We all knew the Proms would be different in this, the year of coronavirus (or The Virus, COVID-19, the Rona….). Rather than cancel the entire festival, the BBC came up with a compromise – a truncated festival which involved, in the first weeks, broadcasts of previous Proms, not necessarily a “best of the Proms”, but rather a selection of memorable or particularly striking performances and performers. I enjoyed these broadcasts, revisiting Proms of years past and recalling the excitement and pleasure of attending Prom concerts, which I have done since I was a little girl – that special atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall which is like no other (for all the right, and wrong, reasons!).

For the last fortnight of this year’s season, the BBC broadcast live Proms from the Royal Albert Hall and a handful of other venues around the country. These included performances by the LSO with Simon Rattle, the Aurora Orchestra playing Beethoven 7 from memory (why?!), Benjamin Grosvenor and Mitsuko Uchida, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason. Some performers originally booked to appear were not able to travel to London due to the UK government’s confused, scattergun quarantine rules, so others valiantly stepped in at the last minute. The programmes often reflected our strange times – music of quiet intimacy (Kurtag’s … quasi una fantasia …, performed with incredible delicacy by Mitsuko Uchida, following an equally compelling and introspective first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata), hope (Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony, first heard at the Proms in the midst of the Second World War), reflection and memorial (Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin), confidence (the rollicking joy of the finale of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony gave a much-needed boost to those of us who feel utterly ground down by the long months of lockdown and restrictions on daily life – including concert-going). The Last Night of the Proms, this year the subject of even more pearl-clutching and eye-pulling than usual, ended up as a compromise; bereft of its usual jollity and silliness (at least in the second half), it felt restrained and subdued, as if too much exuberance and celebration, balloons and whistles, flag-waving and a good old massed sing-along were inappropriate in these corona times.

There is no question that in all the live concerts the music was performed with absolute commitment. Watching the musicians (and thanks to lots of clever camera work, it was possible to read the range of emotions experienced by the musicians as they played), one sensed a collective sigh of relief, that they were working again, doing what they do best, united after long months of separation.

But something was missing. A very big something – and that was an audience. The Proms aren’t really the Proms without an audience, some 5000 people filling the Albert Hall’s vast auditorium with an infectious enthusiasm for the amazing shared experience that is live music. Admittedly, the BBC and Proms organisers tried their best this year to inject some “atmosphere” into the concerts by placing members of the brass section or singers in the boxes around the hall, enhanced by sexy lighting effects and clever camera angles. But for me all this did was to highlight the sad fact that there was no audience presence. It looked contrived, artificial – and perhaps the worst thing, in my humble opinion, was that it seemed to reinforce the notion that classical music is a ‘museum piece’, to be admired, revered even, from afar, instead of a living, breathing, vibrant artform.

The Albert Hall is vast; it would not have been impossible to bring in a limited, socially-distanced audience, but the organisers’ timidity regarding this reflects, to me, a general timidity amongst bigger organisations and institutions towards the resumption of live performance. It is possible to present live concerts within the current government restrictions – and the Proms could have led the way in this, signalling that live music, with an audience, is far from dead.

Let us hope that the 2021 Proms festival is able to go ahead in its “normal” format, with a full Albert Hall, a roster of fine musicians and a varied programme of great music.


All the performances are available to listen to/watch via the BBC Proms website

(Header image: BBC)

I know I was not alone in hoping beyond hope that the Proms might escape the dreadful cull of music and culture the virus has wrought. The delay by the Proms management in making an annoucement about this year’s programme surely indicated that they too were keeping everything crossed. When the inevitable cancellation came, there was a sense of resignation amongst my classical music community; sadly, we have just had too many of these announcements since March. (Perhaps the only plus in the midst of all this is that without an announcement of this year’s programme, we have been spared the hand-wringing and eye-pulling and general chorus of disapproval about the roster of concerts, performers and music.)

