First Night of the BBC Proms 2020

Finally. Amid a global pandemic, the audience gets the credit it deserves.

It’s not the same. Not by any means. But, still the opening night of this year’s highlights-driven Proms season arrived with some sense of anticipation, signposted at the top of the day with a Facebook-generated memory of me pictured in the arena waiting for the First Night to start in 2009.

Later, an unexpected invitation to preview Ian Farrington’s fun-filled Beethovenmania – a season-opening commission that mashed-up all of Beethoven’s best-loved melodies. It’s a gorgeous thing to watch (you can see it on BBC Four on Sunday 19 July 2020) which depicts 350+ musicians and singers trapped in their lockdown view playing the music whilst two dancers rip off their masks and gig about to the music. It’s a tear-jerking thing which unexpectedly got me in the mood.

Come the actual First Night broadcast some of that infectious energy was inevitably lacking. Georgia Mann and Petroc Trelawny valiantly compensated with to and fro, plus some contributions from performers ‘down the line’.

But, in its place a strange unexpected feeling as a listener: a perception driven by a moment in a radio schedule – a day, a month, perhaps even the air temperature; the idea that Proms regulars are all coalescing around speakers to relive a shared memory.

Why else would I look forward to listening to a series of pre-recorded links and archive broadcasts, if I knew none of it was actually going on up the road, if not to reconnect with a cavalcade of broadcast-related memories?

In the absence of the actual event, memories were driving me to listen. The warmth in the listening experience wasn’t only down the content (the music) but the way the contrived event stirred concertinaed memories and recollections.  

Ian Farrington’s Beethoveniana

Farrington’s commission was a rip-roaring joyous musical celebration of all things Beethoven, neatly capturing recognisable melodies and subverting them with a series of musical theatre and movie medley style variations and settings. There was a whiff of Nigel Hess’ mastery in Farrington’s score. I also heard bits of former BBC music director Victor Hely-Hutchison’s harmonic style too. There was something effortlessly pleasing about the whole thing that got this rather odd year underway with a much-needed flourish. Jaw-dropping efficiency. Watch out for the choral element – those harmonies tickle the melancholy gland.

LISTEN TO IAN FARRINGTON’S BEETHOVENIANA

Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 / Igor Levit / 2017

What became obvious pretty quickly to me during Igor Levit’s taut and electrifying performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was the sound world of the Proms-world. Regardless of whether you’re one of those tiresome purists who relishes a debate about the declining quality of Albert Hall sound mixes and the like, there is a distinct Proms ‘live’ sound. It’s different from studio recordings and live concert captures. What I hear on the archive broadcast is the ‘space’ of the Royal Albert Hall, itself a contrivance. And yet it transports me in an instant. There is in that imagined space a grand sense of occasion, inclusion, warmth and acceptance. A projection of a kind of egalitarianism. And I miss it (we’ll go into that in later posts).

Audience as unlikely but valued artists

And there are coughs. And warm applause. I can hear evidence of real life in between the first and second movements of the Beethoven. Never in my concert-going and listening experience have I wanted to hear more coughing, not less. The sound from the audience reminds me what we’re striving for: a viable return to live performance.

From this delicate almost painful soundscape emerges a hard-fought opening chord at the piano at the beginning of the second movement. The response from the orchestra sets the mood in a fragile state. There are moments when I imagine myself inside the Royal Albert Hall listening to it there, at which point it all gets a bit too raw and I have to back away.

Such passion and enthusiasm is the enemy of accessibility

This is all tempered by the thoughts and feelings I’m still grappling with. I’ve spent way too much time in the company of people for whom wax lyrical about why music moves me is evidence of me being elitist. As though my passion and enthusiasm and joy at responding to the music I love is the very thing that is casting a shadow over them. I find myself feeling guilty at wanting to articulate the enormous joy I experience in the moment hearing all of these textures in this contrived aural ‘space’. That’s gaslighting. Isn’t it?

I’m struggling with it now as a I embark on 6 weeks of listening to archive Proms broadcasts. Advocacy is seen by some I know as a threat. A danger. How can something that brings joy even in the darkest times for whatever reason be such a threatening thing? And why am I still feeling guilty about it? Unless of course it’s because you feel jealous.

BBC Proms 2020 details announced and highlights selected

Many years ago when access to the Proms brochure and programme archive was as straightforward a process and leaping down the stairs at Broadcasting House and opening a cupboard, I recall stumbling on the Winter Proms season print and thinking how odd a concept it seemed. This, obviously, because it my mind the Proms is something that shapes the summer.

The idea that someone would even entertain the idea of mounting a similar kind of programme in the winter seems like a bizarre thing. Reading Alison Garnham’s chapter in the Proms history book edited by Nicholas Kenyon highlights that the then revival of the Winter Proms in 1947-52 brought the BBC into conflict with other concert promoters who smelled unfair competition. The season wasn’t financially viable either.

I digress. Kind of. Will this year’s Proms season announced today, if it was to be available in print, cast a similar spell on future fans furtively rifling through that same cupboard? I like to think so.

For someone like me – an unreliable, fickle and sometimes critical Proms devotee – there is little difference for me as a consumer this year as opposed to previous years. I’m a predominantly a listener. I prefer imagining the Royal Albert Hall as I listen on the radio. Memories collide. The unfamiliar is introduced. The summer is made sense of.

While its easy to scroll through the listings for this year’s season – 6 weeks of archive broadcasts across TV and radio plus two weeks of as yet-to-be-defined audience-free live performances – and think that this will be seen as a phoney season because I don’t have the choice to attend in person, the reality is that Proms 2020 is exactly what its always been: a series of concert broadcasts I can listen to on the radio. Only this year I get to browse through the past twenty years or so and relive some moments.

I’ve pulled-out a handful of things that catch my eye from a cursory glance of the list. But basically, the summer is sorted – an entire season of archive broadcasts. That, frankly, is good enough for me.

Thoroughly Good Highlights from BBC Proms 2020

Tavener’s The Protecting Veil (1989) – Tuesday 21 July – Radio 3

Norrington conducts Beethoven and Schubert (1989) – Monday 27 July – Radio 3

Sondheim at 80 (2010) – Friday 31 July – Radio 3

Richard Hickox (2006) – Sunday 2 August – Radio 3

Neville Marriner (1994) – Thursday 6 August – Radio 3

Rattle and Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (2002) – Sunday 9 August – BBC Four

Andrew Manze conducting Vaughan Williams Symphonies 4-6 – Tuesday 12 August – Radio 3

Argerich, Barenboim, and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (2016) – Sunday 16 August – BBC Four

Kissin (1997) – Wednesday 19 August – Radio 3

Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (2007) – Sunday 23 August – BBC Four

Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (1987) – Wednesday 26 August – Radio 3

Ibiza Prom (2015) – Friday 28 August – BBC Four

Rachmaninov Vespers (2017) – Sunday 6 September – Radio 3

Not and exhaustive list of my listening committments, but enough to delight and act as a substitute. What we need to do next is follow the Royal Albert Hall’s lead and make this count for classical music, live performance, and the wider arts. This season is the supporting evidence for the campaign audience, performers, and broadcasting organisations alike need to get behind: to reiterate the lifelong value of music in the minds of those who have the power to ensure the UK arts sector survives post-COVID19.

BBC Proms 2020 starts on Friday 17 July. Discover the full line-up on the BBC Proms 2020 website.