In music, summertime is festival time. Often that means decamping to the mountains, the Mediterranean or unlikely corners of Scandinavia, Germany or France to catch today’s megastars at play. But so far this summer there’s been only one place to be: in London, at the Proms. More camping than decamping has taken place: some audience members queued overnight outside the Royal Albert Hall, hoping for a prime spot to see the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
At the time of writing, the Proms, “the world’s greatest music festival”, are only halfway through, and I can’t remember another time when this doughty series has felt quite so festive. Nearly every concert has been an event: a talking point in its own right.
There’s been controversy aplenty, passions have run high and discussions have been fervent. Dare to suggest that Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is not the ultimate masterpiece of the 20th century and you risked losing your scalp. Or give yourself over to the excitement of the Simon Bolivár Symphony Orchestra’s Resurrection Symphony (Mahler’s No 2) with Dudamel and within moments someone would rain on your fiesta. Oh, how the British chattering classes loathe anything too successful!
Prefer Mahler with no vibrato? Sir Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra brought us a personal, vibrato-free account of the great Ninth; some listeners issued praise, while others couldn’t bear to be in the same room with more than a few bars of it. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Nigel Kennedy arrived to perform late-night solo Bach, causing some raised eyebrows with his unadvertised jazz band, yet magnetising all with his cathedralesque Chaconne.
Another night, another orchestra: the Proms offer a rewarding chance to compare and contrast them. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was cool, chic and charming, jumping effortlessly from a chocolatey Brahms Double Concerto with the Capuçon brothers to a Rite of Spring that was, for once, distinctly balletic. The London Philharmonic went Hungarian with a taut, tight-sprung Liszt Faust Symphony. The Mariinsky Orchestra with Gergiev popped over from Covent Garden to play the whole of Swan Lake without the dancers, and Tony Pappano led his Roman orchestra and chorus, the Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia, in a roof-raising account of Rossini’s gargantuan opera William Tell. Guests due later in the season include the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the (technically) bankrupt Philadelphia Orchestra.
Meanwhile, terrific pianists were on parade (despite a cancellation from Martha Argerich), often in less than predictable fare. The brightest of young Brits, Benjamin Grosvenor, played on the opening night a few days after his 19th birthday — though he was saddled with the unfortunate combination of Liszt’s Second Concerto and a somewhat inflexible conductor. Later he triumphed a second time with the Britten concerto. Stephen Hough, too, brought the house down, dazzling through Saint-Saëns’s “Egyptian” Concerto. We had all three Bartók concertos, dotted about the season: András Schiff coaxed, stroked and bubbled his way through the famous No 3; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet navigated the strictures of the underrated No 1 with poise, panache and precision. Marc-André Hamelin was due in for two Proms: a late-night recital devoted to Liszt, and later Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; and there were debuts for Khatia Buniatishvili (a lunchtime recital), Kirill Gerstein (Strauss’s Burleske) and Alice Sara Ott (the ubiquitous Grieg Concerto).
As for new music, that was on healthy display: the season kicked off with an oddly out-of-character choral shortie by Judith Weir, Stars, Night, Music and Light, while later offerings ranged from a new piano concerto for Barry Douglas by Kevin Volans, and the UK premiere of a flute concerto by the 102-year-old Elliott Carter, to the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei — tackled by the National Youth Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski with an unusual Proms soloist, DJ Switch.
The Proms have been varied, controversial, divisive, unusual, fun. Above all, they’ve fired passions consistently as they rarely have before. Arguments raged on Twitter and Facebook, around the websites, across the blogs. The Horrible Histories free family Prom was full of glee from start to finish. The Gothic Symphony sent its dissenters scuttling for cover as the Havergal Brian anoraks counter-charged. A five-star review of the Venezuelans drew protests from Mahler purists: oh dear, the Ländler was too slow! Cue return protests from those who’d adored it. As it happens, the Ländler was too slow, but most of us didn’t really mind: the point of the evening ran deeper.
Did you know that people care this much about classical music? They do. And in a world full of cyber-chatter, talking about what you care about has never been easier — or more important in spreading the message about its existence. Talking points at the Proms have been the festival’s best marketing tool in years.
Whether the Proms will have the funds to continue at such a consistently high pitch in a few years’ time is something we don’t yet know; with 20 per cent cuts mooted across the BBC, it seems dubious. But it’s also too easy to be thrilled by wall-to-wall Proms coverage, including plenty of TV, and forget that it takes up less than two months. A good Proms season is no excuse for BBC TV to leave classical music out in the cold once the summer is over.
Radio 3’s listening figures are up by a healthy 17 per cent year on year; at present the station seems to be doing an admirable job, harnessing galloping technology to help its cause and renewing its commitment to regular live broadcasts. But minimal music on TV aside from the Proms risks marginalising matters all over again during the other ten months of the year.
And another thing: ironically, the thrills of the guest orchestras have left the Proms’ home team — the BBC Symphony Orchestra — struggling to get out of their shadows. The BBCSO is chock-full of superb musicians; but what it needs now is a new principal conductor who can really set them ablaze. An announcement about the next person for the post is expected before long. I can’t help wondering if it is only a coincidence that the 2011 Last Night will be conducted by Ed Gardner, the charismatic thirty-something music director of English National Opera.
This Proms season has proved that every concert can be an occasion. Now let’s make it so for the rest of the year too.