Ready, steady, Prom!

Get­ting past the ‘chal­leng­ing’ piece of new mu­sic is all part of a won­der­ful sum­mer rit­ual, says Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - The BBC Proms run from July 14 to Septem­ber 9 (0845 401 5040; www.bbc. co.uk/proms)

Get­ting past the ‘chal­leng­ing’ piece of new mu­sic is all part of a won­der­ful sum­mer rit­ual, be­lieves Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham

Lon­don in dusty high sum­mer is made bear­able by the Proms. The grass in Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens may be brown, the great town houses de­serted, but, across the road in the Royal Al­bert Hall, a nightly flow of mu­sic sus­tains the city. For the mil­lions who don’t live in Lon­don, but who tune in on Ra­dio 3, BBC2 or BBC4, the evening’s mood is de­fined by the mu­sic.

What menu will Sara Mohr-pietsch an­nounce at 7.30pm? Will we be re­quired to lis­ten to 16 min­utes of Flamma, a new Es­to­nian work, in re­turn for 45 min­utes of Brahms’s 2nd Sym­phony? Yes, prob­a­bly, but we can surely deal with it.

The ex­cite­ment starts in April when the pro­gramme is pub­lished. Ev­ery mu­sic lover de­vours it, many of us think­ing: ‘Gosh, I’d love to get tick­ets for Scheh-er­azade, but can I face the UK pre­miere of Anders Hill­borg’s Sirens [33 min­utes]?’ or ‘Where on earth will I be on Au­gust 12?’

The Proms re­quires us to plan sum­mer well in ad­vance, be­cause be­hind the charm­ing, sum­mery, re­laxed at­mos­phere, there’s a ruth­less re­al­ity: be 6,294th in the online queue at 9.01am on book­ing day in May or miss out on your first choice—that is, if you in­tend to sit down rather than queue and ‘prom’. Sit­ting by the com­puter has be­come as much of a rit­ual as queu­ing around the block with tents and ther­moses 24 hours be­fore the Last night. Both phe­nom­ena pro­vide re­as­sur­ing proof that we’re a clas­si­cal-mu­sic-lov­ing coun­try.

The rit­u­als make the sea­son: the ar­range­ment to meet a friend at door 3, but for­get­ting where door 3 is and walk­ing the wrong way round the hall; Prom­mers chant­ing ‘Heave-ho’ as the grand pi­ano is wheeled on for the con­certo; a group of them an­nounc­ing in uni­son dur­ing the in­ter­val ‘We’ll be col­lect­ing for mu­si­cal char­i­ties’; and bump­ing into mu­si­cal friends who are not so glam­orous as to be away for the whole of Au­gust.

Then there are the diehard, long-haired Prom­mers in shorts (they’ve at­tended ev­ery sin­gle Prom for 30 years), lean­ing against the balustrade in the front row. (Ap­par­ently, some are so ter­ri­to­rial that, if a small child even tries to push for­ward to get a glimpse of the or­ches­tra, they refuse to budge.)

It's all part of the Great Bri­tish Sum­mer —a unique fes­ti­val in which any­one can hear the great­est or­ches­tras of the world, ev­ery evening for al­most two months, for the princely sum of £6 per per­for­mance. Meet­ing the di­rec­tor david Pickard

(Great Bri­tish In­sti­tu­tions, July 5) did noth­ing to re­duce my an­tic­i­pa­tion. Mr Pickard, for whom it is a sec­ond sea­son in the post, was him­self a queu­ing Prom­mer as a Cam­bridge mu­sic stu­dent in the 1980s and he loves his job so much that he has to ad­mit: ‘I al­most wish I had some­thing to com­plain about.’

What makes the at­mos­phere so spe­cial? ‘If we could put our fin­ger on that, we’d all want a slice of it,’ he answers. ‘It does have an in­cred­i­ble at­mos­phere, per­haps be­cause

‘The pres­sure is on to en­tice non­clas­si­cal-mu­sic lovers while not alien­at­ing the core au­di­ence

of the build­ing’s ex­tra­or­di­nary con­fig­u­ra­tion—with a ca­pac­ity of 6,000, every­one can see every­one else and every­one feels close. When­ever I go back­stage to chat to an or­ches­tra play­ing here for the first time, they’re lit­er­ally breath­less with ex­hil­a­ra­tion.’

I asked him about my sense of hav­ing to ‘earn’ a piece I love by first lis­ten­ing to a world pre­miere with too much per­cus­sion. He re­minds me: ‘When Sir Henry Wood started the Proms in 1895, he said he in­tended to se­duce peo­ple in with pop­u­lar mu­sic and then in­tro­duce them to some­thing rad­i­cal: a new scary com­poser called Ed­ward El­gar.’

New mu­sic is al­ways chal­leng­ing to the ears. The BBC and the Proms are vi­tal pa­trons of con­tem­po­rary com­posers: this year, there will be 15 world pre­mieres and 16 BBC com­mis­sions—if only more were called Cello Con­certo (one is) in­stead of pseudy names such as Deep Time (Sir Har­ri­son Birtwistle), Outscape (Pas­cal Dusapin), Mu­ral (Fran­cisco Coll) and Big Beau­ti­ful Dark and Scary

(Ju­lia Wolfe). Wood’s orig­i­nal mission was ‘to bring the best pos­si­ble clas­si­cal mu­sic to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence’ and this con­tin­ues to be chal­leng­ing for the di­rec­tor. The pres­sure is on to en­tice non-clas­si­cal- mu­sic lovers while not alien­at­ing the core au­di­ence with dumb­ing down. Mr Pickard rel­ishes it: ‘The John Wil­son or­ches­tra [do­ing two semi-staged per­for­mances of Okla

homa!] sets just as high a stan­dard as the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic.’

He’s de­lighted that Han­del’s Wa­ter Mu­sic, in its 300th an­niver­sary year, will be per­formed at the out­door wa­ter­side set­ting Stage@the­dock in Hull, the UK City of Cul­ture, and that the Proms re­turns to the Bold Ten­den­cies Multi-storey Car Park in Peck­ham, where lo­cal school­child­ren will per­form a new work by Kate Whit­ley called

I am I say. This sounds an un­likely venue, but Mr Pickard as­sures me it’s a won­der­ful event and I’m tempted to go.

For me, the late-night Proms are the gems: just over an hour long, with no in­ter­val, so you can have sup­per first or even go to the 7.30pm Prom first, nip down to South Kens­ing­ton for a quick bite and be back in your seats for 9.45pm or 10pm—the Rach­mani­nov Ves­pers (see box) is my tip.

Mr Pickard loves the quick changeovers: ‘Last year, I had to usher Bernard Haitink out of the green room to make way for the David Bowie trib­ute.’

The Royal Al­bert Hall is packed to the rafters with more than 6,000 keen Prom­mers

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