"The Prom Plan." -- a friend.

Music One lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting to a friend I hadn’t seen for a good long while and we were catching up on all of the things that she’d been doing and I’d been talking about the few things I’d been keeping myself occupied with. I’d told her about listening to all of the Proms, trying desperately not to make it sound like the kind of eccentricity I always seem to mixed up in, though not entirely successfully especially after admitting to listening to the Blue Peter Prom twice, even though it was only broadcast once, because it had actually been run twice in the hall and I wanted to be comprehensive.

Before we left each other (she had to return to work) I told her I admired the fact that she was getting her life in order, that she was trying to eat healthily, that she had some idea where her career might be going and that she was learning to drive, whereas I was the kind of person who instead decides to listen to every Prom because I want to finally become interested in classical music. "You’re taking The Prom Plan", she said, demonstrating once again that she’s far cleverer than I am but also perfectly encapsulating what I’ve been doing since July 13th.

Predictably enough, I don’t know that if I’d actually planned to do this, I would have actually, well, managed it. I’d simply decided to listen to the first night, because I was always there for the second half of the last and thought I’d at least make an effort this year. Then, somewhere in the midst of The Ode to Joy section of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, I was, shall we said, dead impressed. As I said here: “I understood for the first time what can be accomplished by professional musicians and singers putting their heart and soul into interpreting the work of a composer at the top of his personal and professional pinnacle.”

I discovered that Prom 2 would be a celebration of film music so it seemed right that I should listen to that, I recorded Prom 3 on the Sunday because I wanted to see what the Hall would look like with the orchestra and dance troups, then watched Prom 4 because The Swingle Singers were involved, then Prom 5 for the Bernstein, then Prom 6 later on that night to hear the Striggio mass which hadn’t been performed in four hundred years and somewhere in the middle as I realised it was one of the most profoundly beautiful pieces of music I’d ever head I decided that having failed to miss six of them, I would indeed be listening to all of the Albert Hall Proms.

At least it gave me something to write about on my blog. During that first couple of weeks I received some feedback on my initial posts, even from one of the BBC Singers themselves. I don’t see much point in repeating my excitement from over the past couple of weeks again here, but if you look back at what I’ve written you can see the progression from interest, through chucklesome, to fandom, to the evangelical and then finally exhausted but happy ramblings. I’ve agonized sometimes that when I haven’t posted about the Proms you’ve thought I’d given up as thought that really mattered. Other times I’ve wondered if I’ve been posting too much, especially when six subscribers on Bloglines up and left in a matter of days. But the whole point of a blog, at least this blog, has been to talk about what I’m doing and that’s what I’ve done.

I’ve always had an innate fear of classical music. I’ve listened to some of it, can whistle whole movements but I’ve never been able to express a love for it until now. When I was running low on hard disk space a couple of years ago, the first to go were my ripped copies of classical music with the exception of Mozart and Chopin and Beethoven. I’d always skip classical when it popped up at random on my mp3 player. It was the sound of course but also the immensity. Classical music scared me because it just seemed like too much of a leap, too much to have to try and understand from the minuet to the nocturne. But paradoxically I’ve cared a great deal about this, even though I don’t have a problem with not having seen something from every genre of cinema or having only been exposed to literature when it's by Shakespeare or Andrew Davies has written an adaptation of it.

Listening to these Proms has helped to conquer that fear because I realised that it’s possible to enjoy classical music without having to actually understand everything that you're hearing. I've discovered that this music would often be premiered and performed to appreciative audiences who liked what they heard but could not put that admiration into words. They’d read the programme, get the gist and then go with it, letting the music wash over them, drowning in the sound. Like many films, although they were written within various ‘formats’ and traditions, the composer’s expectations were generally that only a rival, colleague or scholar would be able detect the fundamentals. Like film, where there will be some in the audience who are aware of narrative structures, cinematographic techniques and editing choices, most simply want to be entertained. In this case, I’ve simply been happy to be entertained and I’ve conquered my fear by realising that this ok. I might pick up some of the technical aspects of the music, learn something about the composers and their historical contexts it didn’t matter if I couldn’t apply the same kind of interpretative understanding I might give to a film to a concerto.

