First Night Of The Proms 2020


By Norman Warwick

I think Katie Derhem and her guests, the composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Stephen Fry, struck just the right tone.

Ayanna-Witter Johnson

Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a British composer, singer, songwriter and cellist. Her notable performances include opening for the MOBO Awards “Pre-Show” in 2016, and playing the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 6 March 2018.

Stephen Fry, of course, is the English actor, comedian and writer. He and Hugh Laurie are the comic double act Fry and Laurie, who starred in A Bit of Fry & Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster. Now a writer and former presenter of QI, Stephen is now known also for his active support of the arts.

Stephen Fry

Clearly delighted to have any event to watch and to discuss at all, the presenter and guests spoke eloquently of the importance of such music to human-kind and yet managed to avoid being too reverential. At one point Fry answered a question from the presenter about what a particular piece was trying to say.

´Music isn´t about anything,´ he responded, to her obvious surprise. After a delightfully timed comic pause for effect, however, he concluded, ¨music is about everything !´

He eloquently explained Beethoven´s Eroica as being composed by a man hero-worshipping Napoleon and his cause only to arrive at the conclusion he might have been hero-worshipping a subject with feet of clay, who on overcoming his enemy, then himself took advantage of a class system he seemed to so despise. Fry pointed out the rage and anger and disappointment we could detect in the final movement.

Eric Whitacre

I was particularly enthralled by a piece, or should that be peace, called Sleep, by Eric Whitacre, an American composer and conductor. He is also a speaker known for his choral, orchestral, and wind ensemble music. In March 2016, he was appointed as Los Angeles Master Chorale’s first artist-in-residence at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Sleep was  delivered beautifully by the BBC Choral Singers. Not only did the work remind me of some of the sonic landscapes I have heard performed live here on Lanzarotge by Nordic Voices but it also served as a neat juxtaposition to Quiet City by Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland

I have been swept away by the better known and more sweeping compositions by Copland, of course, that take us through an America of his time of new frontiers and rapid gentrification. This work, though, is from a completed city, enjoyed by residents for its busy day and Quiet Night, who perhaps recognise that quiet does not mean Silent. This is a quiet night in a city that falls asleep to the lullaby of Broadway, that even in the wee small hours will be home to a melancholy drunk asking the bartender to ´set ´em up Joe, ´cos I got a little story I want you to know.´

There was an element of listening to the sound of one hand clapping when the musicians and orchestra applauded each other at the end of segments, but thank goodness the beeb didn´t superimpose the recorded crowd effect noises that seem somehow superfluous even when added to sporting events.

The delight on the faces of composers, instrumentalists and vocalists at being able to play music together again was sufficient reward for the hard work of so many people who had worked so hard to bring all this together. I felt saddened, therefore, to read some disparaging reports the following day.

presenter and guests delivered with dignity

One broadsheet report described the programme as ´limp and listless,´  saying of  Katie Derham that she was in  ´radio 3 overhype mode,´ which seems something of a contradiction in terms. I do agree, though, with reviewer, Michael Church, in his assessment that ´Fry takes to this like a duck to water, but Witter-Johnson seems less at ease.´ It was a tough gig for the all, to be honest. My own feeling was that Katie and her guests delivered with dignity. Each is somewhat idiosyncratic, it is true, but there was clear respect for the music, for the sentiments of the night and, too, for each other that made for an informed and reassuring contribution.

Hannah Graham, the composer of the first piece to be played, “Tuxedo: Vasco de Gama”, being given its world premiere performance, was invited to explain her creative process on the work. She spoke of how she was inspired by the anarchic art of Jean-Michel Basquiat to create a five-minute hymn to multi-culturalism.

Michael Church said of the work that it is ´a gentle, allusive piece, creating an agreeable sound world with unexpected instrumental juxtapositions, and including a harmonica and a tiny cardboard musical box.´

The harmonica is perhaps not a traditional orchestral instrument but it certainly made an intriguing contribution to the work, adding what I can only describe as an antiquated modernity to the soundscape we were hearing.

Mr. Church, however, felt it was spoiled somewhat, and said ´hyperactive camera work means that our aural concentration is systematically disrupted, making it impossible to grasp the structure of the work.´

Camera-operators really copped it from Mr. Church, although he perhaps had directors more in his sights when he listened to, and watched “Sleep”, Eric Whitacre’s a cappella setting of a Charles Anthony Silvestri poem.

Fry told us, somewhat foppishly that he ´loves listening to this work while lying on a bed of grass´.

The reviewer noted that the BBC Singers were dispersed round the auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall, and added that ´this six-minute sub-Tavener effort is indeed soporific.´

However, he noticed cameramen ´flitting from face to face, and from long shot to close-up.

´The BBC cameras never sleep,´ he concluded, witheringly.

