Once More Unto the Albert Hall, Dear Friends

To listen to the BBC’s Proms concerts in the Royal Albert Hall I wake up early before the upstate New York summer days become too tropical, and enjoy the delayed broadcasts over  the computer on BBC 3. There’s no standing in line with the Prommers (i.e., Promenaders) for the amazingly cheap five pound tickets, and then jostling with a thousand others in the standing room section below the Albert Hall stage. Instead of the Albert Hall mosh pit, there’s coffee and a view out over the wooded hills of New York to a soundtrack of the world’s greatest musicians heard in high-fidelity and half a day late. In place of the drama of the Proms’ ebullient concert-going culture comes leisurely enjoyment. Excitement, annoyance, anticipation, ecstasy, and the thousand other thrills of unfolding musical performance give way to contemplation, abstraction, solitude, and the occasional touch of wistfulness.

Well into their second century of existence, the Proms call themselves “The World’s Greatest Classical Music Festival” and at more than seventy concerts stretched across the summer the claim seems more than justified. The Proms have long been committed to the democratization of classical music, not just through the cheap standing room tickets, but through the dissemination of the concerts on television, over the radio, and most recently the internet. Music by Debussy, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughan Williams, (who died fifty years ago this year and is therefore featured on many concerts this season), and many others was performed at the Proms when it is was new. The festival has always given much play to music of the twentieth century, as well as to the new works it commissions.

Earlier in the Spring, before the Proms schedule for the 2008 summer was announced, the Labour Party’s Culture Minister Margaret Hodge criticized the institution for not reflecting the “diversity” of the New Britain. Conservative commentators immediately decried this transparent political grandstanding. Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown quickly distanced himself from this hackneyed attack on the alleged elitism and growing irrelevance of classical music. Hodge’s target was poorly chosen. There is no more accessible and successful classical musical festival in the world.

But adjustments, not to say concessions, have been made over the last decade in the form of A Blue Peter Prom done in conjunction with long-running BBC children’s program, a Folk Music Prom, and a World Music Prom, held for the first time this year. In the end, I doubt such offerings will do much to erode the Proms’ long-standing commitment to classical music.

Like so much else in the so-called New Britain, the Proms are famous, some would say infamous, for playing to national sentiment. The most extravagant expression of this strain of Proms culture comes at the Last Night, the conclusion of the series, when Prommers wave Union Jacks—though regional flags are also to be seen—as the orchestra makes its way through hymns to to the defunct British Empire: Pomp and Circumstance, Rule Britannia, Jerusalem, and finally God Save the Queen.

Here too, though, slight renovations have been made to the imperial facade.  While principal conductor of the BBC Symphony from 2000 to 2004, the American maestro Leonard Slatkin tried to tone down the excessive nationalism of the Last Night.  The first non-commonwealth conductor to take the podium for the Last Night, Slatkin defrocked Rule Britannia of its independent status, letting it be heard only as part of the Fantasia on British Sea Songs by Henry Wood. Wood, first conductor at the Proms who continued leading these concerts for more than half a century and whose bust is put on stage in front of the Albert Hall organ for all Proms concerts. A bead of sweat is mopped from the bust’s brow on the Last Night, as if Wood’s effigy breathes a sigh of relief that the whole series has come off over a this exhausting cycle of events.  Another interpretation would be that Wood is sweating bullets of embarrassment at the tenacity of this flag-waving foolishness.

In spite of Slatkin’s neglible reform, the Last Night is still an orgy of British nationalism. The revels spill out into Hyde Park where the concert is to be seen live on the big-screen. It is the closest any supposedly classical concert will ever get to a World Cup soccer match. Indeed, rather than directing her criticism at the cowering scapegoat of “high” culture, Hodge should have gone after the unabashed, if paradoxically inclusive, jingoism of the Last Night. I’m not sure of the demographic makeup of the Last Night crowd, but the assumption seems to be that if a sufficient quota of dark-skinned people of the former Empire can be seen waving British flags, then the hymns of Empire will be themselves naturalized as the soundtrack of the New Britain. It is only as propaganda that classical music attains the appeal of pop.

While nationalism in music takes its most flamboyant form on the Last Night it is deployed throughout the series for the purposes of marketing: music (classical, world, whatever) may masquerade as a universalize language, but it retains its media appeal when spoken with the exotic accent of a Russian, like Valery Gergiev, or a Venezuelan phenom like Gustavo Dudamel — heard in respectively Proms 46 and 47 next week—and other musical ambassadors from Japan, China and, to be sure, the former British Colonies.

A classic bit of Proms programming came over my computer this  morning: last night’s concert by the Ulster Orchestra led by Kenneth Montgomery, a Belfast native. Here was group still residing within the massively shrunken borders of the British Empire. Pursuing the nationalist line, Alexandra Wilson introduced the concert for BBC 3 as an exploration of “contrasting national identities” in a program of Irish and Czech music—never mind that this “identity” was complicated by the fact that there are two Irelands.

Things began with Belfast-born Howard Ferguson’s Overture for an Occasion, the occasion being the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  Rather half-heartedly praised in the next morning’s reviews in the London papers, the richly orchestrated and melodically diverse piece expertly conjoins stormy string writing, imperial brass strains, militaristic drum rolls, and the naive of woodwind themes. This melange unwittingly presaged the subsequent Windsor decades of scandal, military adventurism, insularity, and questionable taste. Indeed, the piece is as flimsy a construct as the British Monarchy itself. The true “identity” and political implications of this unabashedly royalist, unionist work are conveniently sidestepped. Mediocre music of dubious optimism is stamped quickly in the concert-goer’s passport before boarding EasyJet to the next destination.

The Overture for an Occasion appeals to the lighter of classical styles represented frequently at the Proms, and intended to court wider appeal. In this context, nationalism is here meant to be a harmless label rather than a nasty reminder of its true purpose and results. Loyal to the Union, flag yet tinged with harmless regional flavor, the Ferguson Overture is the perfect Proms calling card.

The Irish half of the program then moved on to a far more substantial, I want to say major and moving, work by the Anglo-Irish composer, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), best known nowadays for his stalwart Anglican choral music often heard in English cathedrals and Oxbridge chapels.

The young Dubliner Finghin Collins chose Stanford’s darkly romantic Piano Concerto for his Proms debut, an unlikely work for such an important career juncture simply because it is not in the stable of concerto warhorses.  But as Collins and company made abundantly clear to this remote listener, it as rewarding, challenging, and tempestuous a concerto as those of Rachmaninoff, who counted as Stanford’s main influence in the work. So much for “Irish” identity. Collins has a commanding technique but also, more impressively still, a feeling for pianistic melancholy against a backdrop of brooding orchestral colors. Whether these traits are typically Irish, Anglican, Catholic, Russian, Orthodox, or Patagonian, I’ll leave to the BBC. Collins is big-time player, now recording Schumann’s complete works on the Claves label. At his hands and those of the Harrington and the Ulster Orchestra, I’ve discovered an epic piano concerto beamed my way from the former seat of Empire. I’ll want to hear Stanford’s mighty concerto again in the Ithacan fall and winter.

In the end, none of the Proms nonsense stops me from listening, only because the performances are of such diversity and quality, even if served up with unappetizing nationalist seasonings. Maybe I’m as naive as Ferguson’s Overture, but my musical patriots recognize no political boundaries.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu




DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com