The Proms – London’s annual eight week festival of (mostly) classical music – is over for another year, despatched with the traditional Last Night pomp and circumstance and noisy flag-waving enthusiasm.
This year I attended more Proms than at any other time during my adulthood, and out of the 10 I attended, I reviewed 6 concerts. I also deliberately chose Proms outside my usual “comfort zone” of piano music and this gave me the opportunity to experience some truly wondrous orchestral music including Messiaen’s joyful and ecstatic Turangalila Symphonie, two Sibelius symphonies, an all-Brahms Prom (with the splendid Marin Alsop) and a superb Schubert C major Symphony with Bernard Haitink. As a pianist who (mostly) plays music conceived with orchestral textures in mind (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert), to see and hear live orchestral music was extremely instructive. Aside from that, the infectious atmosphere and good-humour of the Proms, and going with a companion or companions to each concert, undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment.
Every spring, when the Proms season is announced there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and this year was no different. In fact, if anything the anxious and dissenting voices were louder than usual because with the BBC Charter up for review, the BBC’s activities under extreme scrutiny by the Conservative government, and a general antipathy towards classical music, also on the part of this government, it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. As usual there were howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” (with concerts such as the Radio One Pete Tong “Ibiza” Prom or the Sherlock Prom), or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms, but each season the Proms has a pretty good go at doing this – and usually gets it just about right, in my opinion. The Proms enjoy a pre-eminent position as a national treasure, and for every detractor there are hundreds of others vociferously standing up for them (myself included). That the Proms attract such noisy debate every year is surely a good thing, and a sign of their enduring importance in our national cultural landscape.
When the Proms were originally conceived, by Robert Newman (not Henry Wood as many people assume), the intention was to bring classical music to a wider audience by presenting “easy” pieces and gradually introducing more challenging repertoire. They were called “Promenade” concerts because a large part of the seating area at Queens Hall, their first home, had no seats and so patrons had to stand during performances. Patrons were also allowed to eat, drink and smoke in the auditorium, though were requested not to strike matches during the quiet passages. The first Promenade concert programmes were lengthy affairs, often lasting three hours and certainly challenged the audience with Beethoven and Wagner nights, and new works which were called “novelties”.
The spirit of the original Proms continues today, with modern and contemporary music and new commissions being presented alongside more familiar repertoire, and “themed” concerts: this year, for example, solo Bach in separate concerts featuring works for violin, cello and keyboard (Andras Schiff’s magical performance of the ‘Goldberg Variations’). There were “novelties” too, such as all five Prokofiev piano concertos in a single concert: for some this was too much Prokofiev in one night, or nothing more than an “ego trip” for conductor Valery Gergiev; but for others (myself included) it was an extraordinarily immersive experience, with fine pianism on display from Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergey Babayan, and Arcadi Volodos. As for the “gimmicks”, these were largely successful and very popular (and let’s just pause here to recall the fuss and eye-pulling that erupted the first year the John Wilson Orchestra performed at the Proms – and how they are now an integral part of the festival, ever popular and always attracting a full house).
Nowhere else can one enjoy such an international range of artists: leading orchestras, and celebrated conductors and artists from all around the world converge on the Proms between July and September, and this year there have been fine performances by established artists such as YoYo Ma, Andras Schiff, Bryn Terfel, Mitsuko Uchida and Daniel Barenboim, as well as the younger generation of performers, including Martin James Bartlett, Nicola Benedetti and Benjamin Grosvenor. In addition, in recent years there have been spin offs such as the excellent Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall, and Proms in the Park, as well as pre-concert talks and lectures, and Proms Extra programmes on television.
The Proms also remain affordable – you can Promenade for a fiver – and the more relaxed atmosphere means that classical music “newbies” are more likely to sample the Proms rather than a concert in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall. When I attended the all-Brahms Proms with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Marin Alsop, I shared a box with a family who had never been to the Proms before – and they loved it: the special Proms atmosphere, the music, the whole experience.
We’re very lucky to have the Proms and we should celebrate rather than criticise them. Of course not every concert is going to appeal to everyone, but for every person who enjoyed the Sherlock Prom or the Ibiza Prom, I can guarantee that there are countless others who have enjoyed total immersion in Sibelius or Bach, Brahms or Bruckner. And if the more “populist” Proms encourage people to explore classical music, then the Proms are definitely doing it right. Of course there’s more the Proms could do – more coverage of women composers, for example – but one hopes that the organisers and concert planners learn from past seasons, while looking at what other artists and orchestras are doing in order to move the great behemoth of the Proms forward each year. And as of this year, the Proms has a new director, David Pickard (formerly of Glyndebourne). Described as down-to-earth, enthusiastic and deeply musical, it will be interesting to see what developments and innovations he brings to the concerts.
I for one am already looking forward to next year’s season with interest and excitement