31 July 2007

The Proms are great... shame about some of the audience

Went along to The Proms last week - although it's mainly rock'n'roll that is in the spotlight whenever music is discussed on giroscope, I'm partial to a bit of the old classical (most of it, anyway). Prom 18 was the one we went to - Delius's Song of Summer, Tippett's Triple Concerto and Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 5. All the pieces were great and well performed. The Delius and Vaughan Williams pieces were pastoral and quite approachable (an avant garde composer and contemporary of VW once dismissed him as 'cowpat music' but I do think that's very unfair). The Tippett was a much more '20th century' sounding piece - dissonant, challenging, not taking it lying down. As the reviews on the BBC site for this Prom show, some people in the audience found the juxtaposition of two different styles of composer too challenging to take. For example, here's a review by James Dixon:

First, Delius. A magical piece, which should by rights be a Proms staple. Then Tippett, and the problems began. I don't know if new Proms controller Roger Wright reads this page, or if anyone in contact with him does, but if so can I tactfully suggest such sharply juxtaposed programming has long outstayed its welcome. I have tolerated some pretty bizarre clashes in the past - Maderna and Tchaikovsky, Nancarrow and Bernstein - but this really was the worst yet. I am nearing 40. I have had time to work out roughly what I do and do not like. Having struggled with Tippett in the past, I decided to give him one last go, but like fellow critic 'Steve', I found the only pleasure came from the realisation I need never suffer this arid chaos again. I believe the majority of the audience felt likewise. The applause spoke of admiration for the soloists' technical accomplishment, but little else. Faces of bemused disappointment predominated in the bars during the interval. Genuinely catholic (schizophrenic?) musical personalities in the Rattle-Kenyon mode are very rare, and this policy of 'you can have your Beethoven when you've eaten up your nice Birtwistle' is patronizing in the extreme.

What's "patronizing in the extreme" is the suggestion that the Proms audience is too bone-headed to appreciate more than one style of classical composition on the same night. Why don't people like Mr Dixon and 'fellow critic Steve' go home and listen to Classic FM or their Haydn box sets if they don't want to hear something innovative? Who says Birtwhistle is the thing you have to sit through in order to listen to Beethoven? For me, it would probably be the other way round. Birtwhistle is certainly not an easy listen, but I'd rather stick my head in the washing machine than listen to an early Beethoven symphony. I would also advance the thesis that the washing machine has somewhat more musical merit than early Beethoven. And where the hell were these 'bemused faces in the bars during the interval'? I think it was only people who'd looked at the prices - £3.90 for a can of draughtflow Guiness ferchrissakes! Now that is the real outrage.

Four days earlier, the European premiere of Brett Dean's Vexation and Devotions, paired with Beethoven's 7th Symphony, attracted similar criticism on the BBC site. This is a fantastic piece which uses recorded messages from call centre phone lines - "your call is very important to us... please hold" juxtaposed with some harmonically challenging orchestral and choral lines to make a statement about the sheer insanity of modern living. The most amusing review I found wasn't even about the music - it was about the way the orchestra and conductor dressed:

Proms 13 and 14.Musicians' dress is not unimportant in the presentation of music at public performances. Sadly, the dreary black shirt and black tie of the BBC Symphony Orchestra detracted from their superb perfomance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, - a situation made worse by the conductor, (David Robertson) with his lack of even a black tie to his casual black shirt. If his orchestra is made to dress properly in white shirt and tie, why can't he?

The Haydn concert the very next day saw the choir, orchestra and soloists superbly dressed in white tie for men, and black dresses for ladies, with the lady soloist in a beautiful concert gown, with a sparkling necklace. Oh dear, what did the conductor,(Sir Roger Norrington) wear? A crumpled black jacket buttoned up to the neck - (no tie of course) - which he immediately tore open three minutes into the concert. Most concert-goers expect a dress code befitting the grandeur of Classical music. Why do conductors arrogantly scorn the dress code of their musicians? What are they trying to tell us, and why should they be allowed to do so? While I'm at it, please put the BBC's magnificent Symphony Orchestra back again into formal evening dress with white tie and tails?

I give up, I really do. The Proms - Great concerts pretty much every time, but can someone do something about some of the audience?

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