But it’s important to note that paradoxically I might not have been able to do that where it not for the Proms. By forcing myself to sit down concert in and out and listening to whatever was being presented to me (and the other listeners) I was absorbing a far greater variety of music than if I’d simply gone to the local library and selected some things from the racks or bought a Rough Guide to… When the Proms began, the laudable aim was to give audiences the opportunity to listen to the kinds of music they might not otherwise have been exposed to and this intention has been continued even in the hundred and thirteenth year by outgoing director Nicholas Kenyon. It’s absolutely been like being back at school, and like the books studied during an A-Level English Literature course, the curriculum changes every year. Yet, most types of music are represented and also by including a range of work by a particular composer, in this case Mahler and Elgar the listener is able to compare their writing across their career.

I’m not sure my Proms experience would have been the same without the presenting team who have covered the concerts in the past couple of months both on Radio 3 and BBC television and if this has been a return to school, they’ve been my teachers. For this classical music novice they’ve been a vital resource, explaining the composer’s intent when it is vital, introducing the visiting orchestras and conductors and their importance within their particular field and particularly on the radio capturing some of the atmosphere within the hall -- Donald Mcloud was always good at this. Crucially, each seems to be allowed their own voice, allowed to display their own journalistic flair -- some are obviously more interested in the technical aspects of classical music whilst for others it’s the stories, the circumstances which led to the composition of a piece which are of most interest.

Like a teaching body, you’re bound to have your favourites. Petroc Trelawny and Sara-Mohr-Pietsch where good all rounders. Christopher Cook the most genial and amusing, particularly during the Chamber music concerts at the Cadogan Hall, comfortably presenting and interviewing the performers from the actual stage and wringing as much humour as possible from anecdotes. Suzy Klein who appeared the most relaxed of the television presenters and really knew what to wear for the occasion. Geoffrey Smith, Jazz expert whose voice sounds almost but not exactly like the actor Jeff Bridges. Tom Service who is best described as the Mark Kermode of the team, happily critical when necessary, especially when called to be an expert witness during the BBC Four broadcasts, and yes, Angellica Bell who always seemed slightly surprised to have this gig and would always increase the entertainment value of any televised interval because you’d never quite sure if she’d bring a low flying interview in to land safely.

Finally, Verity Sharp who helped introduce me to world music through Late Junction and now classical music through her busy schedule here. She in particular has been an ongoing source of curiosity throughout the Proms. Most of the presenters in linking together information about the works has a way of linking the factoids together. Some simply pause and let the atmospheric sound counterpoint whatever they’re saying. Others quite happily ‘erm…’ and still others just run the sentences on and hope that we’ll keep up with them. Verity says ‘and’, but she stretches it out -- for example (I’m paraphrasing from the Proms programme) ‘Nitin Sawhney is extraordinarily perceptive in his ability to unite elements from seeming disparate musics … aaaand … this is reflected in his talents as a collaborator with artists such as Sting. …’ Once she said ‘and, erm’ and, erm, it sounded all wrong. It’s been fascinating and warrants further study, admittedly for all the wrong reasons.

But of course they were simply gate keepers for the music. It seems like a self defeating process to try and list a top ten moments which is why I’m going to do it anyway. What has astonished me is the number of occasions that I’ve thought something was noteworthy enough to mention on the blog and then has been given a positive, if slightly more analytical review in The Guardian, but that could have just been me believing the hype and they did get it terribly wrong in their look at the last night at least to these ears. Anyway, with a special mention for the mad as cheese appearance of Joanna Lumley with Shaun Rafferty on the Radio 3 broadcast of that last night (which I’m listening to as I write), here then in chronological order is the top ten.

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Beethoven: No.9 in D minor ‘Choral’, (Prom 1) & ( Prom 62)

Making a double appearance this year to make up the number because the traditional performance last year was literally rained off when the sprinkler system kicked in at The Albert Hall (which seems so wonderfully geeky) it did offer the opportunity for me to hear how a piece is interpreted by two different orchestras. The first given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and Philharmonia Chorus was about wattage -- absolutely pounding the notes, making the piece fill the hall. To my unrtrained ears, the second with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus under Mariss Jansons had a slightly slower tempo and seemed to be about absolutely making every note lucid. Of the two I think I preferred the BBC -- and I’m quite happy to say that its because if it wasn’t for this, as I’ve said, I wouldn’t be writing this overlong post now.