As for Copland´s Quiet City´, Mr. Church reminded me in his review that ´this time the cameras range all over the world to bring us images of other great cities deserted and asleep.´

Personally, I felt these contributed an eerie edge to the piece, and even the presenter seemed to agree with me

´That was extremely moving,” Derham subsequently informed us with what the reviewer then subsequently informed us was ´school-mistressy emphasis´, before she added approvingly that the orchestra ´played their socks off,´ a phrase he seems to repeat as some conclusive damning of her own performance. It seems Mr. Church feels Miss Derham should ´pull her socks up !´

There was still the Beethoven piece which I had so enjoyed not only for its playing but also for the sense of enlightenment (if indeed there is such a thing, but that´s another philosophical debate) that I gained from Fry´s understanding of the work.

The piece was to be conducted by Sakar Oramo, the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Toyal Stockholm Philarmonic orchestra, as well as Principal Conductor West Coast Kokkola orchestra and the Ostrobothnian Chamber orchestra.

He served for a decade as Chief Conductor of The Finnish radio Symphony Orchestra, he recently became their honorary conductor.

If Mr. Church was still with us he would surely find much to commend in this section of the evening. 

He was still with us but he apparently didn´t ! Instead, he wrote:

´The programme was brought to a close with Sakari Oramo (right) conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. As the cameras flit dutifully from player to player, and from the interior of the hall to the streets outside, this Herculean work becomes tamed and marginalised, its last movement seeming, thanks to a very slow tempo, to be interminable. Each of these pieces has been diminished, rather than augmented, by the camera work imposed on it, and by the super-added chatter in the gilded box.´

I once took part in a televised round-table debate about whether or not poetry is enhanced by music. Interestingly the four person panel had the two of us who would have grandly called ourselves artists suggesting that poetry and music is a marriage made in heaven, whilst the two justifiably calling themselves academics said the twain should never meet.

I think Mr. Church might be disappointed he didn´t ´watch´ the programme on the radio.

However, television was his chosen medium, so I wasn´t sure who he was addressing when he began his comments on Beethoven´s Eroica by asking:

´Who chose Beethoven’s symphonic warhorse – of which Radio 3 had broadcast a different version only two weeks previously – and the forgettable little pieces which preceded it? Only a committee with wokeness at the forefront of their minds.

´This concert has been like water in the desert,´ avers Fry loyally, while a scatter of applause – taped? – runs round the auditorium. It’s difficult to imagine a programme less likely to draw in the new, young, classical-music audience which the BBC so desperately craves.´

The critic goes on to label this event as ´limp and listless, with its hyperactive presentation a sad exemplification of how Covid has cowed the world of live music.´

As evidence of this the writer reminded us of how the Prom, recorded in 2016, that had been broadcast again the previous evening, had rammed that fact painfully home.

´The 2016 programme was a vivid one,´ Mr. Church insisted,  ´and it had its own in-built drama with the substitute cello soloist Alexey Stadler – flown in at a few hours’ notice – performing heroically, and with an atmosphere crackling with excitement. You could sense the mood of the audience throughout, and the way it interacted with the performers. And when it came to the joke encore – Shostakovich’s take on Tea For Two – the laughter which accompanied the music became an integral part of it. This may have been a mere recording, but it was still a truly shared experience.´

Our disappointed reporter said the contrast with the sterility of the first Live Prom of 2020 could not have been greater. Never mind, tomorrow’s – in which Mitsuko Uchida, Simon Rattle and the LSO will officiate – promises better, ´provided the presentation can be reined in, and the camera operators instructed to cool it. But those elements, alas, may already have been set in stone.´

I was left unsure as to who is etching on the tablets, and so I cannot be certain who his words were aimed at. And he may be right, and I am certainly not qualified to comment on the ´quality´ of the music with the same knowledge and the awareness he exudes.

What was he actually reviewing, I asked myself? The music or its selection? The players? The conductors, or the composers, or covid19? A comment on the ceremony or lack thereof? Whatever, I guess it was a review of mixed emotions, and was therefore a perfectly apt sign of our times.

The row over the musical content of the Last Night of the Proms that began several days ahead of the broadcast performance of The First Night Of The Proms has played into the very worst tendencies of British manufactured controversies: it combines knee-jerk BBC-bashing, a familiar and all-too-easy target, politicians meddling in concert programming, a laughable irrelevance and the hounding on social media of a conductor, a particularly unpleasant development.

According to Joel Golby, in The Guardian, ´this is, of course, about The Last Night of the Proms, because what in life isn’t? The core of the story is: the Sunday Times reported that some people at the BBC held discussions about whether both Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory  could be played as part of Last Night of the Proms. After some very mild consideration, the BBC announced that yes, they could.´

That, then, should have been the end of the matter.

Sadly not, as mastheads of the press like The Daily Mail, Express and Telegraph, as well as a gang of politicians, are raging about what The Sunday Times in its headline gently refers to as the “BBC’s ‘Black Lives Matter Proms’”.

Joel Golby tells us that The Times hints at two theories as to why the songs, one played on lead violin and one played quietly on the bassoon, might possibly have been up for review : ´either it’s because it’s logistically quite nightmarish to socially distance an eighty-piece orchestra and a hundred strong choir.´

Jan Younghusband

Jan Younghusband, head of BBC music TV commissioning told the paper that ´we have a lot of problems about how many instruments we can have. It is hard to know whether it is physically possible to do it´. 