The Proms are an integral part of the British summer – along with tennis at Wimbledon (also cancelled), strawberries and cream, warm beer and wasps at a picnic. The sad thing is that now, on the day of the First Night of the Proms, we have got used to not having live music. Sure, there have been some great initiatives to bring live performances to audiences via livestreams and radio broadcasts, but these can never replicate the experience of “being there” – and the “being there” of the Proms is pretty special.

Yes, the venue is not great – the Royal Albert Hall is too cavernous, its acoustic too uncertain. It’s often too hot, and its circular design means one can spend far too much time traipsing to the loos (of which there are far too few) or one of the bars (which are often far too crowded). But what is so wonderful about the Proms is that much of the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today – to encourage people who would not normally attend classical music concerts to come, enticing them with the low ticket prices and a more informal atmosphere.

It’s the First Night of the Proms tonight, but it’s not the First Night as we usually know it: in this the Proms’ 125th anniversary year we have “the alternative Proms”. The virus has forced the Proms online, and instead of concerts by leading orchestras and artists from around the world, playing to a full house, BBC Radio Three will present “musical greats – from the past and present”, “treasures from the archive”, and some live performances – albeit to an empty hall. For many of us, this will be a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of the great performances of past years (and we each have our own “back catalogue” of memorable Proms concerts – mine include hearing Lang Lang before he was famous, a recital by Evgeny Kissin (1997), the first solo piano concert at the Proms, Mahan Esfahani’s Goldberg Variations (2011- the first solo harpsichord concert at the Proms) and hearing Messiaen’s Turangalila live for the first time). In many ways, these “highlights” broadcasts will confirm the enduring spirit of the Proms, and the exceptionally high quality of music-making. There will be some tv broadcasts too, and at the end of August, there will be a live concert at the Royal Albert Hall, culminating in a Last Night of the Proms (what this will be like is anyone’s guess!). In short, we are in for a treat – to be enjoyed from the comfort of our homes. One thing I learnt from listening to the Wigmore Hall livestream lunchtime concerts last month is that while one may be listening in isolation, there remains an important sense of connection through the music, and I hope the Proms will create a similar shared experience.

Proms 2020 season guide

More articles on the Proms here


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The marketing department at Phase Eight, a women’s fashion label which does a nice line in evening wear, clearly hadn’t done their research when they tweeted this:

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If you turn up at the Proms dressed like that, especially if you have a ticket to promenade (stand) in the arena, heads would turn, eyes would roll…. because the Proms is surely the most relaxed and casually attired of any classical music event. By all means don a scarlet evening dress to attend the opera at Glyndebourne or Grange Park, but maybe not for the Proms.

Perhaps someone in Phase Eight’s marketing department read that silly article in The Guardian last week which claims that classical music is for the elite, monied class, the “yachts and have yachts” and decided that classical music afficionados leave their yachts and Porsches and head for The Proms, dressed in full evening dress. Or perhaps they’ve confused The Proms with the school prom, that dreadful American import which has infiltrated our UK schools, where teenagers celebrate the end of term by dressing up to the nines and arriving at a local hotel in a stretch limo.

There’s also another tired old misconception at work here, that one must “dress up” to attend a classical music concert. The Proms in particular is very much a “come as you are” festival, and of course if you want to wear a full-length evening gown to a concert at the hot, airless, crowded Royal Albert Hall, by all means feel free to do so, but you’ll probably feel more comfortable in shorts and a tee-shirt!

Sadly, the kind of attire Phase Eight is promoting does rather perpetuate the tedious stereotype that classical music is somehow far grander than other artforms and that one must dress and behave in accordance with strict codes of conduct. This doesn’t really help those of us within the profession who are keen to promote classical music as something for everyone, and where everyone is welcome.

 

The launch of the new season of the BBC Proms is always met with excited anticipation. I had a preview of this year’s programme late last night, thanks to an article on the Classical Source website. Glancing through the “highlights” my heart sank a little, then a little more…..By this morning, having read more detailed surveys of the new season, I felt rather deflated.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced, there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and every year it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. There are always howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” , or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too few works by women composers. 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.

