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)

“The only disappointment of the evening was that, on leaving the hall, the sounds of Elgar were immediately assailed by other events elsewhere in the building. The Southbank management should show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience”

This is a quote from a review in The Guardian of a performance of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ at London’s Royal Festival Hall last weekend. It’s true that the foyer and “ballroom” area of the RFH were busy and noisy as we left the building after a deeply arresting two hours of very moving and profound music. Outside the venue, it was even noisier: this was a Saturday night in the Big Smoke after all. Pavement cafes spilled people, drinking, chatting, laughing; there were kids busking in the railway arches on the way to Waterloo station; and all around us were the sounds of a vibrant city enjoying itself. Yes, it did feel a little jarring to be plunged into a city having a night on the town after such an absorbing musical experience, but for me this is one of the great pleasures of concert-going in London – and it’s also a good reminder that London is an eclectic and culturally diverse city.

Back to the Royal Festival Hall for a moment and it’s important to consider what this building is actually for. True, it is largely associated with classical music, but that is only a part of what it does, and currently the Summertime festival is in full flow offering a range of activities from song and dance to workshops and talks. The foyer area and café are open all day for people to drop in, socialise or join in one of the many activities within the venue. There are spaces for meetings, lectures and exhibitions, a fine dining restaurant, a library and a gift shop. There’s a very pragmatic reason for this: the venue draws important revenue from food and beverage services and other add-ons (ticket sales alone cannot and do not cover the huge running costs of such a building).

To suggest that the RFH should “show more aesthetic sensitivity to its classical audience” does several things, in my opinion. First, it reiterates the already very entrenched view that classical music is exclusive and special, the preserve of the few not the many, its gilded cage polished with regular doses of reverence. Why should the place in which this “special” music takes place be kept so sacred…..? Let’s not forget that people leaving church in the “olden days” would have been assailed by the noises and smells of life outside its hallowed walls – beggars, peddlers, whores and more.

Better if all concert halls/opera houses were built in parks, away from city throng. Wagner had the right idea

– MR via Facebook

Secondly, it ignores the fact that arts venues like the RFH, the Barbican et al have to function on several levels, offering a diverse range of concerts, events, lectures and other activities, and that they do not exist simply to serve classical music audiences. What we experienced on leaving the RFH after the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ was the reality of concert-going in an arts complex in a big city. If you want to savour the experience of the music a little longer, remain in your seat in the auditorium.

For me, the experience of live music – and if you read this blog regularly you will know that I absolutely love live music – is not just the music itself but the “complete experience”: traveling to the venue, meeting friends, having drinks and socialising beforehand, and, once inside the auditorium, the accompanying sounds of a living, breathing audience listening, engaging and responding to what they are hearing. Afterwards, the walk back to the station with friends, stepping out into that vast, noisy ecosystem of the living city, is also part of the live concert experience for me. Admittedly the late train home, replete with its swaying drunks, leering blokes, snogging couples and people eating smelly food can take the shine off the evening, but on balance the whole package is an experience which I cherish and enjoy. When I’ve heard something as profound as the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ or Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’, or indeed any other performance which has moved me, I carry the memory of the music away with me. Yes, the noise of the street can jar, but it can’t really touch the music which continues to resonate in the memory for a long time afterwards.


The Dream of Gerontius – review in The Guardian