July 21, 2008

Never Mind the Flags, Just Enjoy the Music

By Philip Hensher

For such an obviously immense and successful music festival, the BBC Proms presents, year after year, a surprising number of problems. It ought to be a matter of huge celebration. Every year, it supplies a remarkable range of top-quality concerts. It fills the hall with some of the most unexpected programmes - last year, a late- night concert of renaissance polyphony I happened to catch was packed to the roof. It is immensely popular on radio and television over two months and constantly challenges the audience with unexpected combinations and unfamiliar repertoire, as well as giving them the opportunity to hear visiting orchestras of world class.

Perhaps it's the Proms' evident success that points up some structural problems in London's music-making. For decades now, the administrators of London's concert life have been wondering what, exactly, happens to the huge Proms audience between October and June. For some reason, for many London concert goers, classical music is something which largely happens in the huge steam bath of the Albert Hall in late July and August. The relatively more civilised atmosphere of the Royal Festival Hall in the winter, on the other hand, has to struggle to register on the collective consciousness.

The Proms are, undoubtedly, an occasion, and they seem to be going through a particularly strong period at the moment. When the Government minister Margaret Hodge, earlier this year, singled out the Proms as an example of non-inclusive cultural activity, one wondered what on Earth she could be talking about. For a range of prices extending to the amazingly low Prommers' price of 5, a vast array of art music is made available to anyone who feels like it. The audience style is democratic and often very casual; the music- making, often, immaculate.

What Hodge was talking about, in her characteristically ignorant way, was, of course, the Last Night of the Proms. I don't think I've ever met anyone who doesn't think the Last Night, with its flag waving and its depressingly miscellaneous approach to programming, is anything but an embarrassment. Even if you found yourself able to enjoy the night, it presents huge problems for the festival as a whole.

This year's festival, for instance, includes a Berlin Philharmonic Turangalila, a whole Stockhausen day, and what looks like an unmissable Boulez account of the Jancek Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass. Is it really right that music-making of the highest order should be represented by the one-night-only flag waving?

The Proms provides abundant evidence of the general thirst for serious music. British musicians occupy the highest positions of esteem and fame throughout the world. London has more top-flight orchestras than any other city in the world. And yet there seems to be some difficulty in making an impression. "Music", in some newspapers, has come to mean exclusively pop music. Classical music is hardly ever given any space on the mass media - even such an obviously gigantic event as Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven cycle, earlier this year, could not clear the ceaseless round of crown green bowling and darts championships off BBC2, even for half an hour of Opus 111.

The Proms is the one point, evidently, when general awareness of classical music is awoken for a month or two. The challenge, for those who make such a success of this series of concerts, is to make people aware that they don't begin and end with Land of Hope and Glory; and to turn what sometimes seems like a summer enthusiasm into a year-round devotion.

A long Welsh wait for Brian

Don't hold your breath, but there is, at last, a remote possibility that The Life of Brian, left, which was banned by the burghers of Aberystwyth in 1979, might be given a licence to be shown in the Welsh seaside resort.

By an odd coincidence, Sue Jones-Davies, who played Brian's girlfriend in the much-loved classic, is now the mayor of the town. Beyond the age of videos, and into the age of YouTube, it now seems astonishing that a town council could effectively prevent its populace from seeing a film in this way. Borders and controls have dissolved in a way inconceivable in 1979.

I hope the people of Aberystwyth enjoy this delightful film after a three-decade-long wait. In case they hadn't heard, he gets crucified in the end, by the way.

Dr David Hessayon, the horticultural expert who has sold some 50 million copies of his highly reliable and well-researched gardening books, has upset some of his many admirers. At the age of 80, he observed in an interview that, no, he didn't find gardening therapeutic or relaxing. It was, quite simply, his job.

I don't know quite why this should come as a surprise to anyone. It reveals rather a lot about the English gentlemanly insistence on assuming every human endeavour - discovering Australia, writing epic poems, breeding llamas - is probably nothing more than a hobby. Hessayon's books are so good precisely because they are not put together by a hobbyist, and he is right to resent any other suggestion.

A woman novelist acquaintance of mine was once informed by her dentist that he was going to write a novel himself one of these days. "That's a coincidence," she said. "I was thinking of taking up root canal surgery myself."

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