When the Proms were founded by Robert Newman and Henry Wood, their stated aim was to bring classical music to a wider audience, and the concerts were, by all accounts, quite lively, eclectic affairs, with big programmes and an audience who were permitted to eat, drink and smoke during performances (though patrons were requested not to strike matches during quiet passages). Do the Proms succeed in doing this today? It’s hard to tell, without some rigorous audience surveying (“Is this your first time?” etc), and I’d very interested to find out what percentage of the audience are genuine classical music ingenues. Also, do those people who attend the Ibiza Prom or this year’s hip hop Prom actually then book to hear a mainstream (or even non-mainstream) classical music concert? Are these types of concerts really a “gateway” to classical music for younger audiences? I’m not sure….

I used to argue quite vociferously for as broad a range of concerts as possible in the Proms, my view being that if you could get young people or those who wouldn’t normally attend classical music concerts through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall for Jarvis Cocker’s late night Prom or the Strictly Prom, they might return for a drop of Beethoven or a healthy dose of Tchaikovsky, but I don’t think this is borne out in actual ticket sales.

A few years ago I attended an all-Brahms Prom performed by the OAE with Marin Alsop (I was there because a friend of mine was playing double bass in the orchestra). I happened to be sharing a box with a family for whom this was their very first visit to the Proms, or indeed a classical music concert. They were anxious beforehand: out of their usual comfort zone, they had arrived at the concert full of the usual preconceptions about classical music – would they applaud “at the wrong time”, would they be able to “understand the music” etc etc. I told them to simply sit back and let the music wash over them, and that if they were worried about when to applaud, they could follow my lead. In the interval they turned to me and beamed with wide-eyed delight – they were loving it! As a mark of our new-found joint pleasure in the music, they shared their box of chocolates with me. This to me more than demonstrates that one doesn’t need to programme trendy or gimmicky Proms to engage people in classical music – and I am sure my experience is not unusual.

My feeling on looking at this year’s programme is that the planners are attempting that impossible task of trying to please all the people all of the time, and as a consequence, the programme feels like a rather weird mish mash of mainstream classical music, a few novelties, some great warhorses of the repertoire, and a whole bunch of disparate “populist” oddities. More often than not these days, I feel the BBC is almost apologetic about classical music – an attitude which is fairly common (cf. Radio 4’s Today programme whose presenters frequently snigger or smirk when talking about classical music, as if is some kind of weird taboo). And then the BBC broadcasts something so splendid and moving as the recent programme about Janet Baker by John Bridcut and just for a moment, it feels like the good old days of high-quality cultural broadcasting….. Those days are gone of course, but why can’t we celebrate classiccal music for what is really is? It’s wonderful, it’s fantastic, it’s epic, it’s heart-stoppingly dramatic, tear-jerkingly beautiful, tender, poignant, funny, bizarre and so so varied. It’s not all written by dead white guys in periwigs and not all contemporary music sounds like a “squeaky gate”. There is something for everyone in the vast canon of classical music and a way to bring that to “a wider audience” would be to curate a festival that demonstrates and confirms this without the need to resort to “crossover” or gimmicks.

The BBC Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, launched today with concerts featuring hip hop music…” (paraphrase of announcement on Radio 4 Today programme, Wednesday 17th April).

I’m tired of people (presenters, promoters, marketers, critics, audiences, even some musicians) apologising for classical music. Instead let’s celebrate it.

Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.

According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The concerto opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First Concerto is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.

Read the full review here

This weekend I headed off to “sarf-east” London for a rather unusual Prom featuring music by American minimalist composer Steve Reich who is 80 this year….

For those of us more used to the highly refined atmosphere of London’s finest chamber music venue, a brutalist concrete lump with low ceilings and unremittingly grey walls cannot possibly be a good place to hear music, whatever the genre. The acoustic should be appalling, a brisk wind slices through the performance space, riffling music, which is pegged to the music stands to stop it blowing away, and the music is regularly interrupted by rattling trains and the sounds of the street below….

Read my full review here

the venue

Multistory Orchestra conducted by Christopher Stark

part of the Derek Jarman garden at the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark

leaving the carpark after the concert