Sir Simon Rattle said it well. After the BBC Proms crowd had raised the roof again to greet a Russian whirlwind of Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra turned to us and said: “You do know this already. But there isn’t another audience like this, anywhere.” Or as maestro Myung-Whun Chung put it after he had brought the (first-rate) Seoul Philharmonic from Korea to Kensington for their Proms debut, “Here, the audience is the star.”
Well: one among many. This Saturday, the 120th season of the BBC Proms will close at the Royal Albert Hall with the traditional Last Night - that Marmite for music-lovers (much loved, much loathed), in which the usual hearty rowdiness in no way reflects the rapt, thrilled attention of the other 75 concerts.
Sometimes the silence speaks louder than the music. Last year, Daniel Barenboim paid his own post-performance tribute to the sheer stillness that had accompanied his epic trek across Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Also in 2013, I remember the wonderful tenor Mark Padmore, as Britten’s Captain Vere in Billy Budd, dropping the great lament that ends the opera into a fathomless pool of grief and loss.
Padmore was back this season, on supreme form as the Evangelist - with Simon Rattle and the Berliners - in Peter Sellars’s emotionally wrenching production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Again, the closing hush overwhelmed us, as the last notes faded and the lights dimmed over the shattered body of Bach’s betrayed and persecuted Christ.
Silence, stunned or even traumatised, also followed Britten’s War Requiem, its pity and rage hammered home in this anniversary year by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Proms Youth Choir. For some listeners, the only thing that spoiled a sublime rendering of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra was the premature cheering after the final bar.
Elsewhere, there was plenty of joyful or ecstatic noise, from the late-night Proms gigs by Laura Mvula, Paloma Faith and the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (aka The Pet Shop Boys) to the extraordinary back-to-back weekend of Strauss’s tragic heroines, with Nina Stemme’s Salome and Christine Goerke’s Elektra both scarily magnificent. And, this Thursday, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with Alan Gilbert blew not just our socks but everything else off in Mahler’s absurdly OTT Third Symphony, into whose 100 minutes he chucks not just the kitchen sink but every other heavy-metal appliance imaginable - ending with a thunderous, apocalyptic blast of double tympani.
Given the range of world-class performances, a £5 standing ticket in the Proms arena or gallery still represents the best value in the arts in Europe. A season ticket - all 76 events - costs a scarcely-credible £200. But you don’t need to spend a cent, of course. The 28 TV broadcasts aside, every concert goes out live on Radio 3. Then it lingers on the website for a further month. It’s a familiar point, but still a necessary one with the BBC Charter up for renewal in 2016: whether measured by money, media, access or outreach, you’ll find far more “elitism” at any Premier League ground.Reuse content