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