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Proms promise

2 June 2012

11:00 AM

2 June 2012

11:00 AM

On first opening a new Proms prospectus, the enthusiastic amateur immediately looks for the things that are there, the things that are not there and, a mixture of the two, the things he hopes will be there. What I hope for every year goes roughly like this: the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics (yes to both); a big operatic production (two this time, one each from the Royal Opera and ENO); one or two Really Famous (and preferably Really Old) artists (Barenboim, Boulez, Dutoit, Gergiev, Haitink, Perahia); some big anniversaries to be celebrated (Debussy, Delius, Cage, Knussen and Goehr — a middling crop); symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler (three each); some top early music (very little); Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony (no).

Once these preliminaries have been rather breathlessly undertaken, the mood lightens and our inspector begins to winkle out the strands that will hold the annual colossus together. In the not-too-distant past, these were as cleverly interwoven as the countersubjects in a Bach fugue; nowadays they are fewer, easier to pick out and more attached to the excitements of the day, which, this summer, are exceptional. The Proms will miss the actual celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee, though there are several echoes of it: the first night will include Elgar’s ‘Coronation Ode’; and the Master of the Queen’s Music, Peter Maxwell Davies, has been commissioned to write his ninth symphony, which is dedicated to the Queen.

The Olympics, however, do take place during the Proms season, giving the planners some unusual opportunities. On the evening of 27 July, the day the Olympics open, teams of young people will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its hymn to universal brotherhood. And this emphasis on youth is perhaps the backbone of the Proms more generally. There are to be 22 concerts featuring youth ensembles, of whom much the most employed is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, undertaking the complete Beethoven symphonies and culminating with the Ninth. Since this concert has to be within the first fortnight of the series, the early nights will be quite taken up with this orchestra and their Beethoven.

Otherwise youth choirs and instrumental ensembles can be heard dotted throughout the 76 events, not least on the closing afternoon of the Olympics — 12 August — when the National Youth Wind Orchestra and the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain share the platform.

Another theme is London; and here both the Proms and its prospectus frankly appeal to the armies of people who will be walking the streets for other reasons. The most touristy of the offerings here will be the Concert Spirituel, 80-strong, playing all Handel’s Water and Firework Music at a free late-night concert on 18 July. The grandest will be The Yeomen of the Guard on the 19 August, with the BBC Singers conducted by my good friend Jane Glover. Felicity Palmer as Dame Carruthers should mollify the hearts of even the most nationalistic (foreign) Olympians.

And then there are the things that are missing. Top of my list is any proper puff for the anniversary of Giovanni Gabrieli. I note that I Fagiolini will be giving a splendid programme of his music in the context of a 1612 Italian Vespers on the 22 August, including some really big multi-choir pieces, but where is the hype? Is Robert Hollingworth giving a pre-concert talk? Is there an article about Gabrieli in the prospectus? No, there is not, despite a feature on the 150th anniversary of Delius, who by comparison is a minor figure. If the Gabrieli story had been explored properly it would have been discovered that he was a crucial accessory to revolution, rivalling the standard-bearer to whom he gave the flag, Monteverdi. Although the Proms aspire to be everything to everybody it is clear that some composers and their epochs are more equal than others. In fact, it was not ever thus: this is a relatively recent development.

Missing also will be the fountain in the middle of the promming area, another victim of health and safety regulations. This brings to mind a conversation I had recently with an experienced orchestral player, who recalled that when he started out there were ashtrays fixed to every music stand in the orchestra. This, in turn, reminded me of a comment I read somewhere in the journalism of Havergal Brian, where he remembered that when he started out as a critic, and there was a modern piece to review, he would decide whether to acquire the score of it and do the job thoroughly, or sit back, enjoy the music and have a smoke.

Sitting by a fountain, tasting some Egyptian tobacco, listening to something exotic (possibly — why not? — by Delius) sounds like heaven to me. Were those the days?

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