Tonight the Proms season reaches that thick and pungent cultural marmite that is its conclusion. Yes, it is as inescapable as death. Over on the New Yorker, Fergus McIntosh has taken a look at the shenanigans in light of Brexit, and gets the impression that the BBC are ‘living in an imaginary past in which we had all agreed that flag-waving and national-anthem-singing were nonpolitical acts’. I mean, everything is to some extent political, it’s true. But by the same token, right now the last night of the proms is the least of our worries.
When the season was announced, I thought it was a mixed bag. I was pleased with the increase in women composers represented, though had more than a little eye-roll at the fact that Mahler once again got five symphonies in a non-anniversary year (plus one movement from his tenth). My thoughts on the modern Mahler addiction can be read here.
But of course, the Proms can never please everyone. It’s still an institution Londoners are enormously privileged to have in their city (and which far too many seem to overlook). There’s always loads worth hearing, and I ended up going to five this year, with several more I regret missing. Death-centenaries were particularly prominent. Lili Boulanger was given a good showing, and I heard three works by her, including her solemnly epic Psalm 130. Her D’un soir triste was probably my favourite, in a concert paired with the similarly short-lived Morfydd Owen, who I hadn’t heard of before but whose impressive Nocturne certainly left me wanting to hear more. The pre-Prom talk did a good job of putting Owen’s life into the context of Welsh music.
An unexpected highlight came in Prom 17. This included a rare symphony performance by Parry, who perhaps deserved more for his centenary, but it was a pleasure to hear his music live, which always shines with such innate goodwill. However, it was in the Lark Ascending, of all things, that I was truly side-swiped. Tai Murray’s performance was mesmerising, revelatory. It brought a kind of improvisatory freedom, and fragility of expression to this over-exposed work that I had simply never heard before. She is something special.
Holst’s Ode To Death was a fascinating rarity, rich and delicately strange in that way he does so well. Its ominous theme was set up nicely by a violent thunderstorm over the Albert Hall as we were queueing to enter – one thunderclap was so loud it made the whole queue jump and set off a car alarm.
RVW’s Pastoral Symphony was its usual exquisite and compelling self, though its war-haunted landscape suffered a few too many vocal artillery shells from the audience towards the end. The pre-Prom talk, with nature writer Melissa Harrison and archaeologist/country-dweller Francis Pryor was an interesting discussion of the importance of the countryside, even if I could have done without the latter’s disdaining riffs on the inferior quality of the supermarket Broccoli we landless plebs have to eat.
Prom 44, besides the Boulanger Psalm, provided some gorgeous Debussy and ended with the irresistible Ravel Bolero to finish off with. Standing up-close in the arena was a particularly fascinating way to appreciate the details of his subtly increasingly orchestration.
The chance to hear the UK premiere of Danish composer Per Nørgård’s epic third symphony was an exciting occasion, though the hall was sadly lacking in numbers, despite Strauss’ ever-glorious Four Last Songs in the first half to pull the punters in (and its combination with Wagner’s translucent Parsifal Prelude was lovely). Their loss: the symphony was brilliantly bonkers and quite unlike anything I’ve heard before – here, surely, is some of the big-boned Mahler replacement our concert programming needs! And touchingly, Nørgård was there too, though too frail to come down to the stage, marking the event with what looked like a white jacket and flowery shirt.
I was fortunate enough to get a free ticket from a friend to hear the National Youth Orchestra prom, taking me out of my familiar terrain up into the seats. Though I hardly have a right to complain, in truth I found the programme choices for this one a little puzzling and underwhelming. The huge massed ranks of this ensemble and the unconditional goodwill of the crowd cried out for something to really raise the roof, but after a promising Night On A Bare Mountain, the subdued moodiness of Ravel’s left hand piano concerto and Ligeti’s Lontano felt like music fit for another occasion. Even the climactic waves of La Mer couldn’t quite dispel this feeling, despite the excellent playing all round. Perhaps, with the lack of investment that comes with a freebie, I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but it felt like a missed opportunity.
As someone who proms in the arena, it remains fantastic value for money and puts you face-to-face with the action. Only being a groundling at the Globe compares, though in one respect the Albert Hall suffers in the comparison. The instigation of bag checks means the queue has to form earlier, whereas on my recent trip to see Othello I was let straight in. I can’t be the only one who is tired of the indignity of all this, and wishes the see-saw of liberty vs security would swing back a little the other way. What’s more, the pre-prom talks haven’t been sufficiently adjusted to make the transition as comfortable as it used to be, with many people heading off during the Q&A to maintain their place in the queue, myself included.
The concrete barriers erected in some places around the hall are, in light of recent attacks, understandable, but their bottle-necking effect at chucking-out time is another regrettable cost. I certainly don’t underestimate the seriousness of these issues, nor do I envy the responsibility of whoever has to to make these decisions, who no doubt want to be risk-averse. But the fact remains that it does take a shine off the experience.
On a more positive note, the arena feels cooler than it’s ever been. I haven’t had any of the sweltering evenings I used to have – marked by constantly sipping from a water bottle, and the one startling time an overcome Prommer hit the deck right in front of me like a felled Sequoia. This is undoubtedly a good thing!
Tonight I’ll be watching the Last Night on TV, and not worrying too much about the politics of it all. I’m looking forward to Roxanna Panufnik’s commission, and it’s great that Parry’s Sirens will be singing to salute his centenary. And if nothing else, I’m always an out-and-out fan of Jerusalem, one of the best marriages of words and music ever conceived, in my humble opinion. I have full confidence that, however they may feel about the quaint Jingoism of the event, the hardcore Remainers I know who will be watching certainly ‘shall not cease the mental fight’ against Brexit Britain.
P.S. Please note that there’s no Premier League action this weekend, what with this new UEFA Nations League going on, so Gary Lineker’s annual tweet complaining about Match Of The Day being delayed by the Last Night – a highlight of my cultural calendar in recent years – is sadly postponed until further notice.