It's less than a week since the Last Night of the Proms 2010, but already plans are in hand for next year and the next. Organizing a festival on this gargantuan scale takes organization. Now the post-prandial snooze is over, thoughts for the future.
Fabulous programming this year. A spectacular beginning with 3 blockbusters - Mahler 8, Meistersinger and Simon Boccanegra. How will they top that?
An almost equally spectacular ending. Glyndebourne, and two Rattle Proms with the Berliner-Philharmoniker, arguably the best orchestra in the world .(They also exist in disguise as the Lucerne Festival Orchestra). I loved their Mahler 1 in Berlin, the Proms version being more relaxed, and loved their second Prom with the Uber-Sinfonie, combining Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. This was a masterstroke, and beautifully, intelligently performed. Rattle gets a lot of flak because he's successful. It's nothing to do with performances, which naturally vary, but the simple fact remains that the Berliners love him and they know a bit more about music than the average troll.
The emphasis this year on Sir Henry Wood and real Proms tradition was good too, because it dispels some holy myths. Wood was an idealist: not for him the redneck bigotry some seem to expect these days. Since when were the British really "British" anyway? "Tradition" means nothing in itself, especially when there's no substance to it.
Where are the Yeomen of England was, in 1910, "new music", premiered only 7 years before. One of the regular readers on this site has done a lot of work on Edward German and the singers of his time, which I'll post about soon.
New music has always been part of the Proms. Unexpected highlight was Ilan Volkov's Prom with Cage, Feldmann and Cornelius Cardew's Bun, whose title had all intrigued though it wasn't a patch on the wonderful Cage and Feldmann pieces. Favourites for me were Simon Holt's a table of noises, Hans Abrahamsen's Wald and Luke Bedford's Outblaze The Sky. And Ferneyhough, always in a league of his own.
This proves "popular" does not have to mean "populist". If the General Public wants ITV or West End pap, that's where they go. If they come to the Proms they expect it to be different. Fortunately, Roger Wright's stemmed the dumbing down trend somewhat.
Perhaps he's also trying to raise the standard of presenters, Presenting is more difficult than it looks, because a presenter has to talk without thinking,. That's how the job works. The secret is to get a presenter who actually knows what they're doing, so their comments come from mind not mouth. Last year some of the presenting was outright shameful. This year slightly better. though the BBC is still seduced by "experts". Last year Tom Service wrote an article declaring that Mahler shouldn't be played in the Royal Albert Hall. Maybe they've taken him at his word because this year fortunately he didn't present Mahler as far as I know (I use mute a lot).
Mahler Year worries me because it's become a pig trough, everyone after a piece of the action whether or not they have anything to contribute. Proms 2010 brought one exceptionally good Mahler 7, Metzmacher, very intelligently planned. This was one of the highlights of the whole season, surprisingly overlooked because people either don't appreciate Metzmacher as a Mahlerian (he's good) or expect too much syrup in their Schreker and Korngold.
Bělohlávek's Mahler 8th got more flak than he deserved. perhaps because people were expecting miracles. Fact is, this symphony easily falls apart inn the wrong hands. At the Royal Albert Hall in 2006, Daniele Gatti lost control. Don't even think about Gergiev at St Paul's. Bělohlávek's not a natural Mahler man but at least he can run a team. Pity there wasn't more of the repertoire he does to perfection, like Dvořák, Suk and Janáček.
Robert Schumann's image was reshaped by Proms 2010. Vassily Petrenko's Manfred and Thomas Dausgaard were exceptional. Even Knussen's oddball Schumann was a treat because it reached levels of Schumann few appreciate. Schumann's misunderstood because he isn't Wagner and isn't Beethoven but, like Mendelssohn and Weber, inhabits territory that hasn't been fashionable or much understood. Until now, I hope,
Impossible any Proms season without Beethoven. Some excellent performances this year, Paul Lewis for example, and Paavo Jarvi, because I like the period instrument approach. A few duds, but that's to be expected.
More European orchestras, please! They are extremely good, do interesting repertoire and have distinctive individuality. One "tradition" we don't need is the dominance of US orchestras. They're good but should stand on their own merits, not simply because they're famous.
Every year, without fail, someone asks me: "Do you listen to the Proms?" Then they blanch when I say "around 60". But anyone can listen, even more than that. It's free. In fact anyone who cares about music at all should listen because there's so much variety to be heard, so much to discover and to rethink. No-one jumps from the womb knowing everything, though many think they do. "Experience" someone said to me this season. Perhaps that's iconoclastic in this age of instant expertise, but with the Proms, there's no excuse for not trying.