SCARPIA / No sound and fury: Stephen Johnson on subdued Proms

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The Independent Culture
FOR ME, engagement with this Proms season began a little later than usual - not until the end of July, in fact. But listening from the stalls of the Albert Hall or on radio, I feel a growing uneasiness: something has changed, but what?

Now I think I know - the promenaders have been oddly subdued. Chanting has been on the decline in recent years, and for at least the last couple of seasons the Arena has been known to wait whole seconds after the final chord of a piece before piling in with the applause. So far, this year must have been one of the most restrained on record.

I do not think I imagine this. Someone told me that Wynton Marsalis's late evening jazz debut last Thursday (19 Aug) had the audience participating boisterously - but that has to be as exceptional as the programme. Even the age-old rituals appear to be losing conviction. When the piano lid was raised in preparation for Jean-Philippe Collard's arrival last Friday (20 Aug), there was a desultory 'He-he-heave' from the arena, and if anyone in the balcony managed the customary 'Ho', I didn't hear it. The sounding of the piano A brought a sputter of applause - no cheers. When the Oslo Philharmonic arrived on Monday (23 Aug) for the first of its two Proms there were no chants of welcome in appalling Norwegian, and not a hint of an allusion to our beloved Environment Minister.

Does this matter? I am not and have never been a promenader and I am not alone in having found quite a lot of this jolly, organised spontaneity rather irritating. But now that there appears to be a real possibility of its dying out I feel sad, even slightly worried. A lot of the chanting was well-expressed and well-targeted. I remember being at a televised concert in Vienna some years ago at which a tiny, well-dressed gentleman got up, whacked a noisy cameraman across the thigh with his score, and exploded: 'May I remind you for whose benefit this concert is taking place?' Loud applause. Catch an English audience doing that, I thought. But then, a few days later, at a televised Prom, came the beautifully synchronised chant: 'Camera Nunber Five, turn your headphones down]' It was a reminder to Television Centre that, as one producer put it later, 'We're really only eavesdroppers at a public concert.' The signs were that the message went home.

What does the decline mean? Have the old ways simply passed their sell-by date, or could this be akin to the ravens deserting the Tower of London? With the ominous rumblings about the future of Radio 3 continuing, and London orchestras wondering where and when the axe is going to fall next, perhaps even the hard-core Prom-goers are losing their lust for musical life. But I cannot help feeling that some of their predecessors might have made a better fight of it.

Perhaps they have found too little to inspire them - no, it can't be that. Looking back over the past week there may not have been a single great concert, but there have been some fine individual performances. Kathryn Stott showed us how wrong it would be to underestimate John Ireland's Piano Concerto in Sunday's Prom (22 Aug). That, and the strong contributions of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Elgar's The Music Makers, more than made up for Thomas Allen's disappointingly weak singing in Delius's Sea Drift. The previous evening there was a fresh Beethoven Five from the National Youth Chamber Orchestra under Stephen Kovacevich, and a stunning performance of Strauss's Second Horn Concerto by the young virtuoso David Pyatt. Nicholas Sackman's new Hawthorn (19 Aug) turned out to be a strong and individual orchestral piece, neither forbiddingly modernist nor obviously desperate to be accessible.

The evening after that (20 Aug), Jean-Philippe Collard's Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto was a connoisseur's interpretation: brilliant, poised and seductive all at once. In that same concert Jerzy Maksymiuk and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of Sibelius's Sixth Symphony which, though it took a few liberties here and there, showed that even this allusive, inward-looking work can open its heart in public.

But the best audience-performer rapport I experienced during the last week came, not at a Prom, but at Philip Pickett's New London Consort concert at the South Bank (23 Aug). Despite competition from the first Oslo Prom and the last night of Steve Reich's The Cave, he managed to fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall for his 'Pilgrimage to Santiago' evening. The various medieval items came gloriously to life in these performances: especially Catherine Bott's solo songs; and there was more laughter during Tom Finucane's agonisingly long lute-tuning sessions than I have heard in the Albert Hall for quite a while - the old Prommers would have loved that.