Before this summer I had never attended a Prom concert. Which, for a music lover who enjoys the classical variety, is a pretty poor showing. Even worse, I have bought tickets for Proms in the each of the last two years but both times I found myself giving them away and doing something else instead. Still, in 2017, third time lucky, I went mad and rectified that shortfall. Reader, I went to not one but two Proms.
Prom is short for Promenade. A promenade was an outdoor concert in one of London’s old pleasure gardens such as the Vauxhall Gardens, which were basically parks with added entertainments up to the nineteenth century. The Proms, which is an annual season of classical concerts, is held mainly at the Royal Albert Hall across the mid to late summer. Despite the season the concerts are indoors and the promenade reference relates to the fact that there is a standing area in the hall and the people who stand to listen there refer to themselves as promenaders.
Although the season is overwhelmingly comprised of classical music, they do have the odd, usually esoteric, pop concert to mix things up a little. It was at one of these that I started my promming career.
My first concert was a celebration of the music of Scott Walker, he of the Walker Brothers fame who has since gone on to have a solo career that has become increasingly wild and wonderful moving from teeny-pop screaming hysteria in the 1960’s to avant-garde mind-boggling weirdness in later years. My favourite records by him are his first four solo albums which are full of unusual but strongly melodic and wonderfully orchestrated songs. Tonight’s concert was to celebrate the music from those records.
The Heritage Orchestra played the orchestral backing music and nailed the sound of the records with pinpoint accuracy whilst remaining warm and romantic and lush. Four pop singers shared vocal duties: Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley (who had both played togther in Pulp), John Grant and Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfor who was unknown to me before this evening but stole the show. Perhaps evening is the wrong word. This Prom kicked off at 10:15 and lasted an hour and a half. Much too late for me normally. The format was that each singer came on for two songs on their own, accompanied by the orchestra, and then returned for another song each and then once more for a final solo song. The tantalising thing was that there were 17 – an odd number – songs on the pre-published song list. Who was going to sing the final song? I knew that super-reclusive and performance-averse Scott Walker himself was in the audience and allowed myself the exciting thought that he may change the habits of a lifetime and rush on stage to sing an old song and milk the applause of a delirious audience. The trouble, though, with lifetime habits is that they tend to last a lifetime. Scott remained stuck by the sound mixing desk and the final song was shared between the four soloists. A slight disappointment in an otherwise magical musical night.
Back to Mahler and my first “proper” classical Prom. This one was in September. A normal early evening start. It was Mahler 6 played by the Vienna Philharmonic and turned out to be one of the plum concerts of the season. I’m not naturally a listener of classical music but I have been trying a new (to me) Composer each month for the last couple of years to widen my experience and Mahler’s work stuck during his month and I know listen to it regularly by choice. And the 6th Symphony is one of my favourite pieces by him. So far, so good.
I sat next to a lovely old widower who had been to hundreds of Proms before and was happy to chat and explain the form to me. On the other side a young Chinese man sat down with a copy of the score and proceeded to follow every note as it was being played by the Orchestra.
Our view was slightly obscured and so I couldn’t easily watch what the orchestra was doing. After a while I tried closing my eyes to listen more intently to the music. The orchestra sounded superb, better than any classical music I’ve heard live before and I was enjoying listening in the dark. The first movement was good but the second movement was even better and I was really getting into the sounds when I suddenly felt an gentle nudge and my eyes snapped open and…. awake. The Chinese man had his finger to his lips and was shushing me. I looked around and faces were staring at me from all directions. The old man’s shoulders were shaking next to me in amusement. I had nodded off. And worse, I had been snoring. Embarrassed, I apologised silently but sincerely to all, and suitably chastised I completed the evening watching very earnestly with opened eyes. In my defence, it was a very warm evening. Very warm indeed. And I’d had a long day. Its no excuse, though.