The Proms: An insider's guide
With 76 concerts over 58 nights, how do you find the best? Here, classical experts and enthusiastic amateurs share their tips for a successful season
Saturday 25 July 2009
I didn't attend a Prom in the Albert Hall till I was in my twenties, because we didn't live anywhere near London, but the atmosphere was familiar and welcoming.
The main thing is the lengthy, leisurely, considered planning of a Proms series, the sense that if you listen to most of it you'll hear not only the odd and unusual but also the great classics. I didn't know when I was young that one day my own son would be playing in a Prom, but seeing him a year or two ago with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a concert that included John Adams' The Chairman Dances was a pleasure. I hope to hear him again this year (Prom 34).
I'm singing in Prom 53 which marks the Handel and Haydn anniversary year. It's my second time appearing at the Proms and the first time I've sung with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which I'm thrilled about. My manager is London-based and when he first signed me, he said, "I can't wait for you to sing at the Proms." I was terrified, but he said, "No, no, when you get there you won't believe the atmosphere in that hall." And he was right: it's magical. You look down from the platform and you see a sea of people standing. There's a great dialogue that happens between the audience and the performer – that hunger, that sense of "Yes, please, thrill us!" – that thrills me. I'd like to go to some Proms, but I only arrive in London the day before my own. I do catch the Proms on the internet, though. It is best experienced live, of course. Londoners are so lucky.
Newsnight presenter and author
The best thing about the Proms for me is the location. I always think I am listening to the best music in the world inside a wedding cake. I love the way that the concerts combine the familiar, the very familiar, the challenging and the completely (for me, at least) unknown. For me Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man is this year's must-see – the celebration of the best instincts of America (Prom 21). The Mendelssohn (Prom 72) Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream is another favourite. I am a huge fan of James MacMillan's music, and his Seven Last Words from the Cross (Prom 6) is another must-see. There's a UK premiere of Philip Glass's A Toltec Symphony (Prom 37) which intrigues me: I am in two minds about Glass and would like something to push me one way or the other. And no matter how many times I hear the big Beethoven symphonies, I can never get enough.
I love the egalitarian nature of the Proms. For £5 you can stand within a few feet of some of the world's greatest musicians. I just made my debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, which was a bit like driving a rocket ship – you're standing on stage with 100 soloists. I am looking forward very much to their Proms (Proms 61 and 62), especially Prom 62 which involves the Haydn Military Symphony and Shostakovich's Symphony No 10. The Haydn blew London's mind when it was performed here in the 1790s and to hear Mariss Jansons and this world-class orchestra will no doubt blow all our minds now.
There's nothing like the Proms anywhere else in the world. It's the biggest existing public patronage of classical music for the people, and if the Proms teach us anything it is that there is a vast audience for this. My top choice is the series celebrating the collaboration of Diaghilev and Stravinsky. When we made my Stravinsky documentary in 1981, we interviewed Diaghilev's secretary, Boris Kochno, who said, incredibly, that this was the first interview he had ever been asked for. He described Diaghilev as "a chess player – he moved each piece around the board until he won". Where Stravinsky and Diaghilev were concerned, the dancers hated the choreography; Stravinsky was furious when Diaghilev owed him money and once the entire company slunk out of the best hotel in Monte Carlo at 3am without paying the bill because the hotel had overbooked and dared to move them to smaller rooms.
I adore the audience at the Proms. I played at the Last Night in 1995, John Drummond's farewell season. He'd asked me to play both Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending and Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The audience had been getting rowdy in true Last Night fashion, so I wondered what would happen in The Lark Ascending, which ends very quietly. I thought maybe someone would whistle. Instead, there was a 16-second silence. That was incredibly special. This year I'm looking forward to hearing Jac van Steen conduct in Prom 67. I've just been on the jury of the Leeds Conducting Competition with him and found him a hugely inspiring person. Also he's doing Dvorak's New World Symphony, one of my very favourite pieces.
I grew up in south Manchester so there wasn't much chance to attend the Proms. But our household had a tradition of a Last Night bonanza. My involvement in Maestro last year transformed my whole experience of music. At last year's Proms I was watching to see how conductors would do pieces I was preparing to conduct myself. This year I'm presenting the National Youth Orchestra Prom on 8 August. They're being conducted by Vasily Petrenko, a very exciting young Russian, and will play the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the wonderful Stephen Hough. They'll also play Respighi, so again it's a mix of familiar and unfamiliar.
Double bassist and broadcaster
Being a traditionalist, my heart is drawn towards a programme such as Prom 73. Vienna was always the classical music metropolis. So with music by Haydn and Schubert (the Ninth Symphony), in the hands of the Vienna Philharmonic and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, I reckon we'll be in for a good night. I love the inclusive nature of the Proms. It recognises rising stars such as Karen Geoghegan, who's still at student at the Royal Academy and is making her debut playing Mozart's Bassoon Concerto in Prom 28.
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