Rameau: various, (Prom 3)

This was a totally unique mix of dance and music, of European and African musicians, the sounds passing up and down the stage. Surprisingly I thought the more structured dances the most effective -- the coat rack thing and the ballet dance and the finale which brought together all of the dancers and all of the players together. Pity BBC Four decided to cut away just as the encores hotted up. It seems terribly wrong that I should pick two moments from the opening weekend, but I didn’t actually finish watching this until a month later during the one week in the middle when I was flagging so it seems fair to include it here. I don’t think I would have been able to listen to everything if it hadn’t been for the great time shift, either recording from television or listening again. Was it cheating -- possibly -- but I’d say it stopped me from becoming resentful of the routine.

Striggio: Mass ‘Ecco si beato giorno’, (Prom 6)

One of my great Proms discoveries has been that a ‘Mass’ isn’t simply a liturgy but also a standard form of classical music composition in much the same way as a concerto or a symphony which can by performed and listened to in a secular setting -- but as far as I can see with a no less spiritual effect. Bach’s Mass in G Major (Prom 34) was deeply affecting; as I lay in bed that night, in the dark I was certainly reminded that in so many ways music, as with other art forms, is like time travel -- it transports the listener to another time with a whole different set of concerns and cultural interests and also has the effect of helping you understand the civilisation that it’s from. But I had to put the Striggio at the top of this paragraph because of the story of its discovery and because I actually found myself standing on my bed in front of my stereo as though the choir were in the room with me and it’s a ten year old Grundig from a Currys shop that isn‘t even still open. This was complex -- it gave various singers their own individual voice parts whilst also contributing to the overall sound. The researcher who found it, Davitt Moroney calls it ‘the most extravagant piece of polyphony in the whole history of Western music’, and he’s right.

Copland: Symphony No. 3, Prom 16

In his closing interviews, Nicholas Kenyon has emphasized how the tastes of the audiences have changed over the decades and how, even fifteen years ago the likes of Copland and Gershwin weren’t even on the repertory. I’d argue that television and film have something to do with that, post-modern snatches of all kinds music being used commercially and artistically so that they become somewhat familiar to the audience -- throughout the Proms I discovered exactly where some over familiar music has been snatched from. This Copland work is the opposite of that -- Fanfare for the Common Man came first and then the composer referenced it in the longer work, elaborating on it across the movements almost demonstrating its construction and then destruction (is it a metaphor for the American dream?). It’s a gripping, compelling exciting work and as played here by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Martin Alsop was enough to keep me listening after the personal disappointment of Verdi’s Macbeth (Prom 24) the night before.

Traditional Uzbek Music, (Prom 20)

Somewhere in the middle of the Proms I bought a pair of headphones -- it might have rained during the summer but it was also humid and the open window in the flat was bringing in background noise. The Uzbek trumpeters were the first time I really heard the stereo through speakers now dangling over my head as I could hear the musicians walking about the stage, or in my case shifting from ear to ear. On the whole though I was disappointed by Brass Day, the specially composed Bingham and the near fanfare lacking the power that’s my taste and the Wiergold He is armoured without seeming too loose and fragmented -- but that will have been an entirely different experience in the hall I’m sure. It interesting to me though that World Music lives in this odd ghetto when it comes to performance when the whole of the Proms is a celebration of music predominantly composed by people of the past from much the same countries. Kind of reminds you that World Music as a description was a marketing exercise from the 1980s to get people to vary their musical tastes.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, ‘Leningrad’ (Prom 29)

The folly of trying to select a top ten shows itself because I could easily have included the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (Prom 48) which was equally amazing and absolutely blew everyone socks off -- it’s the concert people were still talking about during last night and randomly got a two minute reprise during the interval of the final BBC Four broadcast -- it’s even getting a BBC One repeat some time this week -- so to include it in this list would seem a but superfluous. Son instead, here’s the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Mark Elder. Before the Proms, my impression of a Youth Orchestra came from school, which was fine I think, but this concert demonstrated that a performance can be just as, if not more professional than, well, the professionals. It’s amazed me throughout the season the dexterity and longevity required both mental and physical to simply work through to the end of one of these works. Leningrad is nearly eighty minutes long and it’s a big, serious, emotive work and yet this orchestra never faltered and by the end looked physically drained; some of the players were in tears as was the audience and there seemed to be the feeling of having witnessed a life changing event, of a group kids becoming adults over an hour and a half.

