The World’s Greatest Music Festival – only 42 weeks to go!

Some do it to relive their youth. Some do it to help them stay young. Some – most – do it because of their profound love of fine music-making.

I do it for all those reasons. The BBC Promenade concerts, I mean. The Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. No question – for eight glorious weeks every year it’s the world’s greatest music festival. And it’s over for another year.

Great to be back (photo: Alan the Wordsmith)
Great to be back (photo: Alan the Wordsmith)

It was the 49th season since my first Prom – my first symphony concert actually: Claudio Abbado, who died last year but was then only 34, young as conductors go. I went with a couple of school friends, unsure what to expect and pretty overwhelmed at the sheer scale of the thing. I remember being oddly taken aback by the fact that everything was in colour – I’d only ever seen black and white photos of symphony orchestras! It made a powerful memory. Occasional visits followed and then, as a student in the early 1970s, it started in earnest. A couple of friends at my college were among what you might call the hardcore Proms junkies – not just regular attenders but listeners with the intensity, concentration and sheer devotion which even the most starry musicians comment on. I trailed along and rapidly found myself among the ringleaders of whatever high jinks were on offer.

Attentive audience (photo: Alan the Wordsmith)
Attentive audience (photo: Alan the Wordsmith)

We had a taste in those days for communal chants, usually associated with that night’s music, or performers, or occasionally about celebs we spotted in the audience. It was my idea, I’m slightly self-conscious to say, to greet the arrival of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with a chorus of Oh we do like to be beside the seaside. It was only meant to be a couple of lines, but it escaped, was taken up enthusiastically by the whole audience and turned into a rendition of the whole song. It passed the time. As did our well-pronounced greeting “Guten abend, meine Herren. Wie geh’t es ihnen?” which reduced the usually po-faced gentlemen of the Berlin Philharmonic to helpless giggles.

Time passes. We grow out of that kind of thing or, more accurately, grow into something else. But the Proms go on, one of the glories of the BBC and a quite fantastic festival of every kind of music: solo Bach, marathon Prokofiev, epic musicals, swing bands, Sinatra, complete Sibelius, and of course the party on the Last Night (I did three of those in the early 70s, and in the heat and crush watched people pass out and come round without even moving, but boy it was fun) which is watched all over the world and whose knowing patriotic fervour seems to be resented only by a few people over here who misunderstand how subtly Britain’s long history has taught us to smile at ourselves.

Performers regularly say that the venue – one of the biggest in the world and holding upwards of 6000 people on most nights – is one of the most intimate spaces they ever appear in. I think that’s precisely because of the size of the dark space, relative to the ordinary-sized platform which is all that is lit, added to the intense concentration and focus of the audience, most of whom either know a lot about the music or want to learn, and the sheer silence that descends when the performance starts – silence of a quality you rarely experience anywhere else. I once saw Dame Judi Dench, no less – greatest actor I have ever seen or heard – sit alone at the front of the stage, lit only by a single spotlight surrounded by darkness, send a huge audience into paroxysms by, with no costume or props, simply becoming a different person by singing Send in the Clowns on a special Stephen Sondheim tribute night.

Every concert broadcast live on BBC Radio and available for a while afterwards via the website. Many broadcast on TV also. A weekly TV chatshow featuring some of the performers talking knowledgeably about music and music making. Daily (free) talks across the road at the Royal College of Music, usually about the music being performed. Weekly (free) singing sessions where choral singers of all abilities get a two or three hour masterclass on a Proms work, led by an excellent teacher, often the fabulous Mary King. This year I did sessions on the Verdi Requiem, Carmina Burana, Leonard Bernstein musicals, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Fiddler on the Roof. Every one an absolute riot, enjoyed even by people who pretend they can’t sing.

This year featured (among many others) the Vienna Philharmonic, the St Petersburg and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, Yo Yo Ma, Jonas Kaufmann, András Schiff, Simon Rattle, Leif Ove Andsnes – and that’s just the ‘classical’ list. In truth, though, the Proms recognises that music is music, and should not be subjected to false distinctions. The Proms cover a massively wide range, focussing on what is good, worth listening to and worth seeing. Truly, there is something for everyone and it’s all so accessible. Oh, and there’s a whole parallel series down the road at the Cadogan Hall, to fill in the lunch hours if you’re at a looose end.

And, throughout, the gorgeous Katie Derham, now lighting up this season’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Add in the amazingly informative and user-friendly BBC Proms website, the friendly and helpful staff, the efficient queuing system (multiple opportunities to chat to interesting people, learn about the music or catch up on reading), Kensington Gardens to eat your sandwiches across the road (this year it didn’t rain much), and the fact that you can get the whole lot, including 2-3 hours’ great music making) for £5 cash on the nail – now try and tell me this is not the greatest music festival in the world.

This is the BBC at its finest. And if any meddling politician seeks to undermine a fragment of this with some party agenda unrelated to education, the arts, public service broadcasting, uplift and fun, I don’t know what I will do to them, but I will do it with my bare hands.

So, do I like the Proms or what? Judge for yourself. The next First Night is on Friday 15 July 2016. Join me there, for my fiftieth season and maybe your first.

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