Wednesday 16 July 2008

The Proms

So we are about to embark on that peculiar phase in London life when the Proms begin. Concert and opera going life in London never closes, it merely metamorphoses and the Proms is perhaps the strangest metamorphosis of all. A festival which lasts some 2 months with a concert (at least) per night, rather then relaxing in the summer Londoners would seem to prefer to be exhausted. This was particularly true in past seasons, before the recent rebuilding of the Albert Hall, when the Hall could get overly hot during concerts.

Even now, frankly, the Albert Hall is hardly the ideal place to hear music; the best places are in the promenade area. It is the promenaders who give the festival its special buzz. Forget the Last Night, for the remaining evenings they provide a keenly interested, generally intelligent audience and all for a ridiculous amount of money per night (ridiculously small that is). Of course, to manage a day job and going each night to a Prom (or 2) means you need the constitution of a horse.

The festival is made viable by the sheer size of the Albert Hall, if a concert sells out the BBC can sell a remarkable number of tickets. Add to this their use of the BBC orchestras and their leveraging of the broadcasts from the Proms and you begin to understand how the economics might work.

It is also remarkable what Proms are popular. I remember a late night Prom last year when the Tallis Scholars gave the performance of Strigio’s mass which in places is in 60 parts. The hall seemed full and just about every singer I knew was in the audience.

This is another thing about the Proms, people make an effort to go to see them in a way that they might not during the ordinary Winter and Spring concert seasons. Generally the programmes are diverse enough and the Festival long enough so that there is usually something of interest to everyone. I must confess that this year, Roger Wright’s emphasis understandable emphasis on RVW has attracted me. But I prefer his ominium-gatherum approach which means that the Prom season is varied and diverse, rather than his predecessors’ emphasis on themes. Themed seasons work well if you enjoy the them, but if you don’t then you find large chunks of the season lacking.

In the 1980’s I sang at quite a few Proms as a member of the London Philharmonic Choir who augmented the BBC Symphony Chorus on a number of occasions when big choirs were needed. One memorable such occasion was Mark Elder conducting Verdi’s Requiem with a huge chorus in an attempt to emulate the work’s UK première when there had been a chorus of 1200 in the Albert Hall. For that performance we also had an Italian coach to ensure our Latin pronunciation was correct.

On another occasion, also under Mark Elder, we performed Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. This was one of the few times when I have heard the final apotheosis done with the correct number of harps, the effect was magical. Similarly, we did another Prom which included Berlioz’s Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale, which was originally written for military band and includes an incredible number of clarinets. We reckoned virtually every professional clarinettist in London was there. And the effect? Well it sounded like a huge fairground organ.

But the single occasion which stands out was doing Mahler’s 8th Symphony under Zubin Mehta, sitting at the back of the choir seemingly miles from Mehta and looking over a huge choir and orchestra. I had a promming season ticket that year so my mother was able to take my place, braving arthritis to stand throughout the symphony and loving it. This was one of those occasions, though, when you suspected that the Radio audience got rather a better deal than some of the listeners in the Albert Hall. The soloists were stationed behind the orchestra, just in front of the organ and I rather gather that balance left something to be desired in some parts of the hall, though it sounded good on the Radio.

Nowadays, if we go to the Proms we tend to sit downstairs. But concert going can still be something of a trial, with intervals spent circumnavigating the outer corridor in search of refreshments and toilets (the Albert Hall must be the only concert hall I’ve been to where there are queues for the Gents!).

Still I appreciate the re-Victorianising which has happened in recent years and look forward immensely to this year’s Prom’s season.

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