Perhaps, though, discussion of the topic has arisen because of some shady backroom BBC ´woke´ junta. Proms  conductor Dalia Stasevska, described as a big supporter of Black Lives Matter, thinks a ceremony without an audience is ´the perfect moment to bring change.´

In the end, the Sunday Times leaves it open to interpretation. Which is the biggest threat to the fine and hearty tradition of the Proms, do you think? The looming ever-present of coronavirus? Or the completely uninvolved Black Lives Matter movement, which hates this country and the little flags this country insists on waving once a summer?

Nicholas Kenyon

Nicholas Kenyon has also contributed to the debate. As managing director of the Barbican Centre, London, and director of the BBC Proms from 1996-2007 has ever right to do so, especially when we consider that he also wrote the Pocket Guide To Mozart-

´Why all the fuss about a concert?´ he asks, rhetorically. ´Because the Last Night Of The Proms has always been more than a concert; it is a national event, embedded for years in our calendar of regular rituals, relayed around the world. It has to respond to the mood of the moment and to change with changing circumstances. When the death of Princess Diana happened in August 1997, it was felt sensible to remove John Adams’s fanfare Short Ride In A Fast Machine.

When the atrocity of 9/11 occurred just before the Last Night in 2001, all nationalistic elements were removed except for the utopian vision of Jerusalem and instead gave voice to universal hope for the future with the finale of Beethoven’s Choral symphony. In 1995, Sir John Drummond challenged the audience by including Harrison Birtwistle’s acerbic Panic.

Years before, Proms controller Sir William Glock had encouraged extra elements of audience participation, including a newly commissioned work by Malcolm Williamson in the hope of weaning the crowds away from some of the popular favourites. It never quite caught on.´

This, though, is a radical change of mood after artistic life has been ruined, concerts have been cancelled for months and we have lived without the cultural events that bring people together.

¨It is not fair to describe the Last Night as an unchanging ritual,´ Nicholas Kenyon reminds us. ´Elements have come and gone over the years as conductors and programmers have tried new experiments;

It is a prime example of what that great historian Eric Hobsbawm called an ´invented tradition.´ These events are not rooted in the distant past but instead aim to solidify and preserve a tradition that is in danger of disappearing.

As David Cannadine has described in a perceptive analysis, so many aspects of British tradition, including royal ritual, date back not so much to the years of the empire as to the days of its decline.

When Henry Wood collected the melody of Rule, Britannia! along with his other sea songs, from Tom Bowling to See The Conqu’ring Hero Comes to weave into the wholly orchestral sequence of his Fantasia On British Sea Songs, it was as memorable music from the seafaring tradition going back to Trafalgar. In all the years of Wood’s stewardship of the Proms, the words of the verses in Rule, Britannia! were never sung, though as a dusty archive recording from 1933 demonstrates, nothing could stop the audience joining in with the chorus.´

It might be argued, you might think, that all tradition is born of revolution, anyway.

As Kenyon, in fact, further reminds us, ´the populist showman Malcolm Sargent, when he arrived at the Proms after the war, was aided by the new power of television.

His own arrangement of Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia! with all its obscure verses was sung by a soloist. It was that performance that brought the flags and led to the riotous traditions of stamping and shouting. It is for those who currently run the Proms to decide what is relevant to a newly sensitive age and it is right there should be sensible debates around what is sung. But the way forward need not be to censor the past.

Previously in its past, the  Proms have aimed to expand the appeal of the season, not restrict it: hence the invention of Proms in the Park, first in Hyde Park and then around the country, which eventually linked all four nations of the United Kingdom in a celebration with their own distinctive repertory, brought together and linked through television.

We restored the original bugle calls with which Wood prefaced his sea songs and had them played from the four nations, leading into the original orchestra-only version of his Fantasia. Those were arguably different times, but any worry that one had about the salience of Land of Hope and Glory was mitigated when you heard it sung by a million people in the Mall during the Queen’s jubilee concerts of 2002. The superbly reflective opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was another landmark in defining a changing British identity and it is up to cultural events to reflect these changes.´

The Royal Albert Hall

For the two weeks from Saturday 29th August 2020, there will be nightly concerts, broadcast, as have been all Proms in living memory, free to air on BBC radio, with many on television. Not only in the UK, of course, but here on Lanzarote, too, players and fans alike have admirably begun to stage chamber concerts.

´Nevertheless,´ Kenyon warns, ´it is little short of a miracle that, faced with the uncertainty of the public health situation and the determination and dithering of government advice, the Proms have been able to mount a coherent series of events with our leading symphony orchestras.

The marriage between the BBC and the Proms, which goes back to 1927, has been a uniquely creative and productive one, with extensive rehearsal ensuring the highest standards of performance and a commitment to commissioning and adventurous programming from its own orchestras and international guests. The Proms are the envy of the world. We trust they will soon be back at full strength and, as usual, the real substance of the Proms will lie not in the antics of the Last Night, but in the inspiring seriousness of the preceding concerts.´





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