"To introduce the greatest classical music to the widest possible audience,” Henry Wood, founder
Prom is an abbreviation for promenade and the first Prom concerts were given in 1895. They have been running continuously ever since making this the world’s longest running music festival. Henry Wood conducted the first of these concerts and remained at the helm for almost 50 years. During the Proms, his bust is prominently displayed on the stage. The Proms also took place during the London Blitz although their original home, Queens Hall, was bombed and the concerts were transferred to the Royal Albert Hall. Today, up to 900 Prommers stand in the central arena of the vast hall, with a further 500 in the top gallery. The rest of the audience is accommodated in seats in rows in the tiered arches. The hall’s capacity is over five thousand.
Initially the concerts were given almost exclusively by London ensembles. However in the 1960’s, the organizers started to invite foreign ensembles and this transformed the Proms into an international event. Today, this is probably one of the largest music festivals in the world. Many of the great international orchestras currently do the traditional summer festival circuit comprising Salzburg, Lucerne and Edinburgh. Since London is almost at the epicentre of this hub, many of these orchestras make an obligatory stop at the London Proms.
The climax of the Proms is the last night which is traditionally a concert with popular classics and British patriotic pieces. To accommodate all the people who wish to attend this event and to cater for those who are not near London, this last night concert is relayed to London’s Hyde Park as well as other venues throughout the United Kingdom.
The current two-month festival comprised 74 concerts. There were also additional events including chamber concerts, matinees, late night events as well as workshops and family events at the Albert Hall as well as other venues. Emphasis was given to the music of Liszt, this being his bicentennial. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the death of Mahler whose music also featured prominently. The 75th birthday of American minimalist composer Steve Reich was also celebrated as was the music of Frank Bridge, the mentor of Benjamin Britten. There were also performances of specially commissioned works.
More than twenty international orchestras participated in the festival and I was present at two concerts. Sir Colin Davis conducting The London Symphony Orchestra led a glorious performance of Beethoven’s choral masterpiece, the Missa Solemnis with the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus. The soloists included Helena Juntunen (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) and Matthew Rose (bass). From a seated position, the octogenarian Colin Davis was in absolute control. He conducted the work at a slow measured pace and despite his minimum gestures, the orchestra responded to his every motion.
Beethoven was not very kind to his vocalists. With his progressive deafness, by the time this Missa was written he had forgotten the limitations of the human voice. In addition, the poor acoustics of the Albert Hall was not helpful. Without question, the most successful of the vocal soloists was Sarah Connolly. Her contributions to the Sanctus and Agnes Dei were particularly noteworthy. Helena Juntunen and Matthew Rose were both effective although one could argue that he former was too dramatic and the latter took some time to settle down. Paul Groves is a light lyrical tenor and it was often difficult to hear him above the orchestra. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the performance was the violin obbligato played by orchestra leader, Gordan Nikolitch accompanying the soloists in the Benedictus. The huge choral forces added much drama to this overwhelming and inspiring performance. Catherine Edward’s playing of the Albert Hall organ was noteworthy.
The other concert featured the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under its Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck. Although not a member of the so called “Big Five”, their playing was very proficient. The fact is that the vast majority of US orchestras maintain an extremely high standard. This is not surprising since music schools and academies are turning out so many top-notch young instrumentalists.
As a short curtain-raiser, they played three short extracts from a piece entitled the Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz by the relatively unknown German composer, Walter Braunfels. His music was popular in Germany and even internationally in the 1920 and early 1930’s. He refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime but did not leave Germany. His music was not played during the Third Reich but over the last decade it has been rediscovered and is now occasionally programmed. This late romantic work highlighted the proficiency of the brass and woodwind section of this technically impressive orchestra.
This was followed by a performance of the Beethoven fourth piano concerto with the French pianist, Hélène Grimaud. No one could argue with Ms Grimaud’s formidable piano technique as shown by her exemplary rendering of the first movement cadenza. She has a wonderful light touch and her fortissimo passages were also outstanding. In this allegro movement, she often took an independent route and the orchestra had trouble keeping up. Was this a clash between Gallic and German temperaments? However everything came together in the slow andante and final rondo where there was complete cohesion between soloist and orchestra.
The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. There was some beautiful playing, notably the mournful clarinets at the beginning of the first movement and the horn in the second movement. However there was too much accentuation of the brass and I missed the grand romantic sweep and emotional intensity associated with this work. The performance was somewhat uninspiring and one could not escape the conclusion that Honeck was most interested in showing off the prowess of the strings, brass and woodwinds of this fine ensemble.
Unfortunately not everything in the Proms went off smoothly. The most unpleasant event occurred when a group of Palestinian agitators and their British supporters tried to interrupt the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert conducted by Zubin Mehta (I did not attend this performance). They were eventually evicted but for the first time in the Proms history, the radio broadcast had to be terminated. The concert resumed and was received with great public and critical acclaim. In this sordid incident, art eventually triumphed politics!
In the current season, there was a record breaking 94% average attendance for evening concerts. Over 70% of the Proms were completely sold out and 300,000 music lovers attended. Millions more watched the concerts on TV, radio and online.
This article was published in abridged form in The Jerusalem Post on 4 October, 2011
Fig 1: The view from inside the Royal Albert Hall, showing the Prommers, those audience members standing in the central arena. Photo Credit, I.S.
Fig 2: The Royal Albert Hall, site of the annual Proms, the world’s oldest international music festival. Photo Credit, I.S.
Fig 3: Conductor Sir Colin Davis and soloists acknowledging the applause of the Prommers after the conclusion of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Photo Credit, I.S.