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Proms 2009: Prom 12 – Holst Planet Suite \ Mackerras \ BBC Philharmonic

July 26, 2009

There’s an assumption, a conclusion jumped to, amongst self-proclaimed “serious” classical music lovers. It’s this: Live music can only be appreciated if you’re within spitting distance of the concert platform. It’s the kind of opinion which makes radio and TV producers guffaw with derision. It’s as though radio and television are the poor relation to the real thing.

Last night’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall disproved that assumption. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Charles Mackerras wowed audiences at home with a programme of simple, good value works all in High Definition (for those who had it) or on normal BBC Four. Some of us smug so and sos experienced it in Dolby Surround.

Whilst it may not initially sound like a choice viewing experience, being able to see the beads of sweat on the forehead of the principal clarinettist confirmed in my mind at least that HD was not only the way to go, but this combined with a large glass of beer and a chinese takeaway made this particular Proms experience superior over standing in the arena.

The truth is that I’d dismissed Holst’s Planet Suite in part because I’ve heard it so much. Movements played out of context, repeatedly, make the thought of the complete work seem like nothing more than wallpaper.

But I’d underestimated to what extent Holst’s Planet Suite was as popular as it was. The broadcast might have been relayed rather than live, but that apparent drawback in live presentation I’m so hot on didn’t dent enthusiasm with people who like to combine a Saturday night with a spot of tweeting on the internet. People seemed to be rising to the occasion. The number may not have been massive, but as collective experiences of a supposedly niche interest, it felt good.

Watching at home and tracking what people were saying on Twitter at the same time not only brought the Proms out into the open a little more, but saw it occupy it’s rightful place in Saturday night entertainment. Nothing fancy, nothing brash, just a little bit of culture in the form of a fantastic performance of the Planet Suite, reminding me that Holst wrote something which all of us desperately courting an audience which manages to grab attention and maintain interest all the way through the 50 minutes it lasts. I’m sure Holst would have been delighted.

And not a single round of applause out of place, which in a strange way seemed rather odd.

Watch the BBC Four broadcast of Prom 12 via the BBC iPlayer or listen to the audio via BBC Radio 3.

  1. I absolutely disagree. I was in the arena on Saturday evening and recorded the TV broadcast to watch back (albeit not in HD!). I agree that sometimes (especially in the vacuous RAH acoustic) there are benefits to having what looks like several hundred microphones, as detail in complex scores is undoubtedly clearer.

    But the disadvantage is that sometimes the individual pick ups of direct sound do not in any way capture all the reflected sounds in the venue. This was the case on Saturday and, on the whole, television and radio certainly aren’t as good as the real thing (and the lazy argument that I’m ‘jumping to this conclusion’ doesn’t cut it). When you’re there, you not only get the ‘real’ sound of the venue, you pick up the atmosphere of the 6000 people in the hall. Reproduced sound will always be second best, albeit an ever-improving phenomenon.

    What does wind me up is when people who claim not to be ‘self-proclaimed music lovers’ make classical music seem like an unfriendly, snobbish world by endlessly complaining about people clapping in the ‘wrong’ place.

    Sure, when it’s inappropriate, at the quiet end of a movement, perhaps, people should hold their applause. But equally, if people had started clapping at the exhilerating climax of ‘Jupiter’, I’d have joined them.

    Musical reaction ought to be about the way you feel, not some stuffy convention.

  2. I do agree with you on the “stuffy convention” point Andrew and can see how it may appear as though I am painting myself as a real, unforgiving stickler about it. There is certainly nothing wrong with expressing appreciation for a job well done no matter where in the programme that occurs.

    What surprised me was how post-Jupiter seemed like the exact point people would break into applause and yet they didn’t. Somehow that maintained excitement given that the performance had been so good and so many people had resisted applauding. It heightened the occasion in a way I hadn’t expected.

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