday, I attended the Proms ‘proper’, if you will, for a lively evening of Franco-Hispanic music by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla: from Bach’s Baroque world in microcosm to a sweeping panorama of Spain evoked in lively and atmospheric orchestral music.
As a child and teenager, I used to go to the Proms every year with my parents, who would pour over the programme as soon as it was published (this, of course, many years pre-internet, and the Proms booklet would be for sale in WH Smith). There wasn’t such competition for tickets then, although tickets for the First and Last nights were allocated by ballot. I heard a wide variety of music, and sometimes we would sit in the choir stalls behind the stage, affording one a wonderful view of the orchestra at work. About 10 years ago, I heard Lang Lang, playing Tchaikovsky, before he shot to superstar status, and before that Evgeny Kissin. The last time I was at the Proms, before last Friday, we sat high up in the vertiginous upper circle, where we sweltered, and from where Stephen Hough, the soloist, was but a speck on the stage, and Rach Three was rather lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. In the interval we drank warm white wine out of plastic glasses and had to sit on the stairs near the ladies’ loo. Not especially enjoyable. The whole experience was rather tiring, fraught and effortful. After that, I decided I would avoid the Proms.
The Proms have not always been resident at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert series was pioneered by a Mr Robert Newman, and its first home was the Queen’s Hall. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the 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.
What is so wonderful about the Proms is that the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today. Even as we approached the hall last Friday (I went with a friend who had never been to a Prom before), there was a buzz of excited expectancy amongst the people milling around the hall, queuing to “promenade” (pay a fiver and stand in the arena, or up in the gods), or for returns at the box office. It was a fine summer evening, the Albert Memorial gleamed in the setting sun, the park was still full of people enjoying the last warmth of the day, lovers strolling hand in hand, children running across the grass, a patient queue at the bus stop.
After picking up the tickets at the Press Office, we had a drink in the bar near door 9 and at the appointed hour drifted into the hall where we had excellent seats in the circle. Inside, the hall vibrated with the hum of 5000 people in that special state of eager expectation a few minutes ahead of the start of a concert. The orchestra were taking their places, the ‘prommers’ claiming their ‘pitch’ in the arena. Above the stage, a plush red and gold velvet swag proclaimed that these were the ‘BBC Proms’. Then the formalities began, first with the arrival of the assistant leader of the orchestra, then the leader, and finally the ‘master of ceremonies’, conductor Juanjo Mena (who takes over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in September). With the raise of his baton, the evening’s entertainment was underway.
I am well aware of the limitations of the Albert Hall as a music venue: small scale, chamber and solo recitals are often lost in its vast space, and its dodgy acoustic can give the sense that the music is being heard from a next door room. Even the full-size orchestra last Friday struggled at times to be heard, especially in the quieter passages of the opening piece (Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ from his Images for orchestra), but at other times, the woodwind and brass sections (who were particularly fine throughout the concert) sang through perfectly, clear, bright, melodious and mellow, while the strings were silky and translucent.
“Where are they off to?” my friend asked after the applause for Ravel’s wonderful Rhapsodie Espagnole and the orchestra started to drift off the stage. I pointed out it was the interval and therefore time for another glass of perfectly chilled rosé in the bar. Nick expressed his delight at being there, spoke intelligently about what he had heard and what we would hear in the second half. He seemed intrigued by the idea that I could have come to any Prom I care to, courtesy of Bachtrack. Around us people chatted and laughed; the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Afterwards, walking back to the tube station along the tunnel at South Ken, we overhead other people’s responses to what they had heard (always useful grist to the reviewer’s mill!). We talked all the way home on the train and agreed that we’d had a great night out.
And this, to me, is what the Proms is all about. Too often people are put off attending classical music because they perceive it as stuffy, elitist and populated by (largely) snooty octogenarians who demand hushed reverence. The Wigmore audience is perhaps the very worst example of this, although it doesn’t bother me any more, and without those people the Wigmore probably wouldn’t exist. But at the Proms, everyone is welcome. In recent years, the programmes have definitely become more “populist”, with themed concerts such as a Dr Who Prom, and, this year, a Human Planet prom and forthcoming Horrible Histories and Spaghetti Western proms. Music snobs and critics may throw their hands up at this, but I think these concerts are a great way of introducing classical music to people who may have no previous knowledge or experience of it. The atmosphere inside the Albert Hall is very friendly and good-natured, with its special Prom traditions: the Prommers always yell “heave-ho!” as the piano lid is raised, for example. And if people applaud during movements, so what? To me, it’s a spontaneous, instant response to something they have enjoyed, and should not be sneered at as ignorance of “concert etiquette”. (The habit of not applauding between movements had not existed before the twentieth century.) So, hip hip hooray for the Proms and all they stand for, and long may they continue. You can be guaranteed a huge variety of music, from new commissions to old favourites, works on a vast scale (Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic Symphony), to intimate chamber music and solo miniatures.
I am back at the Proms towards the end of August for a late-night recital of Liszt, including the beautiful Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I am not sure how Liszt’s solo piano works will fare in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, but I have little doubt that this is the kind of venue, and concert experience, of which Liszt himself would have thoroughly approved.
For more information about the Proms click here
Bachtrack.com – international concert listings site