Friday, 12 September 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proms

What a great Proms season! A packed two months of music making, the quality almost continuously high, and a good number of real standout performances. Of the concerts I attended, almost all were excellent: Iván Fischer’s Brahms, Runnicles’ Salome, the Seoul Philharmonic. The CBeebies Prom got a middling writeup from me, but my then three-year-old daughter loved it, and has talked about little else since. Gergiev’s Mahler was the only dud I got to, and Rattle’s Matthew Passion was the only one I heard on the radio and was glad to have missed.
But all up, the Proms team has done us proud, and done far more than just keep London’s musical life ticking over while its resident orchestras are away on their summer tours. How lucky we are to have this festival, unparalleled in both scale and quality.
I’ve complained about many aspects of the Proms before, and all those issues remain. First there’s the Albert Hall (in case the image above is misleading – I’m not suggesting we drop it on Russia). The acoustic is a much-discussed and divisive issue. All I’ll add is this: Don’t sit in the circle whatever you do; you’re better off at home listening on the radio. Then there is farcical charade of only publishing the programme ten weeks before the season begins. There’s the bizarre territorial politics of the Arena. And don’t get me started on the Last Night.
None of this is going to change anytime soon, so let’s accept the Proms for what it is and just enjoy it. The flipside to the acoustic issue at the Albert Hall is the atmosphere that the venue is able to generate, and that’s a precious thing. A highly anticipated concert here attracts a buzzing audience, and the enthusiasm of Prommers is regularly cited by performers as a reason why the event is so special to them. And every concert is a real event – just look at the social media coverage.
This year’s season marks the end of Roger Wright’s tenure, and he leaves the festival as strong and vibrant as ever. Not so with Radio 3 sadly, but it’s difficult to tell how many of the station’s recent woes are down to him. Wright will be succeeded by separate controllers of the Proms and Radio 3, and the former job certainly looks the more attractive. Hopefully, the new director of the Proms can find similarly effective ways to gently reinvent the traditions, and possibly even deal with some of the bigger problems too.
In the mean time, I’m off to my last Prom of the year; a star orchestra (the Gewandhaus) doing the Beethoven Nine. That’s one of the few persistent Proms traditions I’m not going to complain about. Saturday’s flag-waiving aside, this looks set to be a fitting conclusion to a great season.

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