John Dankworth: From Bard to Blues, (Prom 35)

Turst me to listen to all of the Proms in which Shakespeare is a running theme, composers attempting to encapsulate the drama of a play in an overture. But I always felt that more often than not, these said more about the composer than the bard himself and only when his words, either from a song or soliloquy were used that Shakespeare’s work was actually being venerated, particularly during the chamber concerts at Cadogan Hall. The Dankworth / Cleo Laine concert was the most exciting juxtaposition, bringing four hundred year old poetry into a musical form which didn’t even exist at the time of its composition. But of course, how amazing that something that intimate should work so well in the Albert Hall; on the radio in fact, just as the Masses suggested that the music was being produced in some ancient cathedral, their genial company made it sound as though they were address fifty people in some tiny club in the back street of west end -- or it would if it hadn’t been for the presence of the BBC Concert Orchestra who certainly wouldn’t have fitted onto one of those little stages.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor, (Prom 51)

When a Prom wasn’t being televised -- and sometimes even when it was -- I would sit on our balcony listening to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast watching the sun disappear behind Liverpool Cathedral and the city transform with the darkness. It’s the first year when I’ve actually watch the nights draw in as dusk comes earlier each night and towards the end of August it would sometimes seem to occur in time with the music and this was no less fittingly apparent during Mahler’s tribute to nature; the rise of man happening through my headphones during the rotation of the planet. Like the next choice on this list, when there was nothing to do, but turn all of the lights off, open the balcony door and lean against the railing letting the breeze blow across my face, music overwhelming my ears. That’s when I fell in love with Mahler’s music and there have been many similar moments throughout the season, during symphonies by Bruckner (Prom 53), Sibelius (Prom 42), Brahms (Prom 38), Schubert (Prom 66) and Elgar’s The Apostles (Prom 46).

Ligeti: Atmospheres, (Prom 68)

Before the Proms, my appreciation of modern music amounted to hearing that the message on Stokhousen’s answering machine amounted to him simply saying ‘Now!’ and the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It was random musical noise, the disregarding of melody in favour of sound and making instruments straining to create noises for which they were never intended. To be honest, that view hasn’t changed all that much and the couple of late night Proms which featured the likes of Birtwhistle’s Panic were probably the lowest points. But Berio’s Sinfonia (Prom 4) was deeply amusing and seemed to be taking the piss out of what people expect modern music to be like, and the Ligeti was exactly how I like it, totally transportative, totally alien and like a punch on the nose.

Bellini, La Sonnambula -- scene from Act 2, (Prom 72)

To slightly modify the words of a wise man and in a reference only about three readers will get, ‘Opera, hey. Opera. Opera. Opera. Opera.’ It shouldn’t be a total surprise that the Prom season hasn’t been my opportunity to appreciate Opera but as I’ve already mentioned somewhat, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung (Prom 39) was about the only job of work of the whole seventy-two, even less comprehensible to me that Knussen (Prom 61). But then, I absolutely adored the small doses, the aria here, the prelude there and then I heard Anna Netrebko’s rendition of the above during the last night and decided that there might be hope for me yet. Absolutely adorable. I can’t pass by whilst I’m in solo soprano territory without mentioning Renee Fleming’s appearance (Prom 32) and her scintillating rendition of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane -- ‘Ich ging zu ihm’ which in a few minutes explained to me where diva cults develop from.

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See what I mean? Hopeless. I haven't begun to scratch the surface of the myriad chamber concerts and matinees, some of which were equally enthralling -- I could also have waxed lyrical about the live appearance of Britten's Night Mail with Samuel West filling in for Mr. Burton (PSM 4) or the unexpected joy of Songs of a Rhineland Harper (PCM 7) which was about as unusual as the Proms came, secular German music from a thousand years ago talking about relationships and bravery and all of the things we're still concerned with today. Anyway, there's little left to do but to thank you for indulging my new passion for the past six weeks and I hope I haven't bored you too much. In case you're wondering, after tea tonight with no new Prom, I did watch a film -- as you'd expect I've developed a bit of a backlog. First off the pile? A new dvd of Citizen Kane. Thought I might as well start big ...

1 comment:

Annette said...

OK, so I'll admit to being a bit lost with the Proms series, especially being an ocean away. But honestly, this is exactly why I read this blog, to live vicariously through someone who would undertake something like this and to be inspired by it. It's amazing how much you can learn these days, all for free, if you are so inclined. If there's one thing I will remember from your posts these past few months, it's the sense of joy you've had about the whole experience. There's joy to be found in classical music, and in any art form, really, if you take the time to appreciate it. For that reason alone it was worth doing, to remind the rest of us what's out there if we would just take the time to listen.