Alan Green at the Proms

(Originally posted 2009)

As the umpteenth Proms season grinds its way to a close, I find guiltily that yet again I have failed to listen to more than a fraction of the concerts. There are several reasons for this. The pressures of family life. Being away on holiday. Not liking some of the programmes. And, it must be admitted, reluctance to face the sobering reality, experienced annually by the vast majority of British composers, that one’s own music does not feature. Again. This chilling douche makes the Proms as much a horse-syringe sized injection of humility as a great music festival. Attendance can be as painful as it is enjoyable.

The Proms and I go way back. As a student I queued for hours outside the Albert Hall to hear Rattle conduct Mahler, or Elder with the NYO doing bits of Valkyrie with Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde (quite the loudest singer I have ever heard). It was there that a performance of Nielsen’s fifth left me speechless for a full ten minutes. And after the concerts we’d literally run down the street to the Queen’s Arms to get two pints in and somewhere to sit before the crush of listeners and orchestral players arrived, arguing the toss about the music we’d just heard. Later, when I was working near Chancery Lane, I’d get the Tube to Marble Arch and walk across Hyde Park in the evening sunshine to meet my wife outside. It was a thoroughly civilised and invigorating thing to do, and now, ten years after having left London, it is still the only thing I miss about living there.

Notwithstanding all the concerts missed this year, there were still some great performances. Maris Yanssons doing Sibelius 1 with the flair and conviction of a great conductor at the top of his game. The Lebecq sisters playing the Poulenc Double. And has there been a more arch performer since Liberace than the uber-charismatic Lang Lang? For all his eye-rolling and gurning at the piano, he made the Chopin F minor concerto look really easy, and played with all the grace and finesse you could ask for.

To the downside, I didn’t like any of the newer stuff. I caught bits of a Xenakis piece which sounded truly dreary, and there was something by Louis Andriessen which did nothing very much before lumbering and stumbling to the finishing line. Did Roger Wright really have to commission Goldie, the former electronica luminary, a man who does not even read music, to write an orchestral piece?

And the BBC TV coverage was infuriating. Yes, no-one else would do this – and thank God for the BBC generally – but did the pundits have to be so bland? Not all performances were great, and neither was all the music. Strauss’s Alpinesinfonie is a monstrosity. The English singers in the otherwise wonderful John Wilson prom were wooden and lacklustre. The programme of the Gustav Mahler youth orchestra concert was a turgid fin-de-siecle Viennese-fest in which the lightest item was the Kindertotenlieder and rows of empty seats were clearly visible behind the presenter. You wouldn’t know any of this from the coverage, because in this the best of all possible worlds everything was great, the audiences loved it all and classical music was in rude health.

Does it have to be like this? I was reminded by contrast of the BBC’s football commentries, and in particular of Alan Green, a fearless Ulsterman who tells it like it is. The BBC no doubt pays him handsomely for his efforts, and pays handsomely for the right to broadcast those efforts to us. But Green couldn’t care less. “This game”, he’ll tell listeners, “is rubbish. The standard of football has been woeful. I’m doing my best to stay awake, and thank goodness it’s nearly half time”.