London's 'Proms': Stand of Hope and Glory
Kurt Mazur, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, was once asked how musical life in New York could be improved.
"I wish we could steal the Proms from London," he said. "The atmosphere is like nothing else."
How right he was. In my BBC days in London we didn't "kill" for tickets for the summer season of Promenade concerts (some 73 performances in 58 days for "ordinary" people in the Royal Albert Hall). But we tried awfully hard to buy "concert presentation shifts" from fellow broadcasters who had been assigned to them. It was acceptable practice to pay colleagues to work a studio shift for you - especially for grueling all-nighters. But to pay someone to let you work for them bordered on madness.
Or did it? Certainly not if it was the last night of the Prom season - like the one this Saturday, Sept. 12. It wasn't just a question of getting that prime position in the BBC broadcasting booth to announce the concert live for a world audience. We'd accept any task that night to gain admission to the sold-out Albert Hall, even if it meant carrying a heavy box of radio equipment or risking several limbs in an acrobatic stretch to suspend an effects microphone over the "promenade" area on the main floor, which is specially reserved for those who like to stand and mingle during a concert.
We had a desperate desire just to be there on that particular night to go wild with 5,000 other concertgoers during the impromptu sing-a-long toward the end of the concert. To be part of a tradition that, if not as old as Albert Hall itself, is still worth preserving even in the midst of Prime Minister Blair's efforts to promote a dazzlingly modern "cool Britannia."
This year will be no different. After a first half of classical "standards" performed with customary dignity by Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the rambunctious, but always good-natured, second-half celebrations of "Last Night" will take their inevitable course. They follow a ritual as entrenched as tea and scones or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
The last part of Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1" will be given words and erupt in several unrehearsed choruses of "Land of Hope and Glory." Mr. Davis will indulge the promenaders for several minutes, letting them get some of the patriotic fervor out of their systems, before he cuts in with Henry Wood's "Fantasia on British Seasongs."
The fun this time lies in the speed with which the orchestra can cope with the Sailor's Hornpipe. The challenge comes from the promenaders, who set the tempo by stomping on the floor. No wonder some part of that 127-year-old hall is always under repair. By this time, the air is filled with bursting balloons, paper streamers, whistles, and football rattles.
Our rules in the BBC were to refrain from talking over the noise. "It's the only time we'll ever pay you for keeping quiet," said my boss. After all, throughout the season these loyal concertgoers have "queued" for hours each day for their $4.95 unreserved tickets, and stood throughout each concert, tightly packed into a sweltering arena. Informality is the keynote, with the whole experience as relaxed as an early evening "promenade" through the streets of Kensington.
They are the people for whom impresario Robert Newman and conductor Henry Wood originally planned and launched the concerts in August 1895. Even today, those music enthusiasts who feel they must sit not stand can buy a gallery season ticket for all 73 Proms for less than the price of one stall seat for an average night at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
For the "prommers," physical discomfort is forgotten when the music starts.
No audience is more respectful or more absorbed; no response is more thrilling for the orchestra, than the roar that rises from the floor after some exhilarating symphony. So, they feel they have earned the right to let their hair down on the last night.
Performing at the Proms, with that huge standing audience just a few feet away, is widely considered the scariest assignment in classical music. But a note of sanity, even inspiration, always prevails at the close. In a mood-swing that is more than most highbrow critics can cope with, the concert culminates in a huge, sweeping rendition of Hubert Parry's "Jerusalem."
Perspiration and tears mingle on thousands of gleaming faces, and it's all over for another year.
One suspects that Sir Henry, as he later became, and Mr. Newman would have been disappointed that more than a century after they launched their concerts, the classical music world hasn't yet overturned the elitist image that troubled them. But the fact that the Proms are regarded as a model for similar concert series in many parts of the world would have pleased them greatly.
* Kim Shippey is a former BBC concert radio and television announcer.