Tag Archives: Proms

Pandemic doesn’t stop the Proms – and neither did Hitler’s bombs in 1941

I’m delighted to hear that this year’s BBC Proms will include at least some live performances. Unsurprisingly, most of the 2020 season is made up of re-runs of memorable past concerts.

The Albert Memorial and the north facing entrance to the Royal Albert Hall.

But, according to the Radio Times website, “Friday 28th August will see the focus shift from revisiting past performances to exciting new ones, as organisers plan to have musicians playing live at the Royal Albert Hall for the final two weeks, culminating in an emotional Last Night of the Proms“.

The totemic TV images of historic Last Nights of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts will have to suffice during the pandemic. Their symbolism is woven into the very fabric of British culture, though of course they form only a small portion of the full annual eight-week summer season of classical music.

I’m prompted to mention this because I recently came across a wartime copy of Radio Times in our family memorabilia. The issue is dated August 15th, 1941, and its front cover leads with the news that, whilst German bombs may have destroyed Queen’s Hall – where the Proms had taken place since their founding in 1895 – a successful transition had been made to their new venue, the Royal Albert Hall. “Traditional scenes of enthusiasm will mark the end of the forty-seventh Promenade Concerts on Saturday”, says the front page blurb. “There will also be broadcasts on Monday and Friday. More pictures of the Promenaders in their new home, the Royal Albert Hall, are on page 5”.

Turning to page 5, we hear the tone of wartime defiance in the description of audiences at the new venue …

“Blitzed out of Queen’s Hall, the Proms this season have moved to Kensington. For six weeks, Sir Henry Wood and the London Symphony Orchestra have been making music to packed audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.

“Across the vast floor of the Albert Hall stretches a sea of heads. These are the greatest Prom audiences ever. Two thousand music-lovers were capacity at Queen’s Hall – between five thousand and six thousand have been present on certain nights this year. Intent rapturous, motionless, they stand”.

“In these boxes revellers have drunk in the New Year at the Chelsea Arts Ball, cigar-smoking sportsmen roared at heavyweights, ideologists acclaimed politicians, music-lovers heard Kreisler, Gigli, Cortot. Now, unlikely in their splendour, sit Prom-goers. Somewhere in these heights lurks the Albert Hall’s famous phantom – its echo. Experts with screen and canvas have all but laid it, at last.

“Youth at the bar! Familiar to any Prom enthusiast are these types that lean intently forward in their common worship. These are the early birds, the wise who make sure of more to support them than pure fervour. Gone in many cases is the wild-haired deshabille that characterised the Prom devotee – the Service barber and the Service uniform have worked their way upon it. But battledress can’t change the heart of its wearer. Whatever the shape of future things to come, the Proms are sure to be part of them”.

The enemy in 2020 may not be raining bombs on our heads. But at this point it seems to pose as deadly a potential threat to our everyday lives as did the Luftwaffe.

Let’s hope that, by the time of the next Last Night, we’ll have consigned Covid-19 to the dustbin of history, just as we did Hitler.

 

 

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Remembering Jupiter

It’s been all about Jupiter recently …

I watched in awe the gathering strength and ferocity of Hurricane Matthew as he hovered over the Florida coastline recently. Using the wonders of the Periscope app, I was able to empathise with people all along the coast who broadcast their experiences whilst readying their homes for the onslaught. Some expressed their fears; others were angry that their families had decided to stay put and not evacuate; many others gave live broadcasts from the windows of their homes or even from the beach.

I can’t record Periscope broadcasts but I certainly remember a ‘peri’ (the other jargon term is ‘scope’, of course) from Juno beach in Jupiter, a town in Palm Beach County, where so many people seemed prepared to risk their lives as the storm advanced with ever-growing force. They either stood, just taking it all in, or filmed, or even – unbelievably – went swimming. I even saw a hang-glider in flight over the pounding ocean. At least the people shown in the video above were being reasonably sensible, though at that point Matthew had still to reach full strength.

There’s much more drama in this kind of broadcasting. Live, uncut, unslick, unrehearsed … the amateurishness adds to the feeling of being at a newsworthy event in person. Professional, live outside broadcasts are better than studio-sourced replays; but for a real frisson of actualité, give me a peri anytime.

Speaking of the unrehearsed …

Once again, the Proms season has come and gone and there were many performances I wanted to see but either had no time or forgot to set up a recording. Fortunately we now have the i-Player – so all is not lost. Of those I saw, there were some really memorable moments. For me, one particular highlight was the Aurora Orchestra‘s performance of Mozart‘s Jupiter symphony. Astonishingly, they played the whole work from memory, without sheet music.

I would expect solo virtuosi to be able to play major works from memory, of course; but for an orchestra to do so strikes me as something of a minor miracle. No doubt Aurora’s musicians spend much, much longer than usual in rehearsal. But the result is a seemingly impromptu performance that sounds more spontaneous – unrehearsed – than usual, with all the belief and conviction of an orator who needs no notes but gives an affective speech drawn from a well of deeply-laid passions.

In a piece* on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hans Keller describes the Jupiter symphony as “the most important work historically as far as the birth of the Symphony with a capital ‘S’ is concerned”. This symphony clearly has wider significance for the genre. But what does it actually mean for the individual listener? In the same chapter, but referring to music more generally, Keller suggests that we don’t need to know. Indeed, with a nod to a remark by Einstein, he demolishes the idea that typical listeners wrestle with meaning or want to dig down to discover what the composer’s intentions were, pointing to the “supreme paradox” of

“… the ready acceptance of music not because it is understood, but because it isn’t. The idiom sounds familiar … so what more do we want? Do we really want to get down to the clear substance, when pleasantly vague feelings are so readily aroused on the surface?”

We have the composer’s contribution (the writing); the players’ contributions (the performance); and – ultimately as ‘consumers’ – our own interpretation. Full marks to Keller, whose advice, by the way, seems largely to parallel the Reader Response theories of literary critics such as Stanley Fish, Jauss, Iser and others.

But getting beneath the surface was a key objective for NASA‘s Juno mission to the gas giant Jupiter …

juno600b

Whereas Hurricane Matthew’s winds touched 155 mph at their peak, the winds on Jupiter can reach a speed of 384 mph. Hang gliding? I think not.

According to the NASA mission pages,

“The spacecraft’s name comes from Greco-Roman mythology. The god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, but his wife, the goddess Juno, was able to peer through the clouds and see Jupiter’s true nature”.

The task of the Juno spacecraft is to do that very same thing. The mission is almost symphonic in structure, comprising a series of thirteen movements, including its presto launch on August 5th, 2011; then a two year andante voyage around the Sun, including an Earth ‘flyby’; a lengthy voyage to the planet itself, culminating in an accelerando phase in which it reached 165,000 mph before a ritardando “insertion”, slowing it for orbit around the planet; a series of thirty-seven largo , information-gathering orbits around the planet; and a prestissimo finale lasting 5.5 days during which it will be ‘de-orbited‘ and ultimately crash through the Jovian atmosphere into oblivion.

All the while, the tennis-court-sized Juno spacecraft is sending home data and photos of its excursion to the biggest planet in the solar system. The information gathered will be analysed for around two years.

But the mission itself will be remembered for far longer than that.

 

 


* The Symphony: 1. Haydn to Dvorak, ed. Robert Simpson, Penguin Books Ltd., 1966; ch. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hans Keller.

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