STUART MILLSON (celebrating his 43rd season) reports from the 2023 Proms
‘Where are the Proms of my youth?’ asked Barrie Hall’s now almost forgotten book, The Proms and the Men Who Made Them – a title that would be unlikely to pass the sensitivity readers of today’s London publishers. When I first attended the Proms, one joined a queue (along with all the other sixth-formers and undergrads) for the Gallery or Arena. You paid your few pounds at a little booking-office-type hole on the south side of the Royal Albert Hall and in you went. For the Last Night, people camped outside on the pavement near the Hall’s South Steps for two weeks, just to ensure a place on the front rail of the Arena, or close to it. Today, Promenaders no longer queue up: you book your Arena or Gallery ticket online. And the Last Night camp was abolished years ago, on health and safety grounds.
There have been changes in the repertoire and in presentation: this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborated in a Northern Soul Prom – something that would have been virtually unheard of in the days of past Controllers of Music and Directors of the Proms (although Soft Machine did manage to creep in under Sir William Glock’s radar in 1971). Have such initiatives opened up the Proms to a younger audience? I am not sure. In 1983, the Arena was composed of 75% youth, 25% oldies. The ratio seems to have reversed. So more work needs to be done – perhaps more classical music, less Northern Soul, or at least another type of soul from the North.
For the 3rd August Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic (formerly, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), Oldham-born William Walton (1902-83) provided the centrepiece of the concert, in the form of his Violin Concerto of 1939 – a work inspired by the composer’s abiding love for Italy and its riviera. Tinged with Mediterranean sunsets and shadows, and containing many moments of deep lyrical introspection and unbridled romanticism, the Concerto nevertheless provides some ferociously exciting and incisive sections for both soloist and orchestra. Playing the solo part that night was Manitoba-born James Ehnes – a musician renowned for his interpretation of Walton – and one who finds the true measure of a composer too often seen as something of a steely recluse, but who, in his heyday, was a determined, passionate and often avant-garde figure.
The Violin Concerto (like the stormy First Symphony written some four years earlier) has a surprise up its sleeve for the listener – a break from all the heavy preceding passion via a ‘presto’ movement, laced with a dash of jabbing, smirking, sardonic humour; softened by a waltzy, Neopolitan dance rhythm – the effect, like a generous glug of wine tipped into a glass during a fiesta. The movement, though, also broadens out into a serious nocturne: dreamy, intense; the dissatisfied Englishman abroad sinking into his local surroundings, yet thinking (perhaps) of glimpses of home. But for Walton after the Second World War, ‘home’ ceased to be England; with his new Argentinian wife, the composer turned his back on queues and nationalisation, settling on the little isle of Ischia out in the Bay of Naples. Continuing to compose, he produced such fine pieces as his Cello Concerto and a grand opera, but never quite recapturing the ardour and brilliantly-written soundscape of the Violin Concerto. As author Laurie Lee once observed: “All the great hymns to the sun are written in cold garrets.” When you are in the sun, you just… sit in the sunshine.
Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 ended the concert. In a lifespan similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius lived from the era of empires and Grand Duchies, to the atomic age and world order of the United Nations. Yet throughout the changes remained rooted to a vision – and a physical reality – of an unchanging landscape and heritage. In his music, Nordic deities make brief, spectral appearances through endless pine woods; swans in flight sweep like angels across frozen lakes, on corridors of cold air – and at night, bards tell tales of heroes and worlds gone by. The First Symphony comes from 1900 – or rather, it was revised in that year, because it is essentially a late-19th-century piece, influenced by the dense harmonies of Tchaikovsky, but still (in the opening movement) showing signs of the fleeting, sparkling, supernatural Northern Lights that characterise the fully-individual works that would come – the kind of delicate, subliminal Nordic Impressionism of, say, the Sixth Symphony. Conducted by the Finnish maestro, John Storgards, both Walton and Sibelius found a worthy interpreter.
Just a word about the opening piece, Kafka’s Earplugs (a BBC commission for Irish contemporary composer, Gerald Barry, born 1952). Not even the Kafka title and the composer’s self-described “sense of humour, which I obey” could rescue this ten-minute monotony – and mediocrity. As the piece ended, one member of the audience shouted: “Total rubbish!” Who are we to disagree?
STUART MILLSON is a Contributing Editor to the Brazen Head