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Proms 2009: Best listen from home?

July 18, 2009

It’s only day two of the Proms and I’m reminded of one of a handful of reasons I occasionally feel uncomfortable in the Royal Albert Hall.

Yesterday (the First Night of the Proms) was a mish-mash of experiences. First was the genuine (even if it seemed a little bizarre to everyone else) euphoria of the season starting again. I wasn’t the only one, it seemed. Then there was the sight of strangely familiar faces all greeting one other with the same thing words: “Happy New Year!” There’s the foldable chairs and chilled bottles of wine. Homemade sandwiches and flasks.

The combination of all these familiar sights and sounds made me feel at home. There was a feeling that no time had passed since we all queued up for the Last Night the previous year. I felt part of the special Proms group.

I wasn’t perhaps as in the clique as I might have hoped however. One man was insistent he knew my name already and didn’t need me to introduce myself saying, “You’re Mr You Tube, that’s who you are”. When I protested adding that “No, I think you’ll find my name is Jon” he insisted, “No, it’s Mr YouTube.” I didn’t register a tongue in cheek tone and didn’t recall receiving any compliments either. Draw your own conclusions.

It reminded me of a man the previous year who went to great lengths to explain to me in the Last Night queue why it was he felt the video work I’d done was inapprorpriate. I was a little taken aback. Quite apart from the day to day challenges faced by all of us as we grapple with our insecurities (and yes, we all have them), to be on the receiving end of negativity whilst I was under the influence of one or two glasses of wine wasn’t the nicest of things. Although robust and good-hearted in my response, his words still hurt, there’s no shame in confessing it.

My mother was suitably cavalier about this when I relayed the experience, asking me “you don’t pay for your ticket do you ? You do claim it back on expenses?” I suggested to her that it was extremely unlikely I could justify claiming for a season ticket purely on the basis that I love the Proms season. She reluctantly conceded when I went for the purist’s approach, pointing out that if I were to claim the money back that would change the whole experience, I explained to her. I would quite understandably end up taking the ticket for granted. The summer would never be quite the same again if I did that.

And yet, I’m beginning to wonder whether I might have been a little hasty where that’s concerned. Take the following, most recent personal experience.

Yesterday, during the First Night of the Proms, I find myself totally enthralled by the pyrotechnics of the Labeque sisters whose performance of the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto I knew I was looking forward to anyway but which totally swept me off my feet. In light of my habitual blogging practice using a variety of different methods, I suddenly felt inspired to write something. I made a quick assessment, picked up my bag, headed for the crush bar and scribbled down some notes. It’s a diary thing after all. I want to catch the moment for my own posterity’s sake.

Perhaps unfairly, I abandoned the rest of the concert only hearing the remainder of the concert this morning via BBC iPlayer. I was stunned by the relative blandness of Elgar’s composition In the South (something I remember feeling some time ago) and only just engaged with Brahms‘ Alto Symphony when chorus and soloist joined forces in the conclusion in the major key at the end of the piece. When I listened to that in bed this morning one simple thought came into my head: I know it’s deliberately written that way and I know Brahms was trying to get over the news of his love Schumann’s betrothal to someone else, but really, I’ve struggled to remain captivated until the end. I’m fairly certain, I thought, I’d have found it even more difficult if I was standing up in the arena after the spectacle of the Poulenc.
I was going to write that in a follow up but didn’t get around to it. I caught up on a few emails and perused a few cake recipes I was considering trying for a reception I’m going to tomorrow.

Then I read this comment left in response to the Prom 1 posting:

Those who “dutifully” remained saw the highlight of the evening with the Brahms. What sort of deluded narcissist would consider their unsolicited opinions to be more important than that? I have nothing but pity for anyone so beige as to be titillated by the risible antics of K Lebeque who, as usual, just looked like she would rather have been a rock star.Surely any one of the 5 or 6 thousand people who could be bothered to stay til the end has a more relevant opinion than yours?

Of course. Pete Lazonby is correct in some respects. I am a total nobody who isn’t paid to voice his opinions nor am I recognised for having especially erudite, well-researched or academic assessments. And surely as he implies, it was a bit of a schoolboy error to pass judgement on a live concert without having heard all of it.

Or was it?

The fact is, that’s it not whether or not I should have remained in the concert hall which bothers me – the Proms offers something for everybody, there are no rules about getting there at the beginning (plenty of people get there late) nor about having to listen in the Hall all the way until the end or listening on the radio. This is a democratic festival (in that it is made accessible to as many people as possible).

I’m even less bothered that my liking the Labeque sisters performance over something I only heard on the radio – even then streamed back via iPlayer.

What disturbs me most is the extent to which a comment like that alienates. Such opinions (in my opinion, albeit unsolicited and almost certainly beige) do reinforce the view of classical music world as stuffy and impenetrable. It’s as though there is a rubriq for attending a concert and if you are to do anything outside of that you can’t call yourself a classical music lover still less write about it. It is very sad. And – unless I’ve misunderstood that opinion and I am happy to concede I may have done – that’s an opinion which may originate from another part of the arena.

And if that’s the case I think I’d really rather listen on the radio if you don’t mind.


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  1. David England permalink

    I must be among the beige collective, as I too found myself enthralled by the pyrotechnics of the Labèque sisters. Who would believe that they are now 59 and 57 years old?

    The Brahms was also a highlight of the evening for me, but then I would say that, as it was my first appearance of the season as part of the BBC Symphony Chorus. It’s probably not a piece I would have sought out had I not been performing, and I don’t know if my stamina would have stretched to standing for such a long evening, when there was still the possibility of watching and listening at home. Who can tell?

    I do hope none of this puts you off entertaining us with your unsolicited opinions. I always look forward to reading your views, and suspect you have quite a following within the chorus.

    Now, do you need any taste testers for your delicious home-baked cakes?

  2. Pete Lazonby permalink

    Sorry, I was a bit wound up when I wrote that so it was too personal an attack… I am impressed you allowed it up on your site though and then proceeded with your self-analysis above.
    However, you do misunderstand my opinion of the Labeque performance. I look for wildness and abandon in different places than the RAH or any orchestral event infact. I liked the sisters’ performance of the Poulenc but found K’s performance extras to be of no additional value. As I am something of a full-bore Dyonisian in my other life as a house and techno producer, her excessive body movements just seem a bit naff and irrelevant and something of a distraction from the playing, particularly that of her less visually flamboyant sister.
    Hope that’s a bit clearer.

    Of course, all music is for everyone!

  3. Thanks for clearing it up. As it was I completely understood how the Labeque’s stage presence wouldn’t have been to everyone’s liking.

    To be honest, it was more the “unsolicited opinions” and “beige” which seemed a little mean.

    Still, we’ve got all of that sorted now. Marvellous stuff.

  4. Chris Poppe permalink

    Just catching up with the start of the Proms season courtesy of I-play-it-again as we’ve been on hols.

    From the confined space of listening to Prom 1 whilst working at my desk, I found the Poulenc enthralling; enough to stop me in tracks and sit up and take real notice. I’ve absolutely no idea how it looked. But then I also really enjoyed the Elgar (and I know Mr J’s view about that) and the Bruckner and didn’t really notice the Brahms, sorry about that, contributor David above, that’s the downside of working and listening at the same time. My